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Why People Write Purposely Vague Social Media Posts

What drives "vaguebooking" and why it matters.

Key points

  • Vaguebooking is a social media behavior of posting ambiguous messages to get attention or support.
  • Vaguebooking is similar to a communication style called "strategic ambiguity" used in real life.
  • The environment where someone posts can also influence vaguebooking.

"Vaguebooking" is a term that has appeared in the social media research literature over the last decade but has not caught the imagination or entered common usage to the same degree as other digital-behavior descriptors, like ghosting and "FOMO"—fear of missing out. Vaguebooking refers to content posted on Facebook (or other platforms) that is written in a deliberately ambiguous and vague manner. As such content is not easily interpreted, if people in that social media network want to understand the communication, they usually have to engage with the sender to explore what the post means.

Vaguebooking is actually a digital variant of a real-world self-presentation style, often referred to as "strategic ambiguity." 1 This communication type is adopted in several contexts, although the underlying reason is always to avoid saying something directly. A more positive use for strategic ambiguity is when it is adopted so as not to hurt somebody’s feelings or cause them offense.

The referent of the communication is often hinted at obliquely in the hope that the recipient will reach their own conclusions. Mental health professionals use this technique not necessarily to avoid hurting somebody’s feelings but because, if the client arrives at a conclusion for themselves, it will be more powerful and salient. Another common usage is, perhaps, less positive. Think of almost any speech by any politician of any political persuasion. They tend to say absolutely nothing specific, and they use a lot of words to do it. This is strategic ambiguity with the hope that the words will be taken to mean whatever the receiver wants them to mean.

In the digital realm, increasing amounts are beginning to be known about the circumstances under which vaguebooking will occur. There are the political and psychotherapeutic usages, as alluded to above. Still, these are rather less to the fore, and they are certainly not always part of people’s everyday digital interactions.

In fact, there are two types of predictors of vaguebooking that have been outlined in several research papers. Sadly, these pieces of research suffer from some problems, most notably that they tend to be cross-sectional, rather than longitudinal, making harder any causal inference. Nevertheless, they are certainly indicative of the predictors.

One set of such predictors involves the personality characteristics of those who are prone to vaguebooking, and the other concerns situations in which vaguebooking will be adopted as a strategy, irrespective of personalities. These two factors can interact, of course.

When somebody writes a very vague post, begging many questions, it usually means that they want a lot of questions. The sender wants people to engage with the post, but not necessarily in the way that an old-fashioned troll might. Vaguebooking is not necessarily mischievous or malicious in intent, although it is certainly a form of fishing (rather than phishing). Most "vaguebookers" appear to be hoping to elicit emotional support or attention from others2. It also appears that vaguebookers may have a hard time directly asking for help but want it to be offered to them2. These findings suggest that some form of insecure attachment style is at play, although this has not been studied. However, such disguised cries for help can also be passive-aggressive in nature, often hinting that somebody else has wronged them without directly stating who has done what3, which may imply some degree of avoidant attachment.

In addition to potential insecure attachment or the need for emotional support, loneliness has been found to predict vaguebooking4. Those who are lonelier and perhaps less able to directly state their needs2 use vaguebooking techniques to engage people. Also, histrionic personality disorder has been found to predict vaguebooking4. This personality disorder tends to be associated with anxiety, as well as with high social sensitivity and over-reactivity. Both the lonely and those with such a personality disorder may well need social contact, as well as approval or support. Still, both may be too sensitive to face overt rejection from a post they fear may be ill-written or offensive to some.

However, it is not just the personality of the poster that predicts vaguebooking, but also the digital environment into which the post is placed5. Many social media networks are quite large, and it is often hard to judge with any precision who is part of that network or how they will react to any given post.

Under these conditions, it is wise to adopt strategic ambiguity in posts for self-protection. Although, it is also important to ask the question: is posting in such an environment worthwhile? This latter consideration is one that many would-be political figures doubtless weigh up before entering the field. Even in more constrained social media networks, concerns about "digitally-mediated lurking"—the presence of observers who are effectively stalking the users without engaging—can lead to an increased level of vaguebooking5.

It has been found that worries about protecting privacy are associated with vaguebooking. Thus, not just the poster's preexisting personality but also the environment in which they post is important for predicting vaguebooking.

Research has begun to identify the consequences of vaguebooking. In contrast to some other forms of inappropriate digital behavior, such as ghosting or cyberstalking, the consequences of vaguebooking tend to be more pronounced for the vaguebooker rather than for the vaguebooked. Engaging in vaguebooking is associated with poorer mental health6. Concerningly, high levels of vaguebooking are associated with high suicidal ideation in younger individuals7. It is currently unclear whether vaguebooking leads to such mental health problems or whether those with the personality types and social problems associated with vaguebooking are more likely to have such mental health worries and risks in the first place.

Nevertheless, the presence of vaguebooking can be an indicator that something is wrong, as can be the general trend towards making any statements, digital or not, that require a pronounced degree of further investigation to understand.

All in all, vaguebooking as a digital phenomenon may be regarded as a new version of an old self-presentational strategy. It is one that may well feel annoying or irritating to the recipient, especially when it is known that the person is being "deliberately needy." However, it can also be indicative of potentially important psychological problems, which could either be harmful to the vaguebooker or, potentially, to the vaguebooked who may be phished. So, if a feeling of being drawn in (of being vaguebooked) emerges, it may well be telling you something to which you need to listen.

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock


1. Bavelas, J.B. (1983). Situations that lead to disqualification. Human Communication Research, 9(2), 130-145.

2. Buehler, E.M. (2017). “You shouldn’t use Facebook for that”: Navigating norm violations while seeking emotional support on Facebook. Social media and Society, 3.

3. Edwards, A., & Harris, C.J. (2016). To tweet or ‘subtweet’?: Impacts of social media networking post directness and valence on interpersonal impressions. Computers in Human Behaviour, 63, 303-310.

4. Berryman, C., McHugh, B., Wisniewski, P., Ferguson, C., & Negy, C. (2019). User characteristics of vaguebookers versus general social media users. In Social Computing and Social Media. Design, Human Behavior and Analytics: 11th International Conference, SCSM 2019 Proceedings, Part I 21 (pp. 169-181). Springer International Publishing.

5. Child, J.T., & Starcher, S.C. (2016). Fuzzy Facebook privacy boundaries: Exploring mediated lurking, vague-booking, and Facebook privacy management. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 483-490.

6. Astleitner, H., Bains, A., & Hörmann, S. (2023). T he effects of personality and social media experiences on mental health: Examining the mediating role of fear of missing out, ghosting, and vaguebooking. Computers in Human Behavior, 138, 107436.

7. Berryman, C., Ferguson, C.J., & Negy, C. (2018). Social media use and mental health among young adults. Psychiatric Quarterly, 89, 307-314.

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