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JCMC publication on Self-Presentation on Facebook

One Size Fits All: Context Collapse, Self-Presentation Strategies and Language Styles on Facebook

We are pleased to announce that four members of our department have just published an article on the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, together with colleagues from the Stanford and Cambridge.



Teresa Gil-Lopez, Cuihua Shen, Grace A Benefield, Nicholas A Palomares, Michal Kosinski, David Stillwell; One Size Fits All: Context Collapse, Self-Presentation Strategies and Language Styles on Facebook, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcmc/zmy006


Their article explores the phenomenon of context collapse on Facebook, which is essentially the blurring of boundaries between our different social spheres on social network sites. Context collapse affects us all: we have friended many of the people we know on social media, and research shows that users are actually unlikely to delete old connections, even when they are no longer relevant. This potentially poses a threat every time we want to publish new contents or share a status update with our network of connections. “Is my boss going to see this?” or “my mom is going to be mad if she reads this post” have become common expressions of the concern arising from posting to such broad, somewhat unmanegeable audiences.



In this context, it is important to understand how users deal with the reality of having to present themselves before multiple audiences simultaneously. Our colleagues’ study addresses this question by looking at how users adapt their linguistic style to these audiences, and how this adaptation may differ between users who have a more homogeneous, tightly connected network and those who have networks composed by several, segmented groups.


The authors found that, when networks are more heterogeneous (i.e., composed by friends who are not connected among each other), users tend to vary their linguistic style less than when their networks are homogeneous. That is, when we, as Facebook users, are friends with people belonging to different social groups, like our family, our coworkers or friends from high-school, we tend to choose a consistent linguistic style across our status updates. Perhaps, this is a convenient, safe way to post to multiple audience groups at a time, whereas changing the way we express ourselves from one status to another could be more risky as it would make us appear less honest, or less authentic.


Despite commonly resolving to strategies of caution like the above-mentioned, the study also suggests that posting to a diverse audience does not seem to deter users from engaging in personal disclosures, as having more heterogeneous networks was associated with a greater use of person-related content words and first-person pronouns. This is a surprising finding, since disclosing our personal life online may make us susceptible to many potential risks, especially risks related our privacy. However, as risky as it may be, personal stories where we are the protagonist, for example about our school life or leisure time, may be deemed more pertinent to share with online audiences relative to other types of disclosures. Why is that? Perhaps, under the pressure of having to negotiate one’s identity with multiple audience groups at a time, one safe strategy is to limit self-disclosures to ordinary, day-to-day personal anecdotes. Users may choose to disclose bits of personal information which they judge safe to share with everyone, building an honest public online identity. 

Want to know more? The full paper is available here: https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article/23/3/127/4962540 



This study empirically examines context collapse on Facebook by examining audience influences on content and language in self-disclosures. Context collapse is the process of disparate audiences being conjoined into one. Using a public longitudinal behavioral data set of 6,378 Facebook users, the study found that the size and heterogeneity of people’s networks were positively associated with the number of text status updates they posted, but negatively associated with language style variability of these updates during 12 months. Results suggest that people manage their online self-presentation in ways that are consistent with lowest common denominator, imagined audience, and accommodation propositions. Network size was positively associated with the proportion of positive emotional language and negatively with negative emotional language, whereas heterogeneity had the opposite effect.