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Facebook Faux Pas: Awkward! Or Maybe Not

Survey found those intent on putting best face forward were likelier to feel bad about online miscues

THURSDAY, Dec. 26, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- If you spend much time on Facebook untagging yourself in unflattering photos and embarrassing posts, you're not alone.

A new study, however, finds that some people take those awkward online moments harder than others.

In an online survey of 165 Facebook users, researchers found that nearly all of them could describe a Facebook experience in the past six months that made them feel awkward, embarrassed or uncomfortable. But some people had stronger emotional reactions to the experience, the survey found.

Not surprisingly, Facebook users who put a lot of stock in socially appropriate behavior or self-image were more likely to be mortified by certain posts their friends made, such as a photo where they're clearly drunk or one where they're perfectly sober but looking less than attractive.

"If you're someone who's more self-conscious offline, it makes sense that you would be online too," said Dr. Megan Moreno, of Seattle Children's Hospital and the University of Washington.

Moreno, who was not involved in the research, studies young people's use of social media.

"There was a time when people thought of the Internet as a place you go to be someone else," Moreno said. "But now it's become a place that's an extension of your real life."

And social sites like Facebook and Twitter have made it trickier for people to keep the traditional boundaries between different areas of their lives, Moreno said. In offline life, she said, people generally have different "masks" that they show to different people -- one for your close friends, another for your mom and yet another for your coworkers.

On Facebook -- where your mom, your best friend and your boss are all among your 700 "friends" -- "those masks are blown apart," Moreno said.

Indeed, people who use social-networking sites have handed over some of their self-presentation control to other people, said study co-author Jeremy Birnholtz, director of the Social Media Lab at Northwestern University.

But the degree to which that bothers you seems to depend on who you are and who your Facebook friends are, he said.

For the study, Birnholtz's team used flyers and online ads to recruit 165 Facebook users -- mainly young adults -- for an online survey. Of those respondents, 150 said they'd had an embarrassing or awkward Facebook experience in the past six months.

Some examples: The young woman who was tagged in a picture in which she was picking food from her teeth; the 20-year-old who skipped a mandatory meeting to go to a concert, then was caught because a friend tagged her in a post; the young man who was tagged in a picture at a party where he was obviously drunk.

But the level of distress these Facebook users felt depended partly on whether they were self-conscious types in general.

It also depended on the diversity of their Facebook network, Birnholtz said. If your network includes relatives and professional acquaintances, that image of your public drunkenness might not be so funny, he said.

On the other hand, people who reported more sophisticated Facebook skills were less bothered by awkward posts. These more savvy users, Birnholtz said, know how to untag themselves in posts or change their privacy settings so friends of friends, for example, cannot see what other users post on their timeline.

Birnholtz said the survey offered some Facebook lessons. "Be cautious about who you friend, and know what your privacy settings are," he said.

And for those who post a lot, Birnholtz suggested taking a moment to consider what you're sharing. "When you post something, try to imagine who will see it," he said. "Take that pause and remember that another person's colleagues might see it. Their family might see it."

Birnholtz said Facebook itself could help too -- for example, by creating pop-ups that give people an idea of the potential visibility of their posts.

For now, Moreno agreed that honing your Facebook skills -- especially when it comes to privacy settings -- is a wise move. And, she said, everyone should try to think before they post, although it can be hard to know what will offend or upset.

"We're all trying to figure out what Facebook etiquette is," Moreno said.

Moreno added, though, that Facebook should not be singled out among social-networking sites. "In the past couple years, we're seeing some really embarrassing stuff on Twitter," she said.

The findings are scheduled to be presented in February at the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, in Baltimore. Research presented at meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on young people's social-media use.

SOURCES: Jeremy Birnholtz, Ph.D., assistant professor, communication studies, and director, Social Media Lab, Northwestern University, Chicago; Megan Moreno, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor, pediatrics, University of Washington and Seattle Children's Hospital; Northwestern University, news release, Dec. 9, 2013
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