Social Media and Identity Issue Facebook Photos as Online Identity

Dr. Ayesha Tahera Rashid*

Abstract

Facebook today has challenged the traditional concept of ‘identity.’ The lines between real identity and virtual identity have become blurred and nebulous. As previous research have revealed, Facebook users deliberately create and maintain their profiles according to the identity they want to portray and the perceptions they want to convey. Narratives about Facebook with common features and similar rituals in using the site reflect the fact that Facebook has become a community with its own discourse and practices that can be used to build meaningful identities. Many users appear to be glued to the social networking website because it allows them an opportunity to create an identity for themselves. Of the many ways, Facebook users employ to create an online identity, posting photographs to their walls have been seen to be one of the most popular ones. Over 300 million photos are uploaded every day on Facebook (June 2013). There is a photo-sharing explosion as a result of the 1.15 billion Facebook users around the world connecting with their friends through the common language of photos, as well as the increasing ease of taking and sharing photos with the advent of smart-phones. Social media is becoming increasingly visual in nature and the photograph is fast becoming the centre of a large proportion of social media engagement.

The present study conducted among 403 students from three universities in Assam contributes to prior work on young adults and their use of social networking sites by investigating how they use the photo posting application on the site. This study explores the photo posting behaviour of young Facebook users within the cultural context of social media networks. The application of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale to this study enabled the researcher to examine the psychological well-being parameter of self-esteem among the respondents and explore its relationship with the intensity and motivations of Facebook photo posting. Overall, the findings of this study have a number of important implications for the understanding of identity construction in society, particularly on social networking sites. The results of this study suggest that young people struggle to find ways to leave a positive impression of themselves to as large an audience as possible.

Introduction

The growing popularity of online social networking has attracted the attention of academic and industry researchers. Scholars from disparate fields are examining social networking sites from various perspectives in order to understand the practices, implications, culture and meaning of these sites. Among all such social networking sites, Facebook has emerged as the most popular one in the world today with over 1.15 billion users. India has the third largest number of Facebook users in the world, behind the US and Brazil. And of the 61 million active users in India, 76 per cent are young educated people in the age group of 18-34 years. As these young educated people spend more time online than the older generation, it is important to know the gratifications they seek and obtain from Facebook.

This study explores the photo posting behaviour of young Facebook users within the cultural context of social media networks. Facebook is the indubitable front-runner, dwarfing other social photo sites like Flickr, Picasa, and Photobucket. As much as 70 per cent of all likes, comments and shares in Facebook are related to photographs. Research shows that Facebook postings that include an album or a picture increase engagement by an average of 180 per cent and 120 per cent respectively.

In this study respondents answered the question whether they engage in these behaviours and why they do so. This study was based on the presumption centered on selective photo posting, which will be defined as the intentional un-tagging or posting of photos on Facebook. The user intentionally un-tags or posts certain photos of herself/himself due to the characteristics of the photos. This study seeks to find a relationship between self-esteem and the behaviours of selective photo posting. It is predicted that those who are with low self-esteem are more likely to engage in selective photo posting.

Results

Self esteem was measured by using Rosenberg’s Self Esteem Scale (1965), one of the most widely used scales measuring global self-esteem (Richardson et al., 2009). Rosenberg details self-esteem as an element of the self-concept and defines it as “a positive or negative orientation toward oneself; an overall evaluation of one’s worth or value” (Rosenberg, 1989). Prior research has linked self esteem with identity management in social networking with the help of photo sharing. This study sought to find out if photo sharing behaviour in Facebook was different across different levels of self esteem.

Table 1: Rosenberg Scale- Do you have photo/photos in your Facebook profile?

Table 1 shows that a majority of the respondents (84.1 per cent) had photos in their Facebook profiles. Among people with low self esteem, it was interesting to find that 80 per cent had photos, while among the high self esteem group, 100 per cent said they posted photos in their profiles.

Number of photos on Facebook

Respondents were asked how many photos they had posted on their Facebook profiles.

Table 2 (below) shows the number of photos uploaded on Facebook by respondents belonging to the three different levels of self esteem. Majority of the respondents (82.5 per cent) had 1-99 photos in their profiles. 17.4 per cent had 100 or more than 100 but less than 500 photos while only 2.65 per cent of the Facebook users in this study had more than 500 photos in Facebook.

Table 2: Number of photos on Facebook (n= 339)

Profile photo

A recent analysis of the profile photos of the 500,000+ pixable user base was done recently to reveal these startling facts:

  • 10% of all Facebook photos are profile photos
  • Women typically upload a new profile picture every two weeks
  • The number of profile photos posted per user per year has tripled since 2006.

No matter how much quality information or witty repartee Facebook users send out into their networks, first impressions are almost always visual. Research proves that the first thing people see when checking out a new Facebook friend or connection is a profile photo. And in a world of quick clicks and divergent attention, if the photo isn’t eye-catching, Facebook users may miss their shot at making a positive first impression.

In this section of the research, respondents were asked if they have a profile picture and if they have one what are the reasons behind posting that particular photo.

Table 3: Have profile photo in Facebook (n=339)

Table 3 reveals that majority of the respondents posted profile photos on Facebook. Only a small percentage of 3.2 per cent did not have profile pictures on Facebook. Across all categories of self esteem, a large number of respondents (96.7 per cent) said they had profile photos.

Representation of self in profile photos

Apart from the opportunity to fill in textual templates on most of the SNS, people can also add their photos to their profiles in order to serve a very specific role in the online self-presentation context. Based on their study of self-presentation in online-dating environment Ellison, Heino and Gibbs (2006) claim that the photographs used on the profile “served to warrant or support claims made in textual descriptions”, i.e. people used photographs not only to visualize their looks, but also to emphasize the things and qualities that were important for them. While at one level the photos support the discursive claims made in the textual part of the profile, at another level the photos help in giving an overview of a person’s self-concept and physical characteristics. Still, as photos may be staged performances it is often quite hard to capture whether the photos presented are actually “representation of behaviours or a re-presentation of themselves” (Boyd, 2006). Nevertheless, research (Ellison et al., 2006) has confirmed that people are very conscious of their selection of photos and even their different poses and behaviours they portray are formed according to the “set of rules” which are also used for assessing the photos of others.

Monica T. Whitty (2007) has investigated photos people use to accompany their online dating-website profiles. Her qualitative study among the online-dating site users revealed that “people experimented with what photos and descriptions of themselves would be more successful at attracting others to their profile”(Whitty, 2007). Furthermore, the participants believed that “the need to present a good physical image of themselves was more important than any other characteristic” (2007, p. 1714). In order to show themselves in the most flattering form, some of the online-dating site users had a glamour-shot to accompany their textual profiles.

Similar tendencies are reported concerning the photo selection criteria among the social networking site users. For example, an important study by Michele Strano (2008) conducted among Facebook users showed that people are foremost interested in choosing photos for Facebook that they themselves would classify as attractive. Selecting photos where the owner of the profile could be viewed as loving fun or photos that were taken as humorous shots were also often chosen.

Kirsty Young`s study (2008) among Australian youngsters also confirms the idea that in order to present oneself in online environments people often tend to select photos where they look as good as possible. According to Young (2008) the young people preferred to choose photos where they would either look good or that would project a desired image of themselves. All in all, Young’s findings allow her to postulate that the choice of the accompanying photo is “more often than not, a conscious and purposeful decision” (2008, p. 9).

In this study, respondents who were young university students in the age-group of 18-35 were asked what their current Facebook profile photo looked like. Given below are the findings.

Table 4:  Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale * Your current profile photo shows (n=326)

Table 4 shows that a sizeable portion of the sample (67.4%) said that they posted photos of themselves as their display photograph. This was more pronounced among the respondents with high self esteem. People with high self esteem, it was noted, did not post photographs of anyone else- celebrity, cartoon etc as their profile picture.  Posting celebrity photos or that of a cartoon, object or symbol, or more specifically not of oneself, was seen to be the most among respondents with low self esteem

Selective photo posting

One research question was a broad one to see if selective photo posting does in fact occur on Facebook among the population sampled. The study asked a set of 15 questions that formed a selective photo posting scale.

  • Sixty-nine percent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “I will not post an unattractive photo on Facebook”. This was particularly true of respondents with low self esteem. Seventy eight percent of the Facebook users with low self esteem said that they make sure they do not post unattractive photos of themselves on Facebook.
  • Eighty percent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that “I want to look my best in photos that are on my Facebook profile”.
  • Seventy percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that “I do not care how I look in photos that are on my Facebook page”. It was interesting to see that even people with high self esteem disagreed with this statement.
  • Fifty-seven percent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that”I untag photos of myself due to privacy reasons”.
  • Sixty-six percent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that “I untag photos of myself to prevent teachers/parents/relatives from seeing them.
  • Roughly seventy percent of respondents strongly agreed that “I untag photos of myself to prevent physically unappealing photos from being seen by others”. This clearly established that the main reason for untagging photographs on Facebook was not for privacy reasons or for preventing certain people from seeing them but primarily because those photographs are unappealing. This is truer for respondents with low self esteem. Eighty two percent of these respondents said they untag themselves from photos in which they find they are physically unappealing.
  • Fifty-six percent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that “I untag photos of myself when I do not like the people in the photos with me”. Fifty-three percent of respondents strongly disagreed or disagreed with the statement “If I post a photo, it must show off my body’s best attributes”.
  • Sixty-seven percent of respondents strongly disagreed or disagreed that “If I post a photo, it must include me and another person – significant other, friend, etc.”
  • Fifty-nine percent of respondents strongly disagreed or disagreed with the statement “If I post a photo, it must be in line with who I am as a person”.
  • Seventy-nine percent of respondents strongly disagreed or disagreed that “If I post a photo, it must be appropriate for my job/teachers/family/etc”.
  • Fifty six per cent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “Looking at photos on Facebook added to my body-consciousness”. This was especially true for respondents with low self esteem. Eighty two percent of these people with low self esteem agreed or strongly agreed with this statement.
  • Fifty six percent of the respondents also said that they “compare themselves to others when they view photos”.
  • Finally, thirty two percent of the respondents strongly agreed or agreed that “I feel sad when I compare my own photos to those of my friends”.

From the above findings, it is clear that the behaviour of selectively untagging and posting photos of oneself on Facebook are occurring and that Facebook photo posting is closely related to a user’s sense of self worth or esteem.

Important features in selecting photos for Facebook profiles

Table 5 gives an overview of the features that youth consider important when selecting photos to accompany their SNS profiles. The 18-35-year respondents in this study considered good looks the most important aspect when choosing the photo for their SNS profile. 56 per cent of the females and 31 per cent of the males believed that looking good on the photo is the main element one has to pay attention to while choosing photos to accompany one’s SNS profile.

Although both genders feel a need to upload a photo that is taken in beautiful surroundings (females 47.6 per cent, males 20.7 per cent), that would commemorate an important event like graduation, wedding, etc. in one’s life (females 39.1 per cent, males 14.8 per cent) or where significant others (friends, family, acquaintances) are accompanying the profile owner on the photo (females 39.1 per cent, males 14.8 per cent) the above-mentioned aspects are far more important for the females than for the male counterparts as the differences between genders are all statistically significant.

Table 5: Features considered important when selecting photos for a Facebook profile

Females also value highly photos that reflect their personality (38 per cent), the aspect of which is only modestly valued by the males (14.8 per cent). Young men, nevertheless, are slightly more interested in selecting photos that would describe their lifestyle (18.2 per cent) than females (15.9 per cent). However, the difference between the genders in this question is not statistically important. The practical aspects e.g. good photo processing and fame of the photographer influences the photo selection of the females more than for the males. Clothing and brands, however, are considered least important while selecting one’s own photos for the SNS by either of the sexes.

The analysis of the answers shows that females are much more conscious of their selection of photos on the profile. They value both the aesthetic (e.g. beautiful surroundings, photo has a nice look in general), emotional (e.g. important moment, “important others”), self reflectory (e.g. photo reflects my essence, describes my lifestyle), as well as aesthetic-symbolical (good photo-processing, famous photographer) aspects of photographing more than their male counterparts while creating their virtual self. Young men, on the other hand, seem only mildly interested in choosing photos where their handsome looks are portrayed.

Changing profile photos

Respondents were asked how frequently they changed their profile photos on Facebook. Results show that people with moderate self esteem were more likely to keep changing their profile photos on Facebook. People with high self esteem do not change their profile photos on a regular basis.

Table 6    Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale /Changing Facebook profile photo

Table 6 shows that majority of the people with low and moderate self esteem keep changing their profile photos on Facebook. Half the respondents with high self esteem do not keep changing their profile photos.

Frequency of changing profile photos

The study sought to know how frequently respondents changed their profile photos on Facebook.

Table 7    Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale * How often do you change your profile photo

Table 7 shows that most of those respondents, who did change their profile pictures, did it once in a while. Respondents with moderate and low self esteem are the ones who most frequently change their profile photos. People with high self esteem do not bother to change their photographs and if at all they do so, they do it very rarely.

Reasons for uploading photos on Facebook

The research community has addressed the question of participant motivations, and how those affect activities and outcomes in online community and social media services. The positive effect of viewing and attention on production of content was demonstrated by Huberman et al. (2008) in the context of YouTube, and Huberman, Romero, and Wu (2009) in the context of Twitter. In their YouTube study, the authors show that increased attention leads to heightened contribution of content. Another recent study by Burke (2009) hypothesized that distribution of the user’s content by others, and direct feedback on content, are both related to attention and therefore reputation, and show that both contribute to content upload.

This research model attempted to explain the key factors that drove Facebook users to post photos in their profiles. Respondents were asked about the motivating factors for posting photos on Facebook. Given below are some of the factors that influence Facebook users.

(i.)   To let people know what’s happening in my life

One of the key factors that motivated people to share photos on Facebook was seen to be the urge to let other people know what is happening in their lives. These Facebook users felt that their online friends were deeply interested in their activities and their lives and therefore, they had to share their lives with the help of Facebook photo postings.

Table 8 shows that majority of the respondents (43.1 per cent) disagreed that they share photos on their Facebook accounts because they wanted to tell other people what was happening in their lives. Only 43.1 per cent of the respondents said that they do so. This tendency to post or share photos on Facebook in order to let others know what is happening in their lives, was seen to be the most pronounced among respondents with low self esteem.

Table 8    Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale * To let people know what’s happening in my life

(ii.) Friends want me to show them my new photos

Another factor for posting photos on Facebook seemed to be “because ‘friends’ wanted”.

Table 9 Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale * Friends want me to show them my new photos

Table 9 shows that majority of the respondents disagreed that they post photos for friends. Almost sixty four per cent of the respondents said they do not post photos because friends wanted them to do so. This was true for people with low and moderate self esteem. However, people with high self esteem (100 per cent) said that they did share photos on Facebook because their friends were keen on seeing them. This was a significant finding in terms of how self esteem regulates online behaviour and perception.

(iii.) I like getting comments on my photos from friends

An even more instrumental motivation for community information sharing is the enhancement of status in the community (Lakhani & Wolf, 2005; Roberts et al., 2006). In other information-sharing community contexts, the prospect of reputation-or the attainment of status in the community-was linked with increased contribution (e.g., Lakhani &Wolf). Similarly, this study also revealed that higher levels of the reputation motivation are associated with increased levels of photo posting on Facebook. This study sought to find out if getting comments on photos from friends was any factor for posting more photos on Facebook. Given below is a table which shows the findings of this research question.

Table 10: Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale * I like getting comments on my photos  from friends

Table 10 shows that majority of the respondents (59.1%) said that they did not post photos on Facebook because they liked getting comments from friends. However, it was very interesting to note that respondents with low self esteem had a different perspective. A large group of 77.2% respondents with low self esteem said that they liked getting comments from friends and that acted as a major motivator for posting online photographs. ‘Reinforcement’ in the form of positive comments from friends was the reason why these people with low self esteem mainly uploaded photos.

Conclusion

The present study sought to extend the existing research on self-presentation in ‘nonymous’ settings. The research particularly explored how Facebook photographs were being used by young people in their effort to create an image. Based on Erving Goffman’s work on symbolic interactionalism, the study found that Facebook provided the perfect platform to its users for online identity construction. According to Goffman, performance is “all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants”. Facebook can be seen as part of a “front stage” where people construct identities as part of their performance before an audience. It is the perfect opportunity for individuals to use props such as photographs as tools in the continuous process of performing identity.

The study revealed how Facebook profiles are used by participants to explore impression management. The most implicit identity claims are visual, involving the display of photos and pictures uploaded by the users themselves or pictures along with comments posted to their accounts by others (known as ”wall posts”). Apart from the cover picture, users can show within their Facebook profiles as many photos of themselves as they wish. The study showed that social media is becoming increasingly visual in nature and the photograph is fast becoming the centre of a large proportion of social media engagement. There is a photo-sharing explosion with Facebook users connecting with their friends through the common language of photos.

In this study as well photo albums were clearly found to be an area of identity construction and control on Facebook. A majority of the respondents were found to be extremely careful and choosy about the kind of photographs they posted on Facebook. Within the cultural context of social media networks, this study explored the image management behaviour of un-tagging and selective posting of photos on Facebook. In this research, eighty per cent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “I want to look my best in photos that are on my Facebook profile”. The respondents in this study also showed a clear fixation on their looks, self-display and presentation on Facebook. Fifty six per cent of the respondents also said that they “compared themselves to others when they view photos” while another thirty two per cent of the respondents strongly agreed or agreed that they felt sad when they compared their own photos to those of their friends.

From these responses, one can gauge that Facebook is integral to the way these young students live and the way in which they present themselves. This undue reliance on Facebook photographs by these young people is alarming, given that they are in a very crucial stage of developing their self image and are living in an already dangerous, sexualized and media-saturated culture (Markello: 2005).

The present study also brought to light another worrying consequence of this Facebook generation, which is the narcissistic obsession they have with self-display. The regular taking of photographs and uploading them to maintain their stylized identity is creating a generation obsessed about how others perceive them. Survey data showed a majority (76.66 per cent) users regularly changed their profile photographs on Facebook. More females than males in this sample underscored the need to look beautiful in the photos, the finding of which coincides with a number of other studies (e.g. Strano, 2008; Whitty, 2008). The reason for this could be explained by stereotypical gender roles, as beauty norms have always existed in case of women.

To sum up in the words of Solomon (1999):- “We hold ourselves to a standard defined by others that is constantly changing”. This research among a group of university students shows how young people struggle to find ways to leave a positive impression of themselves on as large an audience as possible. Keeping this in mind, this research assumes that while the young Facebook users were identifying the aspects they considered important for posting photographs, they were consciously or unconsciously influenced by external factors leading them to create favourable impressions of themselves in the virtual world.

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