Popularity Fuels Disclosure on Facebook, Study Finds

August 18, 2009 - News Release

The need for popularity drives young adults to disclose more personal information on Facebook than they normally would reveal, according to University of Guelph researchers.

The study by psychology graduate students Emily Christofides and Amy Muise was published in the journal CyberPsychology and Behaviour in June. Their work, including another study that found Facebook use fuels jealousy in relationships, has attracted international media attention this summer as well as a $50,000 federal grant from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

This week, Facebook was to file its response to a report issued last month by privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart criticizing how the social-networking giant handled people's personal information. The report found that Facebook violates Canada’s privacy laws, and the company was given until yesterday to come up with a plan to address the commissioner’s concerns.

"There is something different about how people interact in online environments," said Christofides. "They share and show more about themselves than they might in other social settings. We wanted to find out if different psychological factors are involved in that behaviour."

The researchers surveyed 343 Facebook users, all university students between the ages of 17 and 24. Participants were asked about what they disclose on Facebook and how they control access to that information. They were also questioned about personality factors such as self-esteem, need for popularity, levels of trust and overall tendency to disclose personal information.

The study found that the majority of people (76 per cent) are concerned about privacy and information control, yet they still disclose a great deal of personal information on Facebook. This includes details such as birthdays, email addresses, hometowns, school and degree major, and intimate photographs.

"People reported being significantly more likely to disclose information on Facebook than they were in general," said Christofides.

The nature of the social networking website could be a contributing factor, she said. Facebook includes a template where users fill in information about themselves, ranging from their name to their relationship status to even their religious preference.

"This creates 'norms' regarding what specific information to disclose based on what others have disclosed," Christofides said.

People may choose to leave out revealing information, but few do. The reason? "The need for popularity was found to be a significant predictor of information disclosure," said Muise.

And information disclosure is the key factor in assessing one's popularity on Facebook, the study says. Having a presence on Facebook requires posting pictures and information and engaging in discussions.

"But it goes beyond that," Muise said. "What others share and say about you is also a part of Facebook. The people who are the most popular are those whose online identity is actively participated in by others. So the more you share, the more others respond."

In this way, popularity and disclosure become inextricably linked, the researchers say. "People with a high need for popularity may indeed care about their privacy, but they may not be willing to sacrifice their popularity by implementing privacy controls," said Christofides.

The study did find a link between self-esteem and the disclosure of personal information. People with higher self-esteem scores were more likely to use Facebook's privacy settings. "They may have less need for the input of others," she said.

Facebook was selected for the study because it's the most popular social network website in Canada. Launched in 2004, it has more than 120 million active users worldwide. University students were chosen because 90 per cent report using Facebook daily.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338/lhunt@uoguelph.ca, or Barry Gunn, Ext. 56982/bagunn@uoguelph.ca

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