Online versus reality: Social media influences perceptions
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Online versus reality: Social media influences perceptions

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People may form inaccurate impressions about us from our social media posts, finds new Cornell University research that is the first to examine perceptions of our personalities based on online posts.

An analysis of Facebook status updates found substantial discrepancies between how viewers saw the authors across a range of personality traits, and the authors’ self-perceptions. Viewers rated the Facebook users on average as having lower self-esteem and being more self-revealing, for example, than the users rated themselves.

Status updates containing photos, video or links in addition to text facilitated more accurate assessments than those with just text, the researchers found. Overall, they said, the study sheds light on the dynamic process by which a cyber audience tries to make sense of who we are from isolated fragments of shared information, jointly constructing our digital identity.

“The impression people form about us on social media based on what we post can differ from the way we view ourselves,” said Qi Wang, professor of psychology and director of the Culture & Cognition Lab. “A mismatch between who we are and how people perceive us could influence our ability to feel connected online and the benefits of engaging in social media interaction.”

Wang is the lead author of “The Self Online: When Meaning-Making is Outsourced to the Cyber Audience,” published in PLOS One.

Prior research has focused on perceptions of personality traits gleaned from personal websites, such as blogs or online profiles, finding that readers can assess them accurately. The Cornell researchers believe their study is the first to investigate audience perceptions of social media users through their posts, on platforms where users often don’t share cohesive personal narratives while interacting with “friends” they may know only a little or sometimes not at all.

Interestingly, the study found that Facebook status updates generated perceptions of users that were consistent with cultural norms in offline contexts concerning gender and ethnicity — even though viewers were blind to their identities. For example, female Facebook users were rated as more extraverted than male users, in line with general findings that women score higher on extraversion. White Facebook users were seen as being more extraverted and having greater self-esteem than Asian users, whose cultures place more emphasis on modesty, Wang said.

“We present ourselves in line with our cultural frameworks,” she said, “and others can discern our ‘cultured persona’ through meaning making of our posts.”

The scholars said future research should explore this “outsourced meaning-making process” with larger samples of posts, and on other popular platforms such as Instagram and X, formerly known as Twitter.

Wang said the findings could help developers design interfaces that allow people to express themselves most authentically. For users, misunderstandings about who they are on social media might not cause direct harm, she said, but could hinder their efforts to foster good communication and relationships.

“If people’s view of us is very different from who we actually are, or how we would like to be perceived,” Wang said, “it could undermine our social life and well-being.”

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