Anyone who uses Facebook can safely assume that to the company we are all one type of one thing: bundles of sellable data. The massive social network is more than one thing to its customers, however. Some of us use it to keep tabs on distant friends, for instance, and others to promote their creative works, or “literally” too-cute toenails. Still others see Facebook as a passive medium, a television channel made up of shows starring everyone they know and some they don’t.
Now a new study, published in the International Journal of Virtual Communities and Social Networking, confirms that Facebook has a Rashomon effect: various user groups interpret the experience of using it very differently. Surprisingly, however, the researchers also found they could easily categorize users into four broad types: “relationship builders,” “window shoppers,” “town criers,” and “selfies.”
The study authors, from the School of Communication at Brigham Young University, say these four categories emerged from a survey that asked subjects to respond to a list of 48 statements. These included phrases like, “Facebook is a source of stress, and it depresses me” and “Facebook is an instant way to ask for help or something I need from people.” Subjects ranked each statement on a scale from “most like me” to “least like me,” and were later interviewed by the researchers who gathered additional insights and qualitative data.
Notably, only 47 subjects were involved in this study, but the authors argue that, because they employed Q methodology, an approach to investigating divergent perspectives on subjective topics using sorting, statistic, and factor analysis, the small sample size is sufficient to reveal solid patterns.
As you read through the profiles of the key types below, however, you may see yourself reflected in more than one category. The authors acknowledge that we aren’t all easily pigeonholed, but say that we’re likely to find we’re mostly like one type. That is, at least among American young adults; the study only involved Americans aged 18 to 32, so global populations and older demographics may include other types. What’s more, your attitudes about Facebook and your online behavior might change over your life.
Here’s a closer look at the types revealed by the survey:
This cohort uses Facebook much the way humans once used actual mail and landline telephones: to strengthen existing relationships with friends and family. In fact, Facebook is an extension of their offline life, according to Tom Robinson, associate director of BYU’s Graduate School of Communication and a professor of advertising. A sample statement that relationship builders identified with was “Facebook helps me to express love to my family and lets my family express love to me.”
As the researchers explain in the study, this gang does not consider Facebook an “open virtual social society but rather a mini-hub site for personal storytelling, where information freely flows between friends and family.” In the interview phase, one subject who fell into this category said she didn’t call her family, so Facebook was “just an easy way to say ‘hi’ and share a bit of love.”
Relationship builders also tend to be heavy posters and viewers of pictures and videos; they commonly comment on the images and updates others have shared, and engage in conversations.
Driven by “a sense of social obligation” to be on Facebook, window shoppers see Facebook as an inescapable part of modern life, but they very rarely divulge personal information, share photos, or write updates. Nor do they do much liking or commenting.
Clark Callahan, one of the paper’s co-authors, who is also a specialist in research methods and the director of the undergraduate school of communication at BYU, called Facebook window shopping, “the social-media equivalent of people watching.” Men and women in this group most identified with statements such as: “I can freely look at the Facebook profile of someone I have a crush on and know their interests and relationship status,” or “I have to use Facebook in order to stay connected with people.”
One window shopper told the researchers, “I would rather live my life outside Facebook.” Another said that Facebook was not a place to “post things about myself or just about my daily life, or what I did on Saturday—because I think people who want to know me will be around doing it with me.”
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These are the self-styled or professional journalists, activists, and event organizers who see Facebook primarily as a soapbox. Unlike relationship builders, their virtual world does not resemble their real life. They might broadcast information they feel compelled to share to a wide range of close and distant connections, but they’re not looking for a follow-up—or not online anyway. “Sometimes they post things and they don’t even care if someone likes it or not,” Kris Boyle, a BYU professor of journalism who was also a co-author, tells Quartz.
The members of this faction are often sounding alarms on big issues, and passing along the latest memes, and see Facebook as the easiest way to do that. One has to wonder whether, in a year of political upheaval in the US and elsewhere, their constant posting of online articles—for which Facebook, as a powerful distributor, takes home the biggest slice of the ad revenue pie—hasn’t most helped the tech giant while further weakening the newspaper industry. But if the newspapers can successfully fight back through a legal battle, as they hope to, the town criers will be the first to tell you about it— through Facebook.
Just don’t ask them to share personal details. Although keenly focused on pushing out alerts (whether real or invented news) and inviting people to events (whether protests or church brunches), town criers tend to reveal little “private” information in their Facebook activity.
Their lack of sharing and interacting does not represent a lack of interest in their acquaintances. “I don’t talk to my family on Facebook,” one town crier explained to the paper’s authors, adding, “They are more important than that.”
Most town criers would rather pick up the phone, text, or direct message someone for an actual conversation.
The final group, the selfies, is the one we’re all too familiar with—and that’s the way they like it. Their ways have spawned a thousand essays on the problem with social media, and contributed to the myth of the narcissistic Millennial.
Selfies routinely use the same Facebook features as relationship builders—posting pictures, videos, and status updates—but they do it primarily to call attention to themselves, say the researchers behind this study. Energized and validated by likes and comments, the selfies agreed with statements like: “The more ‘like’ notification alarms I receive, the more I feel approved by my peers.”
Speaking in a study interview, one selfie explained that: “Taking [a] picture and letting it sit on my phone makes it nothing and useless, but once I post something on Facebook, it shows I’ve done something.”
Although the selfies were found to be least concerned about the accuracy of the self they presented online, says Boyle, that tendency could exist in any category. “Even relationship builders could look like they have a loving relationship with someone on Facebook, and when they get together, it’s a different story,” he says. Among town criers, the computer may provide a protective barrier for those who don’t necessarily feel comfortable sharing their ideas or opinions in real life.
One seductive quality of online interaction generally, Boyle notes, is that people are able to create a better—or different—versions of themselves.
To share our darkest truths, we prefer the perceived anonymity of a Google search.