I recently ran across a short personality quiz through an ad on Facebook for a website called Playbuzz. I clicked on the link and was led to a webpage that started with “Can we guess who you are in 20 questions?” I let curiosity get the best of me and absentmindedly answered the prompted questions. I was asked how much time it took for me to get ready in the morning, if I liked eating corn on the cob, and the last time I had been intoxicated, among other odd things. My results? I am a woman in my early 30’s with two kids, have a job I'm only complacent with, and am married to a great husband, none of which are even close to my current reality. This is the picture that’s supposed to look like me as well. It’s a little off.
If you would like to take the quiz for yourself you can access it here.
This site had no credibility or scientific research behind it, and it was listed with other quizzes for bored souls such as myself with names like “which magical creature are you?” or “what age will you die”. Any logical person should not put any faith into the quiz results. However, the pointless questions reminded me of how untrue a person’s online identity can be.
I signed up for Facebook only three or four weeks ago, and was prompted with questions similar to those on the quiz. They weren’t quite so random, but they still had little blurbs of information I rarely thought about. I didn’t answer any of them, as I was not about to spend 15 minutes picking my favorite movies, books, and TV shows. Also, if I had answered the questions, would it really lead people to know what I’m truly like? Could a person somehow figure out I am a naturally curious person who likes to take stuff in rather than be the center of attention, or that I am content with only a few close friends, or that I have a desire to be anywhere but the Midwest someday to see what else is out there? Sure, they might know small details from stuff I like or post, but this compilation of social network activity does not do my personality any justice, even if someone spent an hour looking through everything on my account. Looking through some friends’ Facebooks, I’m guessing they would say the same.
For anyone who doesn’t want the world to know their personal lives, this is great. That person’s Facebook identity can be tweaked to a more socially acceptable version. However, what if said person wanted to craft an online identity (whether it be on Facebook or not) that perfectly encompassed all the traits that made him who he is. Could he do it?
I’m going to leave that question alone for a moment. In the Rainie and Wellman book entitled Networked-The New Social Operating System, networked individualism was explained through the Johnson-Lenz couple. Long story short, after the wife’s freak accident that sent her to the hospital, the couple received an outpouring of support achieved through their social network. Close friends and complete strangers “sent poems, expressions of love and encouragement, and offers of help and prayer” as well as financial help and professional advice.
The couple quickly realized the work they needed to put into this social network system in order to maintain the support. Through every means of communication, they coordinated with people wanting to help. They were immensely successful, yet did people actually know who they were helping? The couple even asked themselves “What’s the right balance of optimism, humor, and candidness?” They knew they had to create an online persona that people sympathized with in order to keep receiving kindness. They said they opted out of real-time conversations and interactions where trust grows, but yet agreed that “each relationship is a source of unique nourishment”. They used the word relationship like they knew everyone who was helping them. They didn’t. People liked them because they lived in Portland, or had a shared interest in Jazz music, not because they would be close friends in real life.
The book went on to say people live in networks where the person is now the focus, and people are hooked on each other. If this is true, shouldn’t the idea or image of that person be absolutely true? I think it is the farthest thing from it. Besides the people that already had close ties with the Johnson-Lenz couple, no one knew them. The couple designed who they were online to get the most out of their network. It wasn’t a network of personal relationships. It was a network of business type relationships where one person helped another person. I could have helped the couple by giving them $50 to make me feel like I’m making a charitable contribution to the well-being of their lives without giving them a second thought of sympathy the next day.
With that backstory in mind, I will return to my initial question. Could someone perfectly depict his personality online? I do not believe so. There are far too many facets of a personality to contain in an identity of statuses, pictures, blog posts, and liked pages. In order for the Johnson-Lenz couple to receive support, they had to filter their lives to choose which parts to expound upon. I highly doubt the wife was going to put anything on her social media about how maybe she enjoys shopping. (I have no idea what the wife liked, this is just an example). The couple’s audience didn’t care about her shopping. They wanted to know about her health, or they wanted to see what a great couple this is to make them feel good about sending assistance in some way. The couple used rhetoric to choose which components of their lives would appeal to their audience. They had no intention of showing the world who they were inside and out. For my person in question trying to make his own identity online, he could try and compose a good idea of himself, but even then he is left at the mercy of his audience. For example, maybe he posts a link to a republican article he really liked in order to further his association with conservative values, but a Facebook friend sees it and assumes he posted it because he has a tendency to hop on the bandwagon and only posted it because ten of his other friends did. Similar to a rhetorical situation, a person can make very educated guesses as to what the audience will interpret. However, nothing is certain, and therefore the person’s Facebook page (or blog or twitter) does not certainly show his correct personality. Also keep in mind that even if an audience rightly understands one trait of a person, there are bound to be fifty more that they might be wrong about. I don’t know any exact numbers, but statistically this doesn’t look good.
Overall, the man I’ve talked about (the one trying to create his persona via technology) could steer people in the right direction about who he really is. I’m not saying everyone is strangers online. However, in the end, nothing will beat the face-to-face relationships that people have valued for thousands of years. The Rainie and Wellman book claimed that the small social networks people used to have with a few important family members, friends, and neighbors are being replaced with loser, fragmented networks that are far more beneficial to society. I agree that these large social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have exponentially increased in presence, but those small social networks away from any electronic screen are never going to go away. Humans by nature need the closeness and support provided by knowing someone inside and out and not through a profile page.
Rainie and Wellman's Networked-The New Social Operating System