Friday, May 11, 2012

Airing your dirty laundry on Facebook - Endearing? Annoying? It may depend on your self-esteem

Though this Facebook fad (I know I know, it’s here to stay) has never truly caught on with me, I am certainly aware of its many benefits. Facebook is an amazing medium for sharing information – news, music, ridiculous youtube videos. You can use Facebook as a means for self-expression – to advertise aspects of your personality, your taste, your interests. With Facebook you can stay current with your nearest and dearest, even if they live across the country/world (or stalk just about anyone). 

According to Amanda Forest and Joanne Wood, researchers at the University of Waterloo (in Canada), the opportunity for connection and community on Facebook may have a dark side, however. In a recent study they found that individuals with low self-esteem (i.e. those with negative self-views) may use Facebook as an opportunity to open up to others – but not in a good way.

Forest and Wood hypothesized that individuals with low self-esteem might see Facebook as a safe space to build intimacy with friends. One way to build intimacy is through self-disclosure – sharing information about yourself helps others get to know you and feel close to you. Individuals with low self-esteem often refrain from self-disclosing in person because disclosure provides the potential for rejection or betrayal. The researchers reasoned, however, that self-disclosure on social networking sites might feel less awkward, and might buffer these individuals from the potential negative reactions of others (i.e. they can’t see their friends’ frowning faces). I’m sure we can all relate - feeling a little more bold, open, or witty when we interact over the internet – when we have endless time to craft a perfect email/comment/status update (rather than the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants responses that are required when we interact in person with an actual human being). 

On the flip side, however, given that individuals with low self-esteem often have more negative and less positive emotion than others, it’s possible that if these individuals are disclosing on Facebook, they might be disclosing in a negative way. I bet we can all think of someone who tells their hundreds of Facebook friends when they bombed their final or when they feel like life sucks and fails to mention any of the good stuff. If individuals with low self-esteem are indeed posting negative (not positive) content about themselves – their disclosure might actually alienate their Facebook friends rather than build intimacy with them.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what Forest and Wood found. Individuals with low self-esteem rated Facebook as a safer place to disclose personal information than did individuals with high self-esteem. When the researchers analyzed their actual Facebook posts, participants with low self-esteem wrote more negative content and less positive content than participants with high self-esteem. This negativity indeed created a poor impression with others – coders (blind to participants’ self-esteem scores) rated low self-esteem participants as less likable after reading their posts.

With the Like (or fail to Like) feature, Facebook offers our friends the opportunity to provide feedback about what we post. Interestingly, Forest and Wood found that when individuals with high self-esteem posted negative content (which occurred with less frequency), friends were more inclined to Like the post – that is, to express interest and concern about what’s going on in that friend’s life. In contrast, friends were less inclined to Like negative content posted by individuals with low self-esteem. Remember this is more the norm for them (and it apparently gets tiresome). Interestingly, friends were more inclined to Like positive content on Facebook if it was posted by a low self-esteem than a high self-esteem participant. That is, low self-esteem individuals were given encouragement by their friends to stop with the sad and sordid and tell them something good.

Although Forest and Wood narrowed in on one population, the lessons of this research certainly apply to all of us. Social networking sites can be a slippery slope. Though it certainly feels good to share what’s going on in our lives, it's important to monitor our posts. Perpetually saturating our friends' News Feeds with negativity is not going to build intimacy – it’s going to make them steer clear. If you are someone inclined to post negative content, take the opportunity to balance that out with some good posts. It will be refreshing for your friends to learn that you are actually having a good hair day or tried some fantastic kambucha in Oakland yesterday. In sum, too many dirty laundry posts – annoying. A few dirty laundry posts – endearing.

What makes a post annoying vs. endearing to you? Can you think of more adaptive ways to build friendships on Facebook?

The article:
Forest AL, & Wood JV (2012). When social networking is not working: individuals with low self-esteem recognize but do not reap the benefits of self-disclosure on Facebook. Psychological science, 23 (3), 295-302 PMID: 22318997


  1. These recommendations seem shallow to me. If the problem faced by most low SE people is that they don't disclose their negative feelings in person (this is your claim anyway), then FB provides an outlet for them, whether healthy or not, to perform this disclosure. If that behavior makes others less inclined to like them (I imagine only their superficial friends would be that way), then they're getting important feedback on how the world perceives them. Now you're advocating that they should fake it here too (you think they should post something positive, even if they don't feel that way). Now they have to be phony in both the real world and on FB.

    Seems like a shallow response to me. Maybe they should steer clear of the people who want to steer clear of them because of who they are. If they want more friends, then they either will have to fake it, which is not going to make them happy, or actually try to change themselves from the inside. The latter seems like a better choice

    1. Please note that this is not HER claim; the Forest & Wood's original psychological study simply presented their findings based on their research. They are not "suggestions." Not all research is going to fit everybody. Since your opinion stated above is apparently not based on a scientific study you conducted, I will just assume you didn't read the research in Psychological Science

  2. What's the matter? Did this article hit too close to home? I think so..