Expert Commentary

Public intimacy: Disclosure interpretation and social judgments on Facebook

2012 study published in Journal of Communication from Cornell University on the interpretation and reception of intimate online disclosures.


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

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