People's online presences influence how they create identities and interact in real life

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Photo Credit: Raquel Breternitz | Daily Texan Staff

Social networking interfaces such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are more than just communication catalysts. According to multiple studies, these websites, which many users check before getting out of bed in the morning, are playing a key role in how we form our identities.

Dr. Sam Gosling, a professor in the psychology department, conducted research that examines the role of online social networking sites in personality development and perception.

“[Facebook] allows identity creation to be much easier,” Gosling said. “It allows us to create a much more nuanced personality.”

Gosling explained that while Facebook is handy for creating more refined personalities, it also makes it harder for users to craft different personalities for different groups they belong to, such as work communities and friend groups. He said this is typical of most new technologies.

Dr. Robert Lewis, an advertising assistant professor with a focus on new media studies, conducted research on a broad span of old and new technologies. He agreed with Gosling’s finding about Facebook’s effect on identity creation.

“I think that when new media come around, they can amplify different human characteristics,” Lewis said. “They amplify the desire to maintain a self-image and to display that image to other people. Whereas before there was probably nothing that allowed people to do that, now there is.”

Both Gosling and Lewis said a lot of concern surrounding this sort of online identity management is centered on the idea that people are creating false versions of themselves. Critics claim that users are manipulating their Facebook pages to portray a desired version of themselves rather than an accurate representation, they said.

According to Gosling’s research, this is relatively uncommon. He said most Facebook users display very accurate versions of themselves.

“They want people to like their places, their bedrooms and their music collections,” Gosling said. “Most of the time, people aren’t trying to look good. People genuinely want to be known.”

Users may be displaying their most genuine traits through websites like Facebook, but online interfaces allow for correction and rebuttal that face-to-face interaction prevents.

“If we were face-to-face or over the phone, if I say something and it’s wrong, then it’s out there and you heard it,” Lewis said. “But if I post a tweet, I have a backspace key and I can really shape the message I’m going to send exactly as I want it to be.”

According to research cited by Lewis, Facebook has positive correlations with self-esteem and self-image because it allows one to manage self-presentation more effectively than in the real world.

Websites like Facebook also allow users to form an opinion or impression of strangers or acquaintances before spending much time with them in person.

Lewis mentioned an article that involved showing different people “generic” Facebook pages, in which the only variable was the number of friends a user had.

“They found that [your number of friends] actually does affect people’s perceptions of you,” Lewis said. “When you get above 300 friends, people start to have negative perceptions of you.”

Not only is your Facebook profile affecting how other people see you, but it also affects how users see themselves.

“Individuals are more strongly persuaded by what other people say about you than what you say about yourself,” Dr. Jorge Peña, a communication studies assistant professor, said. “Wall posts mean more than what you write about in your ‘About Me,’ for example.”

Social networking is a rapidly changing field, which has made it hard for research to keep up with it. Over the past few years, it has become acknowledged as an integral aspect of communication and society.

“A few years back, it might have been weird for me to say, ‘Oh, you posted something on Facebook,’ and ask how a certain thing was,” Peña said. “Now it’s more normal. It’s a little bit more common and more acceptable than how it was three years ago.”

Social networking is a common topic of conversation. Whether a user is commenting on a status someone posted or asking if they saw a certain picture, many face-to-face interactions are influenced by things we’ve seen on these websites.

“I think social media have indeed altered the way we communicate,” Lewis said. “It’s kind of added a social layer on top of reality that I don’t think is going to go away.”