Social networking services (SNS) have gained immense popularity over the past eight or nine years, but the clear front-runner in the field is Facebook. Statistics not only show that 72% of U.S. internet users have a Facebook account, they show that nearly 1 in 13 people worldwide has one as well. Facebook has transformed the global social landscape, as people are now able to promote a certain image of themselves through pictures, status updates, “Wall” comments, friend lists, and products they endorse by clicking “like.” Having such a big impact on how young people communicate and form their identities, two researchers, Jolene Zywica and James Danowski, decided to investigate how Facebooking relates specifically to popularity. They published their findings in: “The Face of Facebookers: Investigating Social Enhancement and Social Compensation Hypotheses; Predicting Facebook and Offline Popularity from Sociability and Self-Esteem, and Mapping the Meanings of Popularity with Semantic Networks.”
To conduct their study Zywica and Danowski emailed a survey to all the students at a large, urban, Midwestern college in the spring of 2006. They received 614 replies. The survey contained questions relating to Facebook use (e.g. “How long have you been using Facebook?”) and asked people to rate their perceived popularity both online and offline. In addition, participants were given tests to rank their levels of sociability (introversion vs. extroversion) and self-esteem (high vs. low). After all the data was calculated the researchers were able to arrange the subjects into one of four categories: (1) Extroverts with high self-esteem, (2) extroverts with low self-esteem, (3) introverts with high self-esteem, and (4) introverts with low self-esteem.
Zywica and Danowski wanted to test two hypotheses regarding Facebook popularity. The first was the Social Enhancement (“Rich Get Richer”) hypothesis which insists people who are already popular offline use online spaces to bolster or maintain that popularity. The second was the Social Compensation (“Poor Get Richer”) hypothesis which insists “introverts and socially anxious adolescents, having difficulty developing friendships, are more likely to use the Internet because they substitute online contacts for an undesirable offline social network” (Zywica and Danowski 3). The researchers ended up finding evidence to support both hypotheses.
Two-thirds of participants said they knew someone who had tried to be popular on Facebook, but 67.4% claimed they had “never done anything themselves to purposely try and look cool or popular” (Zywica and Danowski 16). This outcome was of particular interest to the researchers; they didn’t understand why people were so hesitant to admit they had done something to appear popular online, such as posting a glamorized profile picture or accepting friend requests from strangers to have a larger social circle. I agree that the 67.4% is a little fishy, because there are a million things a person can do to look “cool” on Facebook. They can agonize for fifteen minutes over a status update, making sure it is interesting and witty enough to nab at least a few “likes.” They can brag about how much they love their significant other for doing even the most menial task, e.g. putting the toilet seat down or sharing a plate of fries. They can also “like” music/movies/books they are not entirely familiar with just to portray a certain profile vibe. We’ve all been there.
To continue, Zywica and Danowski found that those who were more extroverted and had higher self-esteem were “more popular both offline and on Facebook, supporting the Social Enhancement hypothesis” (19). Those who were introverted and had lower self-esteem strived more than any other group to look popular on Facebook, and deemed the attainment of such popularity at least somewhat important, supporting the Social Compensation hypothesis. It’s interesting to note that “nearly three times as many low self-esteem users revealed more about themselves to people they knew online rather than offline friends when compared to high self-esteem users” (Zywica and Danowski 17). The researchers concluded that “some low self-esteem users may just feel more comfortable expressing their true selves online rather than offline” (19).
I don’t find the results of this study particularly surprising. It makes sense, in a way, that those with the lowest self-esteem would try to bolster their image online, while popular individuals with high self-esteem would merely try to maintain their elevated position. As an introvert myself, I understand how less sociable people can become more open on the Internet, revealing bits of info they might not be comfortable sharing with folks offline. I’m fascinated by one idea presented in the research that suggests some people (primarily introverts) aim to find their “true selves” online. Why do some people feel more comfortable in online spaces than in real life? How, specifically, can they find their “true selves” online? And how did introverts cope before computers came along?