Students use Facebook and Myspace to create their ‘ideal self’ says a recent report on self presentation, gender and social networking sites.
Author of the study, UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Psychologist Adriana Manago said: ‘The online performance of self allows one to alter one’s physical appearance, likes and dislikes, tastes, humor, popularity, etc. in a way that offline interactions would not permit. The user can reify a desired self-image through an online performance to an audience. This performance may incarnate an idea of who one wants to be.’
The study, published in the most recent edition of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, was based on interviews and small discussion groups with 23 undergraduate students. All the participants were students at UCLA, in California.
The popularity of Facebook has grown phenomenally over the last few years. In the UK it now has approximately 8.6 million users, the majority of which are students who, on average, check their Facebook profile once a day. Manago’s study identifies students as ‘emerging adults’ who are around the age when identities are becoming consolidated. Manago refers to the ‘looking-glass self’; the theory which states that ‘individuals develop a sense of self from creating an impression they wish to give to others’, and sees students as being likely to use this approach in their use of Facebook. The options Facebook gives users to customize their profiles are limited, but the choice to detag photos, join different groups, write a description of your interests, and list your favourite books and music allow users a means to create very individualistic images of themselves. Manago explains, ‘people put up something that they would like to become — not completely different from who they are but maybe a little different — and the more it gets reflected off of others, the more it may be integrated into their sense of self as they share words and photos with so many people.’
The conclusions Manago draws from her discussion with students emphasize both the positive and negative aspects of Facebook amongst students. It can be a useful tool for building confidence, and control over one’s own identity is empowering.
She also notes that ‘participants’ reports regarding social identity and group membership processes indicate that MySpace may facilitate integration, rather than fragmentation, of identity development.’ On the other hand, both Manago and her co-author Patricia Greenfield expressed worries over the consequences of very large networks of ‘friends’, as within the study some participants had as many as 1000 friends. Greenfield commented that ‘when you have this many people in your network, it becomes a performance for an audience. You are promoting yourself. The line between the commercial and the self is blurring…
The personal becomes public, which devalues close relationships when you display so much for everyone to see.’ Manago seconds this point with reference to how ‘relationships now may be more fleeting and distant’.
When speaking to students at Sussex, most admitted that they check Facebook at least once a day, frequently look at other people’s profiles (including people that they do not know that well) and detag photos of themselves that they deem undesirable. Undergraduate student Lilleth’s comment on the subject echoed conclusions drawn by Manago and Greenfield. She sees Facebook as ‘leading to the disintegration
of real communication, which is replaced with something more superficial’. Another student, Nick, answered that ‘People are aware that potential friends, people within their networks would look at their profile. So people detag their photos because they want to portray themselves in a certain fashion. In that sense there is an eagerness to impress. Facebook has altered the concept of first impressions, which are sometimes made on the basis of one’s Facebook profile.’