Public Release: 

Social media face threats affect relationships; communication helps

New Jersey Institute of Technology

Impression management refers to an individual's deliberate efforts to control or influence other people's perceptions. Sometimes impression management occurs in reaction to face threats: unfavorable incidents that undercut a person's ability to cultivate and maintain a desirable self-image on social networking sites (SNSs).

SNSs such as Facebook, where content can be shared widely and is often persistent, studies have repeatedly shown that people are vulnerable to face threats resulting from things that others post.

Grounded in theory, D. Yvette Wohn, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the information systems department at NJIT's College of Computing Sciences, explores the relationship between humans and technology using fundamental research tactics.

Wohn collaborated with Portland State University assistant professor Erin Spottswood, Ph.D., to co-write the article "Reactions to other-generated face threats on Facebook and their relational consequences," which is published in the April 2016 issue of Computers in Human Behavior, a scholarly journal dedicated to examining the use of computers from a psychological perspective.

While there has been much documentation of face threats occurring in the context of SNSs and how people react to them, there's very little known about the relational consequences of carrying out a particular reaction.

This paper reports on a survey of 150 adult Facebook users examining what type of strategies people engage in to deal with face-threatening content on social media.

"Social networking sites are so pervasive in our everyday lives and a platform on which others can judge you based on the content that you post," says Wohn, who, last summer, was named a recipient of the 2015 Yahoo Faculty Research and Engagement Program Award for her sustainability research in human computer interaction. "Unfortunately, even if you put a lot of thought into what you post, you can't control what others post about you."

Wohn and Spottswood began the research to better understand how people deal with face threats using computer-mediated communication and how their response affects their relationship with the person who created the uncomfortable situation.

"We found that people who tried to remove or justify embarrassing content actually experienced a decline in their relationship with the offender," says Wohn. "It may be important for people to know that trying to engage in impression management may also come at the expense of a personal relationship."

While face threats also happen in person, social media content is easily shareable with a large number of people and much more likely to go viral. This is cause for concern, as "people are connected to a lot of different people on social media, so what may be suitable for one group to see may not be OK for others," she says.

The authors found that even after taking into consideration the severity of the face threat, trying to redirect attention from the offensive content, or trying to get rid of it, was associated with a decline in closeness between the victim and offender. Frequently communicating with the offender, however, made it less likely for the victim to experience reduction in closeness.

"The people in our study gave us some horrific anecdotes," reveals Wohn. "I think it's important for people to think twice before they post something that contains information about someone else, because you may put them in a very difficult situation."

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About the Experts:

D. Yvette Wohn (Ph.D., Michigan State University) is an assistant professor in the College of Computing Sciences at NJIT, where she runs the Social Interaction Lab. Her research interests include human computer interaction and the examination of factors that contribute to socially sustainable technology (social media, mobile phones and games) and how it relates to well-being.

Erin Spottswood (M.A., Michigan State University, Ph.D., Cornell University) is an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Portland State University, where she examines how online environments reinforce and challenge traditional theories on interpersonal dynamics to advance the understanding of communication technology, interpersonal perceptions and communication behavior.

Contact:

Dr. Wohn can be reached by email at wohn@njit.edu

Dr. Spottswood can be reached for comment at e.l.spottswood@pdx.edu

About NJIT

One of the nation's leading public technological universities, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is a top-tier research university that prepares students to become leaders in the technology-dependent economy of the 21st century. NJIT's multidisciplinary curriculum and computing-intensive approach to education provide technological proficiency, business acumen and leadership skills. With an enrollment of 11,300 graduate and undergraduate students, NJIT offers small-campus intimacy with the resources of a major public research university. NJIT is a global leader in such fields as solar research, nanotechnology, resilient design, tissue engineering and cybersecurity, in addition to others. NJIT ranks fifth among U.S. polytechnic universities in research expenditures, topping $110 million, and is among the top 1 percent of public colleges and universities in return on educational investment, according to Payscale.com.

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