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Facebook Makes You ‘Like’ Yourself Better... But Also Lie


Unlike Snow White’s queen, most of us do not enjoy gazing at the mirror on our wall. But we don’t mind reflecting on our images as portrayed on our Facebook walls, according to Department of Communication associate professor Jeff Hancock. In a study conducted with Amy Gonzales, PhD ’10, he found that use of the popular social networking site improved the self-esteem of Cornell student participants. This is probably because Facebook profiles allow users to put their best face forward by selecting what they want to reveal about themselves, and serve as repositories of overwhelmingly positive feedback from friends and family, Hancock says.

In another study, conducted with colleague Jeremy Birnholtz, he found that Facebook may cause other complications in the way we interact with people. New modes of communication through technology are forcing us to rely on lies as a means to manage our availability, they have found. Most of these are little white lies, such as “I’m on my way” text messages or “Got to go, phone’s ringing” excuses during online chat sessions, which Hancock has dubbed “butler lies” in honor of the personal assistants of yore who would provide a buffer when unwelcome guests turned up at the door. He estimates that up to 10 percent of text messages contain lies, and one-fifth of those are butler lies.

Birnholtz believes such widespread use of lies suggests that people are resorting to social solutions because there are insufficient technical solutions. That, in turn, indicates a need for more controls or features to help people manage their personal relationships online. By doing a linguistic analysis of the deceptive messages, Birnholtz says he might be able to design a program that could predict when someone wants information to be shared or protected.

“Our social conventions have evolved over 60,000 years. Facebook has been around for six. I think this is where a lot of the confusion comes from,” Hancock says.