Olena Zaskochenko/Shutterstock
Source: Olena Zaskochenko/Shutterstock

We may be reluctant to admit it, but many of us spend quite a bit of time looking at what our friends post on Facebook. We're also likely to judge others based on what they post. New research examines how content that we post, and content our friends post about us, can affect our social capital.

Not surprisingly, we don't like people as much if their posts are consistently negative.1 But positive posts can also make a bad impression. For example, research found that people who posted lovey-dovey comments about their romantic partners were seen as more satisfied with their relationships, but they were also liked less.

In addition to just being positive or negative, social media posts differ in content. Sometimes people post information about themselves. They may share good news about a job offer, show off their recent fitness gains, or celebrate their recent sports victory. Other times, they may post about general activities they're engaged in or post about other people. Positive posts about yourself could have the potential to seem like bragging.

Another factor that complicates the impressions formed on social media is that the content we see on someone's Facebook page comes from both the owner of that profile and that person's friends. We tend to view information that we hear about someone second-hand as more reliable, because we expect people to present themselves in an overly positive manner.2 Imagine your reaction if your co-worker said, "I'm a really hard worker," compared to if someone else in the office said, "Sally is a really hard worker." Presumably, you would find the statement less credible when it came from Sally herself. In fact, if you're judging someone's popularity, Facebook posts by their friends are likely to influence your impression more than posts by the profile owner.3

In a study recently published in Cyberpsychology, Social Networking, and Behavior, Graham Scott and Kristy Ravenscroft examined the effects of positive posts made by both Facebook profile owners and their friends.4 The researchers created four Facebook profiles, each containing four status updates, all of which were positive. All four status updates on each page fell into one of four different categories:

  • Personal self-authored: The owner of the Facebook profile wrote the post, and it described a personal quality or an achievement. For example, "That's me looking absolutely glamorous and ready to party with my favorites for my 21st," and "I can't believe I got the job! Finally, someone has realized that I am actually good at what I do."
  • General self-authored: The owner of the profile wrote the post, and it described activities, events, or opinions. For example, "Having some lovely family time before everyone goes back to work on Monday. The time off has been good," and "I love BT sports for showing basketball! Can't wait for the season to start." 
  • Personal friend-authored: The owner's friends wrote the posts, which described a personal quality or achievement of the profile owner. For example, "You have been far too good to me! You are the best, and I can't thank you enough," and "You are an inspirational person after what you have accomplished through all you have put up with."
  • General friend-authored: The owner's friends wrote the posts, and they didn't describe anything personal about the owner. For example, "I am having a good night at the beach with a hot chocolate, marshmallows, and a fire lit," and "Just booked to go to Florida in November for Thanksgiving! Super excited, can't wait."

The researchers asked 136 participants to view all four profiles and rate the owners on several qualities —social attractiveness (how much they would like to be friends with the person), physical attractiveness, competence, confidence, modesty, and popularity.

When the profile contained posts by the owner, the owner was rated as more physically attractive and competent. People also found owners more competent when they posted about general, rather than personal, topics. Raters thought the person was a more appealing friend when the posts were either general and self-authored or personal and friend-authored. Thus, when the content wasn't personal, people responded favorably to someone posting positive content of their own. But when the post could be seen as bragging, it was better received when it came from a friend.

When the Facebook comments came from friends, the profile owners were perceived as more modest and popular, but also less confident, than when they wrote their own content. In particular, profile owners who posted personal content were seen as the most confident. Profile owners were seen as the most modest and popular when the posts were personal and written by friends.

These results suggest that posting content on Facebook can make a good impression, but it may backfire when it can be interpreted as bragging. Positive posts that don't involve showing off can make you seem more personally appealing without making you seem immodest. Posts that could seem like bragging are likely to make you appear confident, but they can also make you seem immodest and will not necessarily convince anyone of your popularity or likability. On the other hand, a character reference from a friend is likely to seem more reliable, so if your friends post on your timeline about how wonderful you are, you can benefit from the praise without the downside of appearing to be full of yourself.

Several issues with this study make it hard to directly apply to it to how Facebook content affects our impressions in the real world. This study involved strangers rating a person based on just four status updates. Your actual Facebook posts are seen by your real-world friends and acquaintances, not strangers. So these results may apply more to what your distant Facebook friends — say, high school classmates you barely spoke to then and haven't seen since — think of you. Also, in this study, all of the posts that participants viewed were of the same type. Perhaps posting about your accomplishments and showing off would make a better impression if that content was balanced with other kinds of posts, such as general posts or posts by your friends. Finally, the personal updates written by friends and those written by the profile owner somewhat differed in content. Three out of the four friend-generated personal posts were about how the owner was supportive or a good friend, whereas all of the self-generated posts were about accomplishments.

Despite these limitations, this study suggests that we should think twice before we post something that could be seen as bragging. We’d like to believe that everything we post will be well-received by our friends, but this is likely not to be the case. As with most things, our own self-serving biases cause us to overestimate how much others approve of our social media posts. For example, one study on selfies found that people almost always thought their own selfies were ironic or authentic, while at the same time seeing other people’s selfies as shallow and boastful.5 In the same vein, people who are high in narcissism receive fewer likes and comments from their Facebook friends.6 So before you post about your accomplishments on Facebook, think about the impression you may make on others. 

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.

References

1 Forest, A. L., & Wood, J. V. (2012). When social networking is not working: Individuals with low self-esteem recognize but do not reap the benefits of self-disclosure on Facebook. Psychological Science, 23, 295-302.

2 Walther, J. B., Van Der Heide, B., Hamel, L. M., et al. (2009). Self-generated versus other-generated statements and impressions in computer-mediated communication: A test of the warranting theory using Facebook. Communication Research, 36, 229-252.

3 Rosenthal-Stott, H. E., Dicks, R. E., & Fielding, L. S. (2015). The valence of self-generated (status updates) and other generated (wall-posts) information determines impression formation on Facebook. PLoS One, 10, e0125064.

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