What does it mean if you...

  • Send wild tweets in the middle of the night?
  • Only post fantastic selfies?
  • Obsessively edit, crop, and otherwise enhance your selfies?
  • Mostly post pictures of other people?
  • Post embarrassing pics of other people without getting their permission?
  • Constantly share images of what you’re eating?
  • Rave about what you’re doing?
  • Complain about what someone has done to you?
  • Complain about yourself?
  • Lurk, without ever announcing your presence?

New research suggests that every time you post to social media you may be revealing more about yourself than you realize.

Three just-released studies explain some of the things we inadvertently share about ourselves when we put anything out on social media.

In one study, an international team of researchers led by Martin Obschonka, an associate professor at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology analyzed the digital footprints of 106 business leaders to “understand their business mindsets.” The team (which included Christian Fisch of Trier University in Germany and Ryan Boyd of the University of Texas at Austin) used computer technology to analyze the personality styles of these leaders, based on the characteristic language styles, content and patterns of their tweets.

The researchers analyzed more than 215,000 words tweeted by CEO’s and entrepreneurs found on the Forbes 400 and the Fortune 500 lists. CEOs showed qualities of being conscientious, power driven, and self confident, while  entrepreneurs showed qualities of openness to new experiences, and more independence.

whiteboxmedia / 123RF Stock Photo
Source: whiteboxmedia / 123RF Stock Photo

In another paper, just published in the journal Small Business Economics, the team turned to the most renowned tweeter of the moment, President Trump. They found that in comparison to other influential business leaders, Trump scored higher in openness to new experience, including a willingness to listen to new ideas and accept unconventional solutions, but lower in agreeableness. Character traits associated with his score include being highly competitive, with a focus on social distinction and Machiavellianism (using craft and deceit to maintain authority).

This image may not be what the President wants to convey, but according to these researchers, it is what he reveals about himself in his use of social media.

A different study, released this week in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, looks at a different trait that shows up in how we think about, react to, and manage social networks. Omri Gillath (professor of psychology at the University of Kansas), and his co-authors Gery Karantzas (of Deakin University in Australia) and Emre Selcuk (of Middle East Technical University in Turkey), looked at four studies that examine the interface between attachment style and friendship networks.

They found that our social network behavior is closely linked to our attachment style. This is important, says my PT colleague Lisa Firestone, because, “Our style of attachment affects everything from our partner selection to how well our relationships progress to, sadly, how they end.” She adds that “recognizing our attachment pattern can help us understand our strengths and vulnerabilities in a relationship.” 

An attachment style is pretty much what it sounds like, that is, the patterns of connecting to others that we bring to our relationships. These patterns are generally related to childhood attachments, and have been broken down by attachment theorists into four basic types: secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment. The groupings are not necessarily as straight-forward or as permanent as some theorists have suggested, according to an eminent attachment theorist, Peter Fonagy. But they can help you think in broad strokes about what you are revealing about yourself in your social media posts. The categories also help explain some of the reactions you might be getting from other people in your social networks.

Because attachment style is not only considered by many students of human behavior to be a baseline indicator of an individual’s capacity for intimacy and relationship success, but it also communicates a way that you have of being in relationships to anyone who sees what you post.

Gillath and his co-authors found that individuals who demonstrate attachment insecurity, that is, who do not seem to have a sense of safety and security in their connections to others, gained fewer benefits from their social networks than did individuals with a higher sense of attachment security. That of course makes good sense — if you do not feel safe with others, you are not likely to trust them to help you out in your daily endeavors, whether at work or in your personal life.

People who avoid attachments are also less likely to initiate or maintain ties on social media, and more easily dissolve their social networks. That also makes sense.

But here’s the interesting thing: People who seem to have a high degree of attachment anxiety, that is, who worry about the loss of their connections, also seem to have a high likelihood of their networks dissolving. So the very people who seem to want and need these connections the most seem to have a greater likelihood, according to these studies, of their networks falling apart on them.

What is this about?

The researchers hypothesize that people with attachment anxiety may communicate something in their social media posts that feels overwhelming, demanding, or intrusive to their social connections. They may communicate a wish to dominate the field, or to be more involved or even merged with their friends. Other people in the network may feel intimidated by these needs, and often without realizing it, they may pull back from interactions with this person. Without having any idea that they are doing it, the researchers say, people with attachment anxiety may end up driving away the very group of people that they are so anxious to be attached to.  

Do these studies mean that you are doomed to live out your life on social media in a particular way? If you have attachment anxiety, are you always going to overwhelm your social network and ultimately be rejected by them? If you have insecure attachments, are you going to end up avoiding connections for the rest of your life?

Absolutely not. The most important information to come out of this research is that you have an impact on your social network, even if you never see any of them in person. Therefore, it is important to be aware of how you are presenting yourself and how your presentation impacts your social media friends.

sevalv / 123RF Stock Photo
Source: sevalv / 123RF Stock Photo

Is there anything you can do to change the outcome? Or the way others see you?

The answer is a definitive yes. The president may not care what his tweets reveal about him, but you might want to take a closer look at what else your social media postings are telling your friends, acquaintances, current and future employers, and current and future romantic partners about you. And then, you might want to make some simple changes to what you post — or don’t — about yourself, your life, and your friends.

Does this mean that you should pretend to be someone you are not? There are many reasons why even when this seems to be a good idea in the moment, it probably isn’t in the long run. The best idea is to apply the same social rules to both in-person and social media interactions. Sometimes we get carried away by what seems to be the anonymity of social media. But people are people, whether or not you are interacting with them in person. Before you post something, whether it’s a picture of you or of a friend or a relative, a comment or a joke about someone or something, a piece of personal information, a rant, or a complaint, stop for just a minute and consider how you how you would present it to a real live person in front of you.

Think about how you would say something, what you would show about yourself, or how much you would reveal about someone else, if you were interacting with your friends and family in person.

And behave the same way online. 

Follow me on Twitter and keep an eye out for my new book, I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives, to be released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 6, 2018

Please note: I love to know what you think about what I’ve written, so please leave your comments below, and if you have questions about the content or the ideas in this or any other post, put them in your comments! If you’d like to get feedback from other commenters, feel free to ask them questions as well. However, it is no longer possible for me to respond to individual requests for personal advice through email or the Internet. Thanks so much for understanding. DB

References

Martin Obschonka, Christian Fisch. Entrepreneurial personalities in political leadership Small Business Economics pp 1–19 July 25, 2017 Journal reference: dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11187-017-9901-7

Obschonka, M., Fisch, C., & Boyd, R. (July, 2017). Using digital footprints in entrepreneurship research: a twitter-based personality analysis of superstar entrepreneurs and managers. Journal of Business Venturing Insights, 8, 13–23.

 How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Relationship  Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201307/how-your-attachment-style-impacts-your-relationship 

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