Web of deceit: Putting your best cyberface forward
Do you bite your nails? Have you pierced your tongue? Is your tote bag emblazoned with the words “I’m not a plastic bag”?
People look and act the way they do for reasons too numerous to fit into any therapist’s notebook. Yet we commonly shape our behavior or tweak our appearance in an attempt to control how others perceive us.
Some call it common sense. Social scientists call it “impression management” and attribute much of their understanding of the process to the sociologist Erving Goffman, who in a 1959 book, ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’, likened human interactions to a theatrical performance. Now that first impressions are often made in cyberspace, not face-toface, people are not only strategizing about how to virtually convey who they are, but also grappling with how to craft an e-version of themselves that appeals to multiple audiences — co-workers, fraternity brothers, mom and dad.
“Which image do you present?”
asked Mark R Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, who has been studying impression management in the real world for more than 20 years. Like other scholars, he is now examining the online world through the lens of impression management — studies that sometimes put an academic gloss on insights that seem obvious, and at other times yield surprising results.
“We’ve been struck by the dilemma people are in,” Leary said of a study he began last month about how people edit their online personas. “Some people seem to pick an audience. Other people pick and choose the best parts of themselves. As a professor, my page on a social networking site is just watered down. I can’t have pictures of me playing beer pong.”
People, of course, have been electronically styling themselves for as long as there has been a web to surf. But scholars say the mainstreaming of massive social networking and dating sites — which make it easy to publicly share one’s likes, dislikes, dreams and losses in a modern mutation of the Proust Questionnaire — is prompting more people to “perform” for one another in increasingly sophisticated ways.
Indeed, today’s social networking and dating sites are “like impression management on steroids” said Joseph B Walther, a professor of communication and telecommunication at Michigan State University. But because they are still new forms of communication, “people don’t have a very strong sense yet of what they’re doing or what the best practices
are,” he said.
Among Walther’s findings is that the attractiveness of the friends on your online profile affects the way people perceive you. In a study to be published this year in Human Communication Research, a journal, Walther and colleagues found that networking site users who had public postings on their wall from attractive friends were considered to be significantly better looking than people who had postings from unattractive friends.
“We disproved the Paris Hilton hypothesis,” said Walther, explaining that this traces to a quote attributed to Hilton: “All you have to do in life is go out with your friends, party hard and look twice as good” as the woman next to you. “That’s not true,” Walther said.
Many of the self-presentation strategies observed by scholars are: improving one’s standing by linking to high status friends; using a screen name like “Batman” or “007” when in reality one is more like Austin Powers; referring to one’s gleaming head as “shaved” not “bald”; using cutesy emoticons to charm the demographic that forwards inspirational chain mail; demonstrating leadership by being the first to adopt and turn others onto the latest online applications; listing one’s career as a DJ or model rather than the one that pays the bills; making calculated decisions about what to list as favorite books.
“If someone lists some obscure Romanian title, is that person really smart or are they pretentious?” said Judith Donath, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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