We study social media with the assumption that people reveal “who they are” when they post to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: that men write more like men than women do, that extraverts look extraverted, depressed people depressed, and happy people happy. But do people present their “true selves” on Facebook and Twitter?
Of course not. Twelve year olds pretend to be thirteen — otherwise they are kicked off. And people don’t always share their embarrassing medical conditions or their illicit drug use–although they do share both surprisingly often.
Of course people want to look good. It is claimed that on dating sites like OKCupid, people on average inflate their height by two inches and their income by 20%. And, of course, they pick attractive — and sometime out of date — photos of themselves. Narcissists, on average post more photos of themselves to Facebook and edit them more often than the rest of us.
In fact, it’s not clear if people ever present their true selves–or have true selves to present. You don’t need to be a psychologist to know that simple questions like: “Are you a racist?” “Do you think I’m fat?” or even “How old are you?” do not always elicit honest answers. Sociologist Irving Goffman in his book The presentation of self in everyday life famously observed that we are always acting: when a waiter comes out of the door from the kitchen into the dining room, he puts on a persona for the diners, but when he goes back into the kitchen he doesn’t become ‘his true self’ — he just shows a different persona for the kitchen staff. We all behave differently with our friends than with our colleagues or parents. We’re always presenting ourselves on some stage.