Are people who they really say they are online? Conventional wisdom tells us that social networking sites, blogs and other social media outlets have allowed people to carefully craft online "personas" - essentially idealized versions of who they are in real life. Are you wittier online? More outgoing? More social? Friendlier? For those hiding behind the keyboard and computer screen, personality traits like these are easier to fake. Or are they?
According to a recent research study, maybe not. Psychologists found that "faking it" online is tougher than previously imagined. In fact, the results of the study show that people are much more likely to reveal their true personalities online and not the idealized image of who they want to be.
Idealism? Not on Your Online Profile
To conduct the research, the psychologists examined the social networking profiles of 236 U.S. and German students ages 17-22, both on Facebook and MySpace. They also had the same students take multiple personality tests in order to determine both their actual personality and their idealized personality.
Prior to this study, if you had to guess, you may have suspected that the online versions of the participants matched up more closely with the idealized personalities, not the real ones. In fact, that assumption is shared by modern-day psychologists - it even made its way into psychology journals where it was dubbed as the "idealized virtual-identity hypothesis." However, the researchers conducting this new study thought that this was a hypothesis that needed testing. "There has been no research on the most fundamental question about OSN (online social networking sites) profiles," notes the report. "Do they convey accurate impressions of profile owners?"
As it turns out, yes. The surprising conclusion uproots the previously held assumption that we are our idealized selves online. Instead, we are displaying our real personalities. "There was no evidence of self-idealization," concludes the report. "These results suggest that people are not using their OSN profiles to promote an idealized virtual identity. Instead, OSNs might be an efficient medium for expressing and communicating real personality, which may help explain their popularity."
On Facebook, We're All Real People
Although the researchers in this study looked at both MySpace and Facebook profiles to come to this conclusion, we suspect that Facebook is home to even more genuine personalities than MySpace. Instead of allowing its users to set up accounts using fake names or internet handles, Facebook only allows the use of your legal name, a policy that has led to some occasional mistakes when oddly-named real people were caught up in a Facebook purge. This up-front requirement that you "be yourself" on Facebook has had a trickle-down effect on how people use the network. Active users typically only connect with friends, family and other real-world acquaintances as opposed to strangers and other pseduo-friends as was done back in the MySpace days of "he whoever collects the most friends wins."
In addition, the privacy controls Facebook had in place at its beginning (now completely eviscerated, but that's another story...), provided its users with a sense of safety, security and comfort - they could be themselves - their real selves, flaws and all - without the world watching. The end result was the web-based equivalent of the user's offline social network where no one is all that different than they are in real life.
But What About the Older Social Networkers?
The one complaint with have with this latest research study is that it focused only on the youngest demographic of social networking users - those aged 17-22. While this digital generation may have grown up accustomed to openly sharing online, those belonging to the prior generations - especially the baby boomers and older - may be a bit more guarded when it comes to posting to Facebook (and assuming they use it, MySpace). Although the study does reveal some interesting findings about Gen Y/Gen Z and their use of the Internet, more research is necessary to determine if the conclusions span all age groups.