Awkward Facebook encounters

December 09, 2013

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A friend posts a picture on Facebook that shows you picking food out of your teeth. Awkward!

Such Facebook faux pas are common. But depending on who you are and to whom you allow access to your Facebook page, such embarrassments can cause greater anguish, according to a new Northwestern University study.

"Almost every participant in the study could describe something that happened on Facebook in the past six months that was embarrassing or made them feel awkward or uncomfortable," said Jeremy Birnholtz, author of the paper. "We were interested in the strength of the emotional response to this type of encounter. "

People most concerned about social appropriateness (high self monitors) and those with a diverse network of friends on Facebook -- who allow access to co-workers, clients and friends, for example -- are more likely to strongly experience a "face threat," the study found. Whereas people who felt they had a high level of Facebook skills reported experiencing these kinds of threats less severely.

"Perhaps people with more Facebook experience, who know how to control settings, delete pictures and comments and untag, think they knew how to deal with these encounters or at least try to deal with them," Birnholtz said.

Birnholtz is an assistant professor in the department of communication studies at Northwestern and director of the Social Media Lab at Northwestern. The paper will be presented in February 2014, the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing in Baltimore.

Interestingly, people with a high level of general Internet skills -- who may understand the importance of online reputations -- also reported more severe reactions to face threats, Birnholtz noted.

These are the type of violations or threats people in this study reported experiencing most often:For the study, researchers recruited Facebook users through university websites and Craigslist. Only 15 of the 165 people surveyed had not experienced some kind of face threat in the past six months.

Participants were asked to describe a recent uncomfortable Facebook experience and rate the severity of the threat on a scale of one to five. Information about their personality type, Internet and Facebook skills, size and diversity of their Facebook network was also collected and assessed.

Examples of awkward Facebook encounters from the study follow:Future research may focus on the specific actions people take to resolve face-threatening acts, Birnholtz said. In the meantime, people should think twice about a friend's Facebook audience before commenting on their content or posting to their page, he said.

"People can make bad decisions when posting to your Facebook because they don't have a good idea of your privacy settings and which friends of yours might see this content," Birnholtz said. "Facebook doesn't provide a lot of cues as to how friends want to present themselves to their audience."

He said in the future Facebook could offer more pop-ups and nudges to help people think twice before posting a possible "threat" to a friend's page.
-end-
This work is supported in part by the National Science Foundation (IIS-0915081 and DGE-0824162).

Other authors of this paper are Eden Litt and Madeline E. Smith of Northwestern University and Erin Spottswood and Jeff Hancock of Cornell University.

NORTHWESTERN NEWS: http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/

Northwestern University

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