Does my Facebook personality mirror my “real” personality? I hope not.

Facebook vs. real-life behavior: the topic is sure to electrify marketers and market researchers trying to gain a better understanding of how to reach their customers online. A new study suggesting that your Facebook personality mirrors your general, offline personality has me ruminating.

If my real-world behavior mirrored my Facebook behavior, I’d only speak to people to wish them Happy Birthday or offer up a bit of hit-and-run self-promotion. I would ignore most of the people who spoke to me, really attending to just what my kids or nearest and dearest intimates were saying. I’d complain under my breath about people who wanted to talk to me even though I was completely indifferent to them, and roll my eyes whenever they said something inane. I’d zone out, walk away from them mid-sentence, and never reciprocate when they gave me a recipe or movie recommendation. I’d be an absolute boor.

Of course the psychologists at the University of Texas who authored this study would quite legitimately argue that they were examining personality type, not behavior. Within that constraint, this study may have some validity, especially when it comes to correlating extroversion to Facebook activity. After all, my Myers-Briggs profile has me on the cusp between Extrovert and Introvert, so it’s not surprising that I’m not especially gregarious online. But it’s through behavior – what people say and do, what affect they display – that we understand one another, develop empathy, and recognize our differences.

This little thought experiment reminded me of just how limited the range of available behaviors really is on Facebook. I get to know people through questioning – not a common or a comfortable behavior in a giant, quasi-public social network. I develop a sense of them over time by hearing their voices, noticing their body language and expression, appreciating how they spontaneously interact with others. Like a poor satellite television, Facebook transmits some of those moments, but the image is pixilated and partial, the transmission is intermittent, and my ability to absorb what’s coming through is greatly influenced by all the other distractions in the room.

While insight communities like those we run at Communispace are not free of these limitations, they certainly do enable a broader range of interactions and behaviors. I can pose questions and respond to the answers in a more direct, continuous way. I can watch members interact with one another, synchronously and asynchronously, through text and increasingly (and with their permission), through webcams. I can ask to virtually follow someone through a portion of a day or a process and they’ll help me do it, through media rich mobile ethnography tools. I can give community members my undivided attention, simply because there are fewer of them and there is more coherence in the collective dialogue. And perhaps most important to building a genuine bond, I can more thoroughly be myself with them by simply conversing, not by broadcasting myself. In short, I can be much less of a boor.

Man, if only I could go public with that

Image by Vassia Alaykova