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Source: Natalie Pennington, 785-532-6874, natpen@k-state.edu
News release prepared by: Greg Tammen, 785-532-2535, media@k-state.edu

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

K-STATE GRADUATE STUDENT EXAMINES IDENTITY PERFORMANCE THROUGH FACEBOOK PICS

MANHATTAN -- If a picture is really worth a thousand words, what do pictures say about us, and more important, what can we make them say about us? Those are the questions one Kansas State University graduate student explored when it came to students and their pictures on Facebook, the social networking site.

For her latest study, Natalie Pennington, graduate student in communication studies, Springfield, Mo., monitored 20 K-State undergraduates' profiles for two months, noting what pictures the students posted and took down and the reasons for these actions. All participants ranged in age from 18-23, with the majority being 18- to 19-year-old females. Pennington had no prior personal connection to the students.

"I felt kind of like a Facebook stalker since I didn't know any of these people except through their pictures," she said.

Pennington said the students weren't dissuaded from posting questionable material despite giving her -- a total stranger -- their consent to study them.

She found the participants, especially in the younger age range, rarely untagged -- removed -- pictures of themselves engaging in illegal behavior or striking provocative poses for the camera. These pictures often portrayed underage drinking or the students in a sexual position. If a picture was untagged, students told Pennington it was not because of who might see it, but because the image was unflattering or didn't represent the image students had of themselves.

"A lot of these digital natives, or net generation -- that is, people 18-28 -- are used to living in a very connected world because they grew up with the Internet and technology. They're used to cameras being everywhere today, and they just don't think about it," Pennington said.

"In other Facebook studies I've done, I used to notice that people would remove those controversial or risque pictures of themselves because they didn't want their boss or their family or anyone to see them; they tried to make them disappear. These younger people aren't concerned about who sees this information," she said.

Although privacy settings can be selected to filter which content can be seen by strangers, most of the time these setting were left unchanged, allowing strangers like herself to view all the pictures and posted information about the individual, Pennington said. This led to the title of her study, "The No Consequences Generation."

Pennington also found most students chose one a main profile picture based on what they thought conveyed attractiveness.

Females typically use pictures strictly of their face, and often turned their head at an angle because they feel it showcases more flattering features while downplaying negative ones, like ear size or puffy cheeks. Pennington said the females surveyed also believe an angled photo conveys a quirky nature -- a quality they find attractive.

"If a female chose to display a shot of her entire body, she was often in a provocative pose," Pennington said. This included shots of girls with their shoulder forward and giving the camera a suggestive look. One girl's profile even had a picture of herself in a risque position on a pool table.

Males primarily use pictures of themselves in action or with a group of people. This conveys a sense of fun and spontaneity that guys believe is an attractive quality, Pennington said.

"And then there's what I call the 'old faithful' picture," she said. "It's that one picture that they love, and it's never current. I found the reason they keep going back to it is because they like they way they look in it."

This behavior, Pennington said, is called performance of identity.

"People want to be thought of in a particular way. We are all performing at all times, so we're conveying a particular identity to people in all instances," she said.

"What Facebook becomes is a way to craft that identity perfectly. No longer do we have to act it out in person and play that role to an extra degree, because now we're sitting at a computer and posting it and making it what we want it to be in an ideal situation. It then becomes an idealized self that we broadcast to our friends, strangers and the online world," Pennington said.

Pennington plans to continue exploring how users craft their identity online by next looking at the profiles of users 30 and over. In the few profiles she has already observed for that generation, she said the users have mostly posted material from their younger years when they were in their heyday.

Pennington is a May 2010 master's graduate in communication studies.