Public Intimacy: Disclosure Interpretation and Social Judgments on Facebook
The rise of Facebook and similar social networking platforms has spawned a wide variety of research — from topics such as how people share information and the homogeneity of friend networks to effects on academic performance and how social media are changing the formation of off-line friendships. Most surprising to older generations is the degree to which younger social media users seem willing to disclose personal information and live more “publicly” online. Often neglected in such discussions is the complexity of different “broadcast” options within a network such as Facebook, where messages can be targeted at individuals, groups or much wider communities.
A 2012 study from Cornell University published in the Journal of Communication, “Public Intimacy: Disclosure Interpretation and Social Judgments on Facebook,” examined the relationship between the intention and interpretation of online messages and focused on the idea of “disclosure personalism” — the degree to which intimate information is shared either friend-to-friend or with a wider community. The researchers created fictitious Facebook profiles with both low-intimacy posts (such as “Maybe it’s time to put snow tires on my car”) and high intimacy posts (such as “The first snow of the year always makes me think of my childhood when I didn’t have so many problems to deal with.”) Study participants were asked to quickly review each profile and then assess the appropriateness of such posts, displayed as public wall posts, public status updates or private messages. At least 68% of the participants in both studies were women; most were college-aged women, with a median age of 20.
Key study findings include:
- The appeal of high-disclosure information — and the appeal of the discloser herself — depended significantly on how the information was shared and with how large an audience. The experiments “suggest public intimacy may backfire because intimate disclosures in public settings were viewed as less appropriate than those in private contexts.”
- People typically preferred private disclosures of intimate content over public disclosures, and “a private disclosure prompted greater inferences of relational intimacy than a public disclosure in wall posts and status updates.”
- High-intimacy disclosures shared in private messages were perceived as more intimate than those displayed on wall posts or status updates. “Personalized disclosure was judged as more intimate when it was unavailable to others.”
- Negative disclosures about one’s life were generally interpreted as more intimate than positive ones.
“Although disclosure is a precursor to relational intimacy,” the researchers conclude, “the results suggest that intimacy may be harder to attain through Facebook public communication because intimate disclosures in public interactions are viewed as less intimate and less appropriate than intimate disclosures in private interactions on Facebook.” The authors caution that study participants did not know the individuals featured in the fictional profiles, and that “future research would need to consider how the strength of relational ties might moderate the influence of sociotechnical affordances on judgments.”
Tags: youth, Facebook, social media
Read the issue-related article in The Atlantic "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?"
- What key insights from the article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?
Read the full study titled “Public Intimacy: Disclosure Interpretation and Social Judgments on Facebook.”
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?