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Why TMI in Online Profiles?

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Warning: Online Profiles Ahead

Do online profiles contain too much information? Why do people post things as personal as religious affiliation or favorite sexual position?

To understand this, perhaps you can take a moment to ask yourself: What defines me? Pick 5 general categories. Is it your religion? Your car model? The movies you watch?

Here’s a better question: What is the group activity where you spend the most time?

Do you play World of Warcraft for hours a day? Do you go to church once a week or are you at some church-sponsored activity almost every day? How much time a week do you spend in school?

Once you’ve answered these better questions about where and with whom you spend your time, check your Facebook (or other online networking) profile. Do your answers match your profile? Is your most common group activity listed? If not, I’ll bet you aren’t using that site very much, or you are generally uninterested in using it.

The majority of psychology research shows that our actions don’t necessarily match our belief systems. What we do, instead of what we believe, defines us. Many people will list their beliefs about themselves in their online profiles, but those beliefs don’t reflect where the person really spends their time. For example, your most common group activity shows your values. I spend a lot of my work and alone time reading or online. Those are very general categories, but they match my real interests. I don’t say this anywhere on Facebook. Why? Because I think in terms of what other people want to know when I fill out profile information. This may be (at least in part) why I use FB so little.

Online profiles are, in the current culture, statements of identity. Lots of serious works (Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely) and pop psychology books (Blink by Malcolm Gladwell) are written about how humans make judgments. The general consensus is that we take basic elements of situations and form impressions quite quickly. Why we do this (evolutionary reasons, social reasons) is up for more debate, but suffice it is to say that we make “snap” decisions.

Some people internalize the more common elements we use in this culture to make those snap judgments about people: Age, location, profession, religion. Since people use these elements most commonly to assess whether a person is friend or foe, individuals will adopt these vital stats as defining of themselves. In other words, what people believe about you is what you end up believing about yourself. This identification process takes place usually quite early and is pretty much basically solidified, on average, by the time a person is 18. Sure, we learn stuff, we get new jobs, etc., but our basic belief systems, locations, religions, etc., don’t change drastically.

By filling out an online profile in a more genuine way, based more on my actions instead of my beliefs, I’m more likely to find my common-belief cohorts and can more easily form groups and make alliances with similar folks. Forming social contacts is the essential element of the human condition, and the online profile is the main and most efficient step toward that end.

When people overfill their profiles, they are presenting their best image of themselves, whether or not it matches reality. When they offer too much information, they are either looking for similarly-minded individuals, fancy themselves shocking or perhaps are trying to prove their uniqueness. In the end, they are reaching out. They want to evoke the “I’m a Christian, too!” comment and then perhaps strengthen that connection.

Ask yourself again, honestly, where you spend your time. Track your time in a journal for a week if you don’t know. Are you a commuter? A bad sleeper? Where do you spend your freetime? If you are using social networking to find compadres, make sure you fill out the profiles based on your actions (e.g., I’ve seen Monty Python’s The Holy Grail 29 times but haven’t watched it since 1991) instead of your beliefs about yourself: (e.g. Active Monty Python Fan Club member), then your online networking will end up being more effective and satisfactory. The hard part is, noticing what you do and what you believe you do are two different things.

image via Molly Thornberg

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