ASU faculty help to uncover Facebook contradictions

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- Students want their Facebook friends to be real and positive when they present themselves on the popular free Internet social networking site.

Albany State University faculty members Benjamin Johnson and Judith Rosenbaum were able to learn about such contradictory expectations when they researched the goals and strategies for self-presentation on Facebook. Johnson and Rosenbaum collaborated with Peter Stepman and Koos Nuyten from Breda University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands. Rosenbaum and Nuyten were former colleagues at a Netherlands university.

What made the research unique was the fact that it is believed to be the first study done on students at a historically black college or university. Johnson, Rosenbaum, Stepman and Nuyten used three focus groups of about a dozen Albany State students last June for the research.

After initially starting in 2004 as a place for Harvard University students to connect with classmates, Facebook has exploded in popularity from 150 million users worldwide last January to more than 350 million users as of Dec. 28, according to The Guardian. Johnson was one of the early users of Facebook when he joined in 2005, and Rosenbaum began in 2008.

"I think it is a positive thing to have students here be a part of research of how people behave online and not just using students from 50,000-student schools," said Johnson, ASU's Telecommunications Center director.

Johnson and Rosenbaum will present their paper titled "Communication or Entertainment? Searching for Purpose in Facebook Messages" at the Southern States Communication Association's meetings April 7-11 in Memphis, Tenn.

The goal of Facebook users to be viewed as "authentic" to their online "friends" was what stood out most for Rosenbaum. Facebook friends are defined as people the user has granted access to their online profile and account.

"That was really surprising since they want a business, professional and positive presentation of themselves," said Rosenbaum, an assistant professor in English, modern languages and mass communications. "It seems to be in opposition, since that would also show their negative side. They don't want photos of them drinking, dancing, sweating and just not looking their best. But they want to be authentic, so they contradict themselves. It's almost like a PR campaign."

To investigate how the students presented themselves, the four researchers used student focus groups to detect trends in how they described their Facebook behavior and others. The researchers jotted down what the students would comment on. Rosenbaum said students would get upset if they were identified in a photo they didn't know about or like.

"I think with Facebook, it's flexible, everyone uses it a different way," said Johnson, who earned his master's degree from Michigan State University. "It has a certain power. Technology doesn't really determine what people do with it, the people determine what they do with the technology."

Because of Facebook's versatility and its sheer number of users, Rosenbaum said it would be hard to come to "sweeping conclusions."

"You can't say sweeping generalizations because everyone uses it their way. It's a very personal medium," said Rosenbaum, who earned her master's from Radboud University Nijmegen in The Netherlands.

An aspect that the researchers were able to investigate was the challenges some Facebook users encounter when they have too many "friends." Some college students accepted anyone who went to their school, while others were more selective. This dilemma caused one student to open two Facebook profiles, one for her friends and another for her family.

"The reason I have two pages, I don't want my mom seeing everything," the Focus Group 2 participant said. "I was a freshman, and everybody goes through their little freshman phase ... It's not like you can out everything. ... It's like what I was doing in my house, I didn't want my mom to see. I didn't want my mom to see all that. But now, it's like, you still don't want everyone in your business. ... But like on the other page, I have strictly family, like I put Easter pictures and Sundays. Strictly family. My family don't need to go with the (university) family."

Another interesting aspect that focus group participants brought up was the phenomenon of "laying low" -- choosing not to be active with their Facebook account solely to control information provided to their online friends.

"I got other people that always try to know what's going on with me -- this, that and the other," the Group 2 participant said. "(They're) always trying to keep up with what's going on with my life. I try to calm all that down by just not doing as much on it."

Other focus group respondents were able to control their information by strictly monitoring the posts made on their profile page by others. Although posts can be deleted, many of the students were concerned about an unsavory photo or comment being up for days before they were able to delete it. Another student reported knowing someone who had a private e-mail exchange posted.

"I know this dude who was sending e-mails back and forth with this girl, and his girlfriend found his e-mail address and then posted the entire e-mail thing on his wall, and like on her wall, so everybody saw it," the Group 2 participant said.

Johnson and Rosenbaum said some students wanted posts that were meaningful or funny. But by subscribing to such an expectation, the students possibly caused themselves more anxiety and work since many anticipated comments on their posts and detested those that used the "like" button.

"They want everyone to be meaningful and socially literate," Rosenbaum said. "So on top of pleasing all these audiences (and showing) that they are socially literate, they also have to wish everyone a happy birthday and to thank everyone for wishing you a happy birthday."

Rosenbaum said listening to the focus group participants' responses about their friends provided some of the best insight.

"You listen to what they say about other people," she said. "Because they don't need to present the other person in any way, and that's how you learn how someone is doing in self-presentation. The fact that they look at someone's posting in high school posing as a gangster in a picture and then judge, that shows they value authenticity."

Johnson and Rosenbaum said they were relieved that their findings fell into place with previous studies.

"The findings we came to after all this work (was that) it sort of reaffirmed how people present themselves," Johnson said. "What we found was pretty consistent with what is already known."

Added Rosenbaum: "What we found was part of the existing knowledge, so it's not like anything stood out."

Johnson, Rosenbaum, Stepman and Nuyten plan to study Facebook again in the spring as they take samples of Facebook pages and analyze the content.

Albany State University President Everette Freeman sees Johnson and Rosenbaum's efforts as significant and beneficial.

"Albany State University's mass communication faculty's collaboration with their colleagues from Breda University has allowed our students to understand the importance of presenting a positive image when posting information on Facebook and similar Web sites," he said. "This project will set them on the path of positive outcomes via the Web."