Who do you think I am? Chances are you've already made up your mind

If we are products to be sold, then social media is the world’s largest market place

15 May 2013, Germany --- (ILLUSTRATION) An illustration dated 15 May 2013 shows a boy looking at the Facebook website on his laptop in Leichlingen, Germany. A comprehensive study on the topic of bullying among children and young people online and on social media networks has been released in Cologne. Photo: OLIVER BERG --- Image by © Oliver Berg/dpa/Corbis
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How can I, in 160 characters or less, tell the world who I am? What should I focus on and what should I leave out? Which language should I use? These are some of the questions faced by anyone who has ever drafted a Twitter bio. Other social media platforms offer similar challenges and this information increasingly shapes the impressions people form of us. From potential employers to future spouses, our online personas can create lasting first impressions.

Once a yuppie mantra, the phrase “sell yourself” has been uttered so frequently that it now borders on cliché. The advice, however, has been widely heeded and those particularly keen on selling themselves might even take courses in impression management, mastering the dark arts of ingratiation (love me), intimidation (fear me) and supplication (help me).

If we are products to be sold – we aren’t – then social media is by far the world’s largest market place. Depending on what we want to achieve, our online profile (sales pitch) can be hugely influential. For example, in a study of Zoosk, an online dating site, it found that men who included smiley emoticons in their profile summaries received 12 per cent fewer responses to the messages they sent out to women. Those whose profiles included the wink emoticon received even less interest (66 per cent fewer responses).

Instinctively, like intuitive detectives, we review social media profiles, rapidly forming judgements and opinions about their owners. From the profile picture to the number of followers the user has, a thousand little clues are automatically processed to provide us with an instantaneous, and very often inaccurate, first impression: narcissist, loser, tree-hugger, wifey.

If we assume that the average social media user wants to be relatively authentic, presenting a somewhat honest view of themselves, then their online biography represents a tiny window into their self-concept – who they think they are and how they see themselves. For psychologists, this is a goldmine.

Psychologists have studied self-concepts for decades. Much of this research has used a simple test known as the 20 statements task. Developed in the 1950s, this test asks people to complete a sentence beginning "I am ...", 20 times. The resulting statements are then analysed and the individual’s self-concept can be categorised to make predictions about their values and behaviour.

One of the major categorical distinctions identified by self-concept researchers is the different frequency with which people describe themselves regarding either personal or social attributes – the me versus we orientation. Personal attributes include things such as traits (strong, humble, muscular) as well as likes, dislikes and individual achievements (bibliophile, xenophobe, beauty queen). Conversely, social attributes include things such as relationships (mother, father, daughter) and group memberships (nationality, religion, profession).

When these distinctions have been looked at across cultures, individuals from eastern or collectivist societies have tended to emphasise relatively more social attributes, while their western counterparts have tended to place greater emphasis on the personal. The same kind of analytic techniques have been applied to social media profiles and similar cross-cultural patterns emerge.

Being able to broadly assess the cultural orientation of a population based on social media bios has important implications for marketing. For example, knowing people’s values helps advertisers know exactly which buttons to press. It’s not hard to imagine a computer algorithm that can quantify various aspects of your personality from your social media profile and then tailor a message to your “type”.

Ironically, the information we generate to “sell ourselves” is possibly being used to sell us things. However, we are still at the dawn of the information age and the full implications of social media and big data – for better or worse –  are still being contemplated. Emerging disciplines such as data science and cyber psychology will undoubtedly play a big role in helping us navigate, explore and exploit our increasingly digitised lives. The UAE’s universities are embracing this challenge.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University