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Narcissism and Social Media Use

Friday, January 17, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

Twitter narcissistsWe’ve seen a lot of commentary about narcissistic Millennials and how that self- involvement shows up in their use of social media. Well, yes–and not so much– according to new research. The researchers focus on whether one is an active user or a passive user of social media. (Active users create content while passive users read content by others.) 

The researchers compare Twitter use and Facebook use and believe that Facebook is reciprocal and interactive (i.e., you have ‘friends’) while Twitter is not necessarily either reciprocal or interactive (i.e., you have ‘followers’). What they really wished to explore, however, was the motivation behind updating status (on Facebook) and tweeting (on Twitter). They completed two separate studies, one with college students and the second with adults:

Study 1 (the college sample): 515 participants, average age 20.8 years with a range from 18 years to 29 years. The participants were 60% female and 90.7% Caucasian.

Study 2 (the adult sample recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk): 669 participants, average age 32.5 years with a range from 18 years to 75 years. The participants were 55% female and 78.6% Caucasian. Slightly less than half (46.7%) had a bachelor’s degree or above.

In each study, the participants completed a measure of narcissism and were asked how many times each day they updated their Facebook status, or how many different times they tweeted each day. They were also asked about their motivations for participating in either or both social media platforms (e.g., to keep people updated on my life, to gain additional friends or followers, or to be admired by others).

The researchers found the narcissism score was a stronger predictor of the number of Facebook friends than of Twitter followers for both the college group and the adult group. (The researchers say this might be related to the platforms themselves. On Facebook, you can make direct friend requests but on Twitter you need to post interesting tweets to gain followers.) What is most interesting to us, however, is that the researchers found generational differences in their data.

Narcissistic college students preferred to post their content on Twitter.

Narcissistic adults preferred to post their content on Facebook.

The researchers say it may be because college kids grew up with Facebook and it is standard for them to update their Facebook status. Twitter, on the other hand, is newer and (perhaps) more linked to prestige (and therefore a boon to the young narcissist). Adults, on the other hand, see both networks as new technology and so, say the researchers, it is a more “intentional choice” to update their status and the results show active participation in Facebook is more reflective of narcissism among adults.

The Weekly Standard also has an interesting article on Twitter–which they refer to as the “Twidiocracy”. The point they make is that people used to write more intelligently than they spoke, “but now a scary majority tend to speak more intelligently than they tweet”. It’s a very negative article (as you can likely intuit from the word Twidiocracy) and offers random factoids like these:

28% of iPhone users check or update Twitter before they get out of bed (48% do it after they’ve gone to bed).

31% of 16-25 year olds update their social media accounts while “on the toilet” and 11% of those under age 25 allow interruptions “by an electronic message during sex”.

1 in 3 people who visited the Facebook site felt more dissatisfied with their lives after that visit and that dissatisfaction was related to feelings of envy or insecurity.

That list goes on and on. For us, the most interesting tidbit in the Twidiocracy article was this: “A yearlong Pew study…found that Twitter users tend to be considerably younger and more liberal than the general public. But whether tweets tended to skew liberal or conservative was almost immaterial. Twitter reactions to current events was often at odds with overall public opinion, and it was ‘the overall negativity that stands out’.”

Or, as Pew actually puts it, “Twitter is not a reliable proxy for public opinion”.

While not a big shocker, it’s a terrific reminder. Only 16% of US adults use Twitter. That means 84% of US adults do not. While it is easy to become convinced from tweets that an issue is critically important or an opinion is almost universally held–it just isn’t true. You have to read research and sample more broadly based opinions than the fairly small social media samples. We are thankful there is a Pew Research Center and that none of us are forced to accept either the Twitter search function or the Weekly Standard’s versions of the truth at face value.

Davenport, SW, Bergman, SM, Bergman, JZ, & Fearrington, ME (2014). Twitter versus Facebook: Exploring the role of narcissism in the motives and usage of different social media platforms. Computers in Human Behavior, 32, 212-220

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