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Surprise: Social People Use Facebook

2011 February 16

ResearchBlogging.orgIn a recent issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, Gosling et al.[1] provide evidence for what is a surprisingly controversial statement: social people tend to use online social media most often.

To understand why this is controversial, you must first consider the heritage of research on and beliefs about online behavior.  Originally, the Internet was seen as the bastion of asocial recluses – programmers, engineers, and the like (I can say that because I’m a programmer!).  These were folks that would rather drop to the command line and write a pretty shell script than engage another person in live conversation.  As a result, most research focused on the negative aspects of computer usage and the hazards associated with long-term exposure.

We still see this research.  Recent work on addictive behavior related to World of Warcraft [WoW], for example, paints an often disturbing image of parents ignoring the cries of their children and the needs of their spouses with the hopes of making a little virtual gold with their virtual friends.  We even see examples of people dying, so intent was their focus on WoW.  Gaming and internet addictions, while not unique psychological disorders in their own right, are nevertheless real concerns that any heavy user should be aware of.

But what about people without mental disorder?  What about the people who simply use the Internet a lot, but perhaps not to a harmful degree?  Who, exactly, is motivated to use the Internet?

In our own research in 2006 published in Computers in Human Behavior, Lounsbury and I[2] found a negative relationship between agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion versus computer usage (r = -.21 to -.23).  Or in other words, the more you use the Internet, the more likely you are to be uncooperative, unorganized, and socially withdrawn.  That’s a bit exaggerated, of course, but this is the basic profile.  This was also not very surprising; most of the other research we could find up to that point said essentially the same thing.

Social media should be a simple extension of this; we would expect those that spent the most time on Facebook, theoretically withdrawn from in-person social events, would still be the most disagreeable, lazy, and asocial of them all, content to watch other people’s lives from the sidelines without actively participating.  But Gosling et al. found precisely the opposite: extraverts use Facebook more often than introverts across a wide range of objective criteria, including number of Facebook friends, hours spent on Facebook, and the frequency of many specific behaviors (e.g. adding photos, changing your profile picture, reading comments).  Gosling found these relationships with both self-reports of Facebook usage and objective coding of their Facebook profiles.

This is therefore contrary to the prior research findings discussed above.  The more social you are offline, the more likely you are to be social online.

Gosling et al. also found relationships with openness and conscientiousness, but I am less convinced by these correlations.  While some of them are reasonably high (up to r = .31), the researchers did not apply any sort of family-wise error corrections to their hypothesis tests, and they may have discovered these significant correlations by chance alone.

So all of this opens up an important new question: is there something unique about social media that draws in extroverts, or does this reflect a general shift in the population of Internet users?  If this does reflect a shift, we must be careful to revisit old research findings and interpret them in this light.  And if social media is unique, then we certainly need more social media focused research to understand why.  This is the motivation behind my own grant project, certainly, but we need more people looking critically at this fascinating new area.

Footnotes:
  1. Gosling, S., Augustine, A., Vazire, S., Holtzman, N., & Gaddis, S. (2011). Manifestations of personality in online social networks: Self-reported Facebook-related behaviors and observable profile information.  Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2010.0087 []
  2. Landers, R.N., & Lounsbury, J.W. (2006). An investigation of Big Five and narrow personality traits in relation to Internet usage.  Computers in Human Behavior, 22 (2), 283-293.  DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2004.06.001 []
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