How to Brag Effectively on Social Media
Provide information, make a specific, verifiable claim, and signal competence.
Posted September 10, 2018
"If I cannot brag of knowing something, then I brag of not knowing it; at any rate, brag." –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Compared with other areas of our social lives, we tend to brag far more on social media. For instance, few of us will stand on a neighborhood corner and proclaim how accomplished we are or how much we love our spouse. On Facebook, however, we have no qualms about routinely posting photographs of intimate family gatherings, foreign vacations, and fancy meals. And on LinkedIn, which is targeted to the professional domain, many posts start with “I am so proud of…,” going on to boast about promotions, keynote speeches, awards, or other events demonstrating the poster’s influence, status, or accomplishment.
What’s more, many of us share boasts with hundreds or even thousands of social media connections, with little knowledge or concern about who’s seeing them or what effect it has on them.
Despite the risk of negative effects, we can’t help bragging on social media because, as psychologists have argued, bragging satisfies fundamental human motives of creating a favorable first impression with strangers, and building a positive image among those who know us. In our vast social media spheres, bragging is also a good way, or even possibly the only way, to attract attention.
Given that bragging on social media feels necessary in today's social environment, how should we brag to minimize its negative effects and maximize the benefits? In this post, I want to try and answer this question.
Provide useful information
Bragging is inherently narcissistic, focused on embellishing and enhancing the boaster’s identity. However, useful information accompanying such personal embellishment can blunt the edge of the boast. For example, as an academic, I may be thrilled when a research paper gets accepted for publication and may want to boast about it. But I could do it in a way that states only the achievement (“So proud to get my paper accepted in XYZ Journal that only accepts 5% of papers it receives”). Or when boasting about the paper’s acceptance, I could add details about what my research found and explain its usefulness. It’s a boast either way. But in the latter case, it provides some value that the reader may benefit from.
Brag about a topic that is close to your self-identity
As I’ve written before, boasting, characterized by hyperbole, is an effective way to garner attention from strangers and near-strangers in the increasingly clamorous and crowded social media environment where there are “ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’.”
But the problem with hyperbole is that it can also make the boast appear inauthentic and self-serving. The best way to deal with this problem is to make claims that are important to your self-identity.
Using myself as an example again, it makes more sense for me to boast about a research or teaching accomplishment because such claims support my core identity of “professor.” Contrarily, boasting about completing an arduous hike or eating a gourmet meal in a swanky restaurant would be futile because these (hypothetical) behaviors are not central to my self-identity. What’s more, they will also appear less authentic to my audience.
Make a claim that is true (or verifiable) and specific
Another way to make your boast more authentic is to be careful about how specific and verifiable your claim is. Exaggeration is what differentiates bragging from what psychologists call “positive self-disclosure” or providing others with positive information about ourselves as part of building a relationship. Obviously, there's a tradeoff between being totally accurate (and unremarkable) and exaggerating when communicating good news. Although exaggeration is more likely to get noticed, specific claims about accomplishments that are verifiable will contribute more to building your positive image, especially over the long haul.
Signal your competence
Under special circumstances, boasting can produce positive effects. Psychologists Lynn Carol Miller and Stephen Read developed a theory called inter-personalism which says that the success of any communication depends on the goals that the individual is trying to achieve and how others infer them. This idea also applies to bragging. In one study, Miller and coauthors distinguished between boasting and positive self-disclosure. They suggested that boasting often involves describing one’s inherent dispositions, talking about power, status and wealth, and comparing oneself with others. According to them:
“...perceivers consistently attribute characteristics such as masculinity, outgoingness, confidence, pride, and success to those who boast… When should they use boasts? ...Based on the attribution data collected in the present work, it would appear that …if they wish to be viewed as competent and successful, then—at least under some circumstances, and depending on the gender of speaker and receiver—they might be better off bragging.”
What’s more, the researchers found that men are more likely to make inferences of greater competence from others’ bragging than women. This study suggests that on a professional platform like LinkedIn where many individuals participate with specific goals of finding a job, a consulting engagement, investors, and so on, there are benefits to bragging about your capabilities instead of keeping a low profile. So it makes sense that LinkedIn is chockful of braggarts.
In our online social lives today, bragging appears to have become a necessary evil to get noticed in all the clamor. To get noticed and achieve our goals, what we can do is brag sparingly, remain authentic, and provide value to our audience even in our boasts.