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Embarrassing Facebook Posts May Cause Anguish

By The Editors

A new study from Northwestern University explores the strength of the emotional response to “violations” or ”threats” on Facebook – something that gets posted and results in embarrassment and may, sometimes, create anguish.

Jeremy Birnholtz, one of the researchers, said: “Almost every participant in the study could describe something that happened on Facebook in the past six months that was embarrassing or made them feel awkward or uncomfortable.”

Photo Credit: olga.palma, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The study, which will be presented in February 2014 at the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing in Baltimore, found that people concerned about social appropriateness and those with a diverse network of friends on Facebook are more likely to strongly experience a threat, whereas people with a high level of Facebook skills experience the same types of threats less severely.

“Perhaps people with more Facebook experience, who know how to control settings, delete pictures and comments and untag, think they knew how to deal with these encounters or at least try to deal with them,” Birnholtz said.

The types of violations or threats people in this study reported experiencing most often are:

  • Norm violations: This is the most common type of threat study participants reported experiencing (45 percent) and involves situations when social norms are violated and one’s behavior is exposed in a way that could lead to social and emotional consequences.
  • Ideal self-presentation violations: This is the second most common threat reported (29 percent) and involves ideal self-presentation violations, when content posted is inconsistent with the manner in which a person wants to appear to his or her Facebook audience.
  • Association effects: These threats are a little less common (21 percent) and involve people worrying about their self-presentation because of how someone they associate with on Facebook is presenting himself.
  • Aggregate effects: This is the least common threat (5 percent) and it occurs when an individual’s content gains higher visibility within his or her network as more people like it or comment on it. The unexpected attention can cause one to feel self-conscious about their self-presentation.

“People can make bad decisions when posting to your Facebook because they don’t have a good idea of your privacy settings and which friends of yours might see this content,” Birnholtz said. “Facebook doesn’t provide a lot of cues as to how friends want to present themselves to their audience.”

He said in the future Facebook could offer more pop-ups and nudges to help people think twice before posting a possible “threat” to a friend’s page.

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