It’s all in the profile – the impressions we form online


Social media has become somewhat of a necessity in our day to day lives – the frame-by-frame status updates on just how many shots so and so has taken, the odd picture of the funniest person asleep in that lecture and the inevitable rehashing of the horrors of last night’s tomfoolery in a state of inebriation that students have perfected over the years. We aim to entertain and maybe inform, but, just what do people think of us when they read snippets of our life?

92% of undergraduates use Facebook and we spend an average of 1 hour and 40 minutes a day browsing the site – according to a recent study by Rey Junco, Professor of Education at Lock Haven University. So what do we spend all that time doing?

Trailing through profiles is one way in which we pass time online. Unsurprisingly, a healthy dose of Facebook-stalking helps us to answer our pressing questions about others: is she an attractive regular at Camera or a studious resident of the Bodleian; is he an alpha male who spends most of his time at the gym or a quiet, stay-at-home guy? These are a few of the many questions we attempt to satisfy by meticulously scrolling through Facebook – or so we think. And now, science is tasked with explaining how we form opinions of people from their online profile.

According to Stephanie Tong, assistant Professor of Communication at Wayne State University, the number of friends we have makes a big difference. In 2008, her team asked students to rate the social attractiveness of five Facebook profiles. The only difference between the profiles given to participants was the number of friends the user had – either 102, 302, 502, 702 or 902. The most attractive profile had 302 friends; according to the study, whilst 102 friends suggested the person may socialise within more intimate circles, 502 or more friends gave the impression of an impersonal socialite.

And it’s not only friends who judge each other through Facebook; employers are increasingly judging potential employees through the site, and perhaps rightly so. This year Donald Kluemper – a Professor of Management at Northern Illinois University – and colleagues gave one academic and two students ten minutes to view the Facebook profiles of university employees. On this basis, they were required to rate users on several personality dimensions, the results of which were found to correlate strongly with work performance measures taken six months later. And the most stunning finding: the Facebook evaluations were better predictors of success on the job than the self-report personality questionnaires currently used by many employers! We’re often concerned about employers seeing photos of us clubbing, drunk or hunting down members of the opposite sex but by asking employers to rate personality traits rather than employability directly, a modest amount of such photos isn’t a problem. Why? Because they give rise to high scores on extraversion and sociability – important traits in the workplace.

The idea that our online profile is an accurate representation of our offline profile makes sense. Facebook photos, comments and posts are real examples of behaviour, whereas when we are asked to answer questions about ourselves we are often unaware of our true character or biased towards not mentioning negative traits. So whilst you mustn’t judge a book by its cover, perhaps we are right to judge a person by an online profile.