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Why Do People Brag on Social Media?

It's the most effective way to convey a positive image to our social circles.

I have written about the downsides of bragging on social media. Not only do most people dislike braggarts and find them to be annoying, but bragging often draws the wrong sort of people into one’s circle, those who are ingratiators, or have ulterior motives. And what’s more, bragging conveys inauthenticity.

Celebration/ Samantha Gades/ Unsplash/ Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Celebration/ Samantha Gades/ Unsplash/ Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

But the truth is that bragging, in every shape or form, is widely prevalent on social media. Some people brag unabashedly by touting their accomplishments (“I found jobs for 10 of my students using my influence,” “I’m so proud to be on the '50 Under 50' list of most influential humans,” etc.). Others are more restrained. They humblebrag. In an attempt to appear modest, they couch their boasts as complaints (“It’s so difficult to design a business card when you have two Ph.D. degrees and two master’s degrees.”). Oftentimes, most of the posts I come across on my LinkedIn feed are boasts of one type or the other. The question is why.

Here’s what I think.

Bragging is the most effective way to communicate a positive image of ourselves to our social circles today.

On both personal and professional fronts, our online social lives are studded with tenuous, virtual connections consisting of people we barely know. For instance, at the moment, I have hundreds of friends on Facebook and over 10,000 connections each on LinkedIn and Twitter. Yet, my only acquaintance with a vast majority of these people is through these platforms. I know them solely through social media, and all the information I have about them is based on what they write there. I construct their identities through their posts, notes, tweets, etc., as I am sure, they construct my identity through mine. These constructions are important because they lay the groundwork for our reputations on social media.

How can I favorably impress these social connections? My major constraint is that I can only use the information I share about myself to do this.

To make myself memorable and build a strong reputation, here are two ways I could describe my job as a marketing professor to my LinkedIn connections:

1. Honest and authentic description.

“I am a(n average) marketing professor at a good research university. I am reasonably knowledgeable about marketing and consumer psychology. Many students who take my courses find them to be useful in their careers, but some don’t.”

2. Boastful description.

“I am a full professor and hold an endowed chair in the business school at Rice University. I have published over 80 high-quality research papers, including every single top marketing journal, and many top management and psychology journals. My research is very influential and has been cited over 15,000 times.”

Assume that you are one of my social media connections who doesn’t know me at all. If I want you to notice and remember me among the countless LinkedIn posts, tweets, and Facebook stories that you encounter daily, which of the two descriptions is likely to work better?

We live in a social environment with so much information thrown at us that most of it becomes noise and is filtered out. We link with new strangers every day, and our daily task is to be noticed by them and to stand out. Within the cacophony, each one of us wants to be significant, build durable personal brands, become influencers, and have our thoughts go viral, garnering thousands of likes, reposts, and whatnot. As Kristi Hedges writes, “We want to be strategically memorable in the ways that benefit us.”

Whether we like it or not, bragging is the best way to be strategically memorable on social media. Or so it seems to me. And when we are encountering strangers, connecting with them, and having to build our reputations from scratch every single day, what is the alternative?

Despite its downsides, if we don’t brag, we will be ignored. Or even worse: We may remain forgettable and forgotten, the ultimate social media failure.

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