“I’m so much cooler online…Yeah I’m cooler online…”
– Brad Paisley, Online
By David Patterson, Elizabeth Kuzmich, Francis Verhaegen, and Natalie Leopold
Why do they do it? Why do otherwise smart and savvy college and high school student post photos of themselves drinking and partying on Facebook and MySpace? To the right is just one. There are many more, some of them a lot more, um… revealing than this one.
Facebook/MySpace and the pictures posted on these websites represent a microcosm of social life. It is true that college students drink more often and in higher quantities than any other age group. Their lives include class, work, homework, club meetings…and partying. Many times, pictures of fraternity parties and keggers do not portray college students accurately. In other words, these students choose to portray only certain aspects of their lives on the Internet.
Thus, the pictures posted on Facebook/MySpace only represent some of these activities, specifically partying. For the same reason that website profiles of older adults often feature their wives and children, the profiles of college students feature what they believe is the most interesting, or ‘coolest,’ part of their life – having fun while partying and drinking.
Pictures of drinking and partying are interesting to their peers. The college social scene revolves around attending bars and fraternity parties. Just as the public looks to celebrities for cues on what to wear, where to go, and how to act, young adults look to their peers to see what are the best parties and activities, which are illustrated on Facebook/MySpace. It is unlikely that a college student would post a picture of himself or herself in the library or working at the ice cream shop.
Facebook/MySpace allows for the creation of new or altered identity and the presentation of this identity to others. Individuals can portray themselves as social, attractive, and popular by posting pictures of themselves surrounded by friends at a party. In theory, this makes them more desirable to the other sex and ‘cooler’ to their peers.
Examining the Profiles
In order to take a closer look at the prevalence of alcohol-related pictures in Facebook and MySpace profiles, 25 Facebook profiles and 25 MySpace profiles were randomly selected from a large pool of male and female individuals using a random numbers generator. The users’ ages varied from 17 to 25, essentially the average aged college students. From these profiles, the photo albums were inspected to determine whether they were alcohol or party related. Pictures containing beer cans, bottles, or handles of liquor or those taken in a bar or party setting or other miscellaneous drinking activities counted towards an “alcohol-related” picture or photo album.
Out of 50 profiles studied, males’ Facebook pictures have the most prevalent number of alcohol related pictures. More than 58% of the pictures of the males’ profiles studied contained pictures of alcohol, in either the background, or directly being consumed. Though a generous percentage was still present upon observing comparable males’ MySpace pages, the alcohol-related content decreased significantly, only accounting for approximately 32% of pictures. Female Facebook users’ profiles consisted of approximately 55.2% alcohol-related content. In a similar fashion, Female MySpace users’ pages contained approximately 55.9% alcohol-related content.
While it is difficult to come to a solid conclusion from this limited evidence of alcohol-related pictures, it does help support the hypothesis that young people in general tend to create their social identities through social networking profiles. A similar percentage of alcohol-related pictures were found in both male and female Facebook profiles, suggesting that both genders not only weigh their social identities with equal importance, but also that the creation of a strong social identity through pictures on a social networking profile is imperative.
A Digital Self
Creating a ‘digital self’ on Facebook, MySpace, or other social networking site often involves the posting of lewd, inappropriate, yet often amusing photos of oneself, one’s friends, one’s enemies, or random acquaintances, often within the context of the abusive drinking environments that are rife on college campuses.
While such photos may be hilarious and informative about one’s social life, we question whether they reflect negatively on one’s personality or character. In a study analyzing how people consider impression management in analyzing others, it was determined that “postings suggesting excessive drinking and philandering decreased favorable ratings of targets” (Haferkamp, Creating a digital self, pdf). We disagree with this statement, with a few exceptions, and maintain that in most cases such photos merely portray the lives and activities of the average college student, and as a result do not cast a negative shadow on one’s own personality.
For example, say a person posts a photo of his friends drawing graphic art on the passed out body of a friend or acquaintance. We would consider such a photo comical and applaud the person for brightening our day with sidesplitting laughter. On the other hand, say a person posts a video of a group of people sending a passed out friend into the middle of a pond on a small, half-inflated raft. While such an act may indeed be funny, it is also terrifyingly dangerous due to the possibility of drowning, and as such, we would not think favorably of those involved in this act.
The reasons for posting pictures of alcohol abuses include sharing personal life with distant friends who may not have first hand evidence of one’s drinking feats or blunders. Pictures give proof of participation in important college social rituals such as keg races, beer olympics, and the infamous beer bong.
Moreover, students don’t just represent their own lives. While comical for some, pictures are also often used to shame one’s enemies, or even friends, by presenting one’s most embarrassing and humiliating drunken displays.
Peer Relations and Identity Formation
Given our hypothesis about students choosing to represent certain aspects of themselves and their friends and enemies online, a subsequent question arises. Why do many teenagers exclude many aspects of their lives, including family, academics, and athletics, in their creation of new online identities?
Erik Erikson, an influential developmental psychologist, categorized the period of adolescence (12-18 years of age) as one of “Identity vs. Role Confusion”. In his theory, Erikson stipulates that in this stage of development, the teenager strives to create his or her own identity. Erikson asserts that the teenager’s formulation of their identity must, by default, be formed independently of their family to discover their individuality. In this manner, it is considered normal for teenagers to place greater emphasis on peer relations than familial relations during adolescence.
By spending more time with friends (especially as a student), it follows logically that teens spend less time with their family. It is this disparity of time allocation, combined with teens’ psychological distancing from their families, that often leaves the family dynamic out of teens’ online profiles. This psychological distancing could be part of the reason that online social networks have grown so rapidly; for many families who are not technologically savvy, teens who document their lives online are distancing themselves in arguably the most effective way possible.
Teenagers seem to leave academics out of their online identities for more basic reasons: academics are simply not considered “cool” by most teenagers and are perceived by almost all teens as a necessary evil, rather than as a means of enjoyment. In addition, academic endeavors are usually solitary, making studying a taboo activity to publicize during an age where teens feel the need to connect with peers.
Another important idea is what we dubbed the “camera effect”: pictures can only be taken where there is a camera to take them. While it is difficult to say whether the effect causes the amount of drinking pictures on social networking sites or is a result of the pictures, it is obvious that more people bring their cameras to parties than to the library.
The “camera effect” does not explain the disparity between party pictures and athletic pictures, however, as cameras are frequently at athletic events (though not at workouts). One rather obvious explanation is that participating athletes, who would presumably want the pictures, are preoccupied with the sport (Never have the words, “Fourth down can wait! We need a team picture!” been spoken).
The concept that encompasses all of the above explanations for teens’ online “party animal” alter egos is that partying is apparently the preferred, popular activity among teenagers. These pictures show them engaging in socially valued activities that mark them as an individual separate from their family and also separate from things they “have to do,” like go to class, study in the library, or work a part-time job.
In general, young adults won’t create an online identity that would reflect badly on them. While family, academics, and athletics do not project badly on the individual, they also do not distinguish a person in an immediate sense or are not easy to capture. With party pictures, teens and young adults create a popular image for consumption by their peers. These peers are involved in overlapping social networks – both online and in specific college and high school settings.
Ultimately, the creation of a more desirable identity and the specific representation of a microcosm of college students’ social life leads students to display and flaunt pictures of alcohol related feats, blunders, and abuses on MySpace and Facebook Internet profiles. We party, we drink, we have fun and we show this openly and proudly to the online community. Nonetheless, we need to examine consider the negative impact that such acts may have on youths and teens that are gaining more and more access to sites once restricted to persons over age 18.