Social Networks: Digital Personalities and Styles of Affiliation

Social Networks: Digital Personalities and Styles of Affiliation.More than 800 million people, in the world, own a “profile” on the most popular social networks, like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter. In Italy the success we had in 2010 when Facebook had 14 million registered members, to count until the end of 2011 more than 21 million users (Oss.Vincos, 2011). With these numbers, social networks are one of the most influential inventions of the last decade.
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The First Research

In 2003 Mark Zuckenberg has put online the first draft of what would become a global phenomenon, the everyday life of people, their communication and their social interactions have changed appearance. The “Social Media” are on platforms where users present themselves to the world, managing their social network and their identity. The first definition of the elements that distinguish these websites, you have two North-American academics who introduce the term “Social Network Sites” (SNS) (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). The definition of Boyd & Ellison (2007), the SNS allow users: 1) to create a public or semi-public profile, within a closed system; 2) to create a list of other users with whom to share a link; 3) refer to their list of contacts and one created by others within the system.

What differentiates these new media by chat, blogs or forums is your ability to make  visible and usable on their own social network. Facebook was born with the aim of maintaining a contact network among students who shared their own experience at Harvard University (Ellison, 2007). Social Media allows us to relate to our real friends and expand social network to people who have never met, overcoming the constraint of face to face. Faced with an increase and an impact so significant, questions arise spontaneously: “What motivates people to join Facebook?”; “Does this large quality of information tell us something of real life and how to be people?”; “Are there adverse psychological and behavioural consequences in real life?”. This review aims to seek answers to these legitimate questions.

If you type on Google Scholar the word “Facebook”, 2,590,000 articles and citations appear in very few seconds; this shows that the interest on the virtual personality, behaviors of digital natives and the use of social network has spread quickly, increasingly being studied for different research areas (psychology, marketing, computing, etc.). Early research that we analysed have tried to explain what are that motivations that drive so many people to join Facebook or other SNS. The ability to offer very different opportunities, seems to be one of the first explanations of  success of social networks. Some researches that have been based on Maslow’s needs theory (1954) have shown that social networks can help its users to meet most of  these needs. Among them there are: security needs (e.g. in Facebook the people with whom you communicate are only “friends” and not strangers); associative needs  (with the friends I can talk, share photos, and exchange opinions); the estimated needs (you can choose the “friends” but I, in turn,  can be chosen by others; so many I choose if I grow my self-esteem); and the needs of self-realization (I can tell how  myself and I can also use my skills to help someone) (Riva, 2008).

All the success of Facebook can not be explained with this hypothesis. According to recent research conducted by some psychologists of the IULM University and Catholic University of Milan (Cipresso, Mauri et al., 2011), social networks have the ability to produce optimal experiences defined as “Flow”, which are able to supply an intrinsic reward to their users. According to the theory of Csikzentmihalyi (1988), the flow is the state in which everything is in harmony with our decisions: is a state that requires passion, creativity and the full involvement of the best skills of the person. The optimal experience that lives depend directly by those who perpetrate, not only because you become protagonists of what you’re doing but because it is totally involved in the activity to the point that nothing else can be distracting at the time. In Flow an individual is able to eliminate any thoughts and concerns, to identify totally with the task, until you lose all sense of  time and the therapy appearance of basic physical needs.

Very often in stories of people, for example, athletes who experience the flow there are expression like: “I realize the flow of hours that I had skipped lunch”; “ I was so immersed in what I was doing that time has flown away”. These expression we may well hear even among Facebook users, anyone with a profile will have at least once experienced this feeling. The motivation to create a Facebook profile and use it consistently, if it can be born from curiosity, then you keep by the intrinsic pleasure, to the feeling of involvement and absorption that users try going online. Another reason that drives people to join a social network, references to personal need to leave a trace of itself. This need has always been a necessity inherent in all human beings, in all historical periods. If you used the portraits, today we use the social network pages. Once the portraits gave a sense of eternity and it provided a lot of information of the subject depicted (character, ambitions, social status), so, today, Facebook profiles can provide the psychological traits, interests and many information of their owners. For this much research (Quercia et al., 2011; Gosling et al., 2011) that we have analized users’ personality, coming to understand that all information, online activities can tell us something of real personality of each, as they build a kind of historical memory of its activities.

Mark Zuckenberg recently seems to have understood the tendency of users to leave a sign of their history and their passage in the virtual world. For this reason, he has modified the look of Facebook introducing a novelity, called: Timeline. Timeline is a sort of  “open diary” that will allow the users’ noticeboard to preserve not only the latest updates, but to explore facts and news about a specific period. The profile became a real diary in which you choose the cover photography and where all friends can see a store divided for years to review what has been written and published in a given period. Zuckenberg says that: “Timeline is the story of your life” and thanks to this tool, you can probably open new investigations on personality of users.

Personality and Social Networks

In the process of creating a profile, people reveal a lot about themselves, through what they share with their network friends (photos, interest, link, etc.), through to what they write (self-descriptions, status updates, etc.). All this information reveals something about the personality traits of subjects. If I knew really how to predict online profiles and describe the individual personality, Social Network could become an important source of information which would help to understand the behavior of individuals in the real world (Golbeck, Robles & Turner, 2011).

The users’ personality has become the subject of study by many researches: some have analized if there are similarities between the online and offline personality (Back et al., 2010; Gosling et al., 2011), others have noted the influence of personality of the way of using the Social Network (time spent online, sharing photos, post, etc.) (Quercia et al., 2011; Gosling et al., 2011). n most research, the relation between real world personality and social networks have been studied using a personality test called “Big Five” (Costa & McCrae, 1992), consisting of item 132. The Costa and McCrae model identifies five key dimension for the description and evaluation of an individual’s personality:

1- Openness (openess to experience vs not open to experience)
2- Conscientiousness (Conscientiousness vs Unconscientious)
3- Extraversion (Extraversion vs Introversion)
4- Agreeableness (Agreeableness vs Disagreeable)
5- Neuroticism (Emotional stability vs Neuroticism)

The Five-Factor model has always been a point of reference for researchers dealing with personalities, but the Big Five questionnaire was not always the best tool to be used. In some contexts, where the time available is short, the Big Five appeared too long and challenging. For overcoming these limits, Gosling, Rentfrow and Swann (2003) have created two new questionnaires that investigate the five dimensions of personality; the “Five Item Personality Inventory”  (FIPI) composed by 5 items and the “Ten Item Personality Inventory” (TIPI), composed by 10 items. The researchers evaluated the psychometric characteristics (test-retest reliability, convergent and discriminate validity) of  both tests, comparing them whit the Big Five Inventory. The result shows that both tests have appropriate levels of reliability and validity; particularly  the Ten Item Personality Inventory (TIPI) seems to have better psychometric properties than the Five Item Personality Inventory (FIPI). Although TIPI is a good test, the researchers argue that it has some limitations and benefits that you should know before using. An important limitation is evident in the phase of  interpretation.  Because of  its brevity, you can only get an overview of the subject’s personality, losing all the nuances that characterizes a given subject. However, the first benefit concerns the possibility of extending the field of study of the Big Five in all contexts which we require a brief assessment. Finally, the test doesn’t present redundant items. This aspects eliminates the frustration that people might try to respond to similar questions repeatedly.

In scientific research has included the TIPI in a battery of test, to analyze relationship and similarities between the online and offline individual’s personality (Back et al.,2010; Gosling et al., 2011). Specifically, the study by Back and collaborators (2010) sought to understand whether the users tend to show others their true personality or idealized self on their profile. About this theme in literature is present a debate; on the one hand there are those who support the idealized virtual-identity hypothesis (Manago et al., 2008), on the other side are those who support extended real-life hypothesis (Vazire & Gosling, 2004; Ambay & Skowronski, 2008). According to idealized virtual-identity hypothesis, the profile owners display idealized characteristics that do not reflect their actual personalities. A contrasting view, the extended real-life hypothesis, support that social networks may constitute an extended social context in which to express one’s actual personality characteristics, thus fostering accurate interpersonal perceptions. Social networks integrate various sources of personal information that mirror those found in personal environments, private thoughts, facial images and social behavior (Vazire & Gosling, 2004; Ambay & Skowronski, 2008).

Back and collaborators administered the TIPI and NEO Five Factor Inventory to a sample of 236 users (ages 17-22 years), from the most popular social networks in United States and Germany. The results of this study show that subjects don’t use social networks to promote an idealized image of himself, but the online profile is a great way to express and communicate their real personalities. Also in 2002 the American psychologist, Kately McKenna , has shown that people are more willing to reveal their true self on the social networks, more than they are in real life. This is because within a network of “friends” they can share their thoughts and emotional reactions with a lower risk of disapproval or social sanction.

In the national and international literature, the Big Five has always been the primary tool for research who analyzed the influence of personality on using the social networks and online behaviors. Several studies showed that subjects, with a high levels of Neuroticism, tend to use the Internet to avoid loneliness (Butt & Philips, 2008) , they providing accurate personal information on their profile (Amichai-Hamburger, Wainpel & Fox, 2002). Members with high levels of Extraversion seem to be linked to greater ease in the use of social networks, to a positive perception with regard the usefulness and opportunities that create these sites (Acar & Polonsky, 2008; Scrammel et al., 2009; Selfhout et al., 2010) and to greater group membership (Ross et al., 2011); while low levels of extraversion are related to use of social networks only to communicate (Amichai-Hamburger, Wainpel & Fox, 2002). A work of Selfhout (2011) argues that individuals, with high levels of Amability, select friends, choosing the most similar to them for niceness, extraversion and openness to experience. Finally, the Openness seems to be associated with interest to new media and thus increase their use (Butt & Philips, 2008); while high levels of Conscientiousness are related to poor use of social networks and a more control in everything that is posted or shared on your profile.

From these analyzes it seems that online behaviors may be a clear and useful tool for understanding the real personality of the users. The relationship between personality and social networks can be a starting point for new and useful insights that may interest different areas of investigation, for example clinical psychology, forensic psychopathology and marketing psychology.

Facebook vs Twitter

Facebook and Twitter are the most popular social networks, despite being created for different purposes. Although many studies have focused on the analysis of  the Facebook users, there are still few studies that observe the personality and behavior of Twitter users, but in the future also Twitter is destined to become a fertile field of investigation. Before presenting one of the first studies that has analyzed personality of Twitter users, it is important to understand what differentiates these two great social networks (Facebook vs Twitter). Twitter is a micro-blogging site on which users send and read short messages (up to 140 characters) called tweets. In general, tweets are publicly visible and are followed by subscribers called “followed”, but they can to be individual, that is directed to a specific users.

There are some big differences between Facebook and Twitter:
– Timeline vs Real Time. Facebook looks to the past;  Twitter looks to the present. With Timeline, Facebook has become even more personal because it has an archive of memories, thoughts, pictures of places, etc. Twitter only lives in the present, the tweets survive for a limited time, and their purpose is to inform users.
– Followers are not friends, are people with whom you have shared interests or celebrities. The followers are not necessarily know, on the contrary of Facebook if you want to follow what someone else shares, you must first become “friends”.
– Twitter is defined a  “new media”: informal, immediate, perfect for giving a news. Facebook is slower, it is ideal for celebrations, to share laughter and tears with friends.
– The privacy is very important in Facebook, while Twitter is public , open and transparent; the ideal place for business, for those who want to keep update and for those who want to create new professional contacts.

Recent research conducted by Quercia (2011) study the relationship between the big five personality traits and five types of Twitter users: Listeners (those who follow many users), Popular (those who are followed by many), Highly-read (those who are often listed in others’ reading lists), and two groups of Influentials (in the first group, called “Klout”, it counts how many times users have clicked, replicated and propagated tweets. In the second group, called “TIME”, is observed as users prove popular on Twitter and Facebook, combining the number of Twitter followers and the number of Facebook social contacts). Researchers recruited subjects for their sample from a Facebook application called “myPersoanlity”. MyPersonality is now become an app for iphone, ipod touch and ipad. In this application, each person may complete a psychological test (the Big Five) that helps to know themselves and other very quickly. After compiling the test, the application processes through a graphical profile of the subject’s personality that can be shared on the Facebook wall and on the Twitter page. About the app that can be downloaded from iTunes, each peoples can also compare  his/her results with those of his/her girlfriend/boyfriend or his/her friends. Is important to note that through access to myPersonality on Facebook, become visible all information contained on the profile.

Thanks to this possibility, Quercia and collaborators consider all user who specified their twitter accounts on their Facebook profiles, verified the matching between Facebook and Twitter accounts. In this way created a sample of 335 Twitter users (52% of women and 48% of men). Analyzed the relationship between personality traits and types of Twitter users, researchers obtained significant result:

– There are important personality similarities and differences among different types of  Twitter users. All users types (listeners, popular, highly-read and influential users) are emotionally stable (low in Neuroticism), and most of them are extrovert. Particularly the Listeners and Popular users seem to have high levels of Extraversion, which allows them  to communicate and maintain relationships with friends; while those show high levels in Neuroticism report less satisfaction with the support received by their social networks.
The Highly-read users present have positive correlations with Openness. Openness is generally associated with imagination and spontaneity. The Influentials users are prone to have high levels in the trait of Conscientiousness. This traits is associated with descriptive terms such as ambitious and persistent.

– The results showed that users who use Twitter are older than those who use Facebook . This may be accentuated by the fact that Twitter is a tool much used by professional.

– An important insight is that user personality can be easily and effectively predicted from public data. This could be an interesting finding in particular for marketing psychology, because the studies have shown that there is a relationship between marketing strategies and consumers’ personality (Odekerken-Schroder et al., 2003; Whelan & Davies, 2006); for this reason a company on Twitter could select the ads and advertisements to which user is likely to be most receptive.

The set of information about users, their way of presenting, status updates, the number of friends, their degree of popularity are certainly an important resource to understand the personality of the people who spend part of their time in the world of Social Networks. For some researchers, a new goal seems to be able to develop personality profiles only through information derived from the account (Golbeck et al., 2011). To do this one could use some software of linguistic analysis (eg, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) which can help us to predict personality traits by analyzing what people write online (Pennebaker, 1999; Mairesse et al., 2007; Golbeck et al., 2011), or by developing algorithms and statistical analysis (Golbeck et al., 2011).


This analysis indicates that Social Networks are a fascinating world, full of ideas for all those who are concerned with the individual and his behavior. The union of more knowledge can help to better understand all the changes of the individual and society, as well as the potential of these tools possess and the dark sides that hide. Before concluding, we can’t overlook one important aspect; if it is true that social media may be new opportunities in many ways and in many sectors, we must also be aware that they are able to create new problems. Among the negative aspects of the social networks you can also hide a range of dysfunctional behaviors, such as the change of identity, aggressive behavior (stalking), the violation and abuse of information (identity thieves).

A feature of Social Networks is to create an environment in which the real world merges with the virtual world; an environment in which people can manage their social identity and their network of contacts. Riva (2008) argues that this environment brings the person to create a “fluid identity” , which is flexible and precarious, unpredictable and uncertain. If for an adult can be an advantage to have a fluid identity, for a teenager who is trying to build its own, this can become a problem. In particular, the process of identity construction could be slowed and you could replace the stability of the future in an eternal and no certain present.

There isn’t doubt that social relations have undergone a great change, with the advent of social media. The concept of “friendship” in the virtual world is totally different from what you have in the real world. In real life friendship between two people has a dimension of intimacy, which reveal personal aspects, because it has confidence. This dimension is lost in social networking; friendship becomes a public report and superficial. Often we become “friends” of people who even know, just to increase the number of contacts, so feeling important. In this way the relationship isn’t mediated by the body, that is an important reference point in the process of learning and understanding of emotions, and thus risk falling an “emotional illiteracy” with effects that may also affect the behavior, ranging from emotional neglect to psychopathy (Riva, 2008).

There are still few direct studies  to evaluate these issues through Social Networks, but it is believed that regarding psychology and in particular forensic psychopathology, we must begin to consider this source of information. Never as today, and even more in the future, a Facebook profile, who is aiming to become more and more like a “secret diary”, may be a tool which psychologists, and not only, can and should exploit. Facebook is a sort of calling card, an element that seems to become essential as it has become the phone. At any time people feel the need to share what they are doing, what they think, to know where and with who they are. on Facebook you can try and laugh, you can write things that in real life you can’t say because the network hasn’t limits of time, space and thought. If, as research has shown, it is true online, you can’t miss a Facebook account if you work with people. Twitter will become a preferred tool of communication for companies that want to communicate effectively to their consumers. The sharing of links and products is a very popular on Social Networks, the consumer’s role is being transformed from passive consumer (eg. television viewer) who create or modify existing content according to their needs, it becomes an “Author-comment” which discusses the products and share their thoughts with friends (Riva, 2008). It’s also why Twitter is now the instrument of choice for reporters, TV personalities and business men who want to spread news.

Dr. Samantha Bernardi
Forensic psychopathologist

Dr. Ambrogio Pennati
MD, Psychotherapist
Forensic psychopathologist
R&D Director, FreeDataLabs, Milano


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