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Looking good on Facebook

23 April 2012 Inderscience

A European study of students using online social networking shows that users tend to make new connections via their own more attractive friends regardless of whether they are male or female.

Writing in the International Journal of Web Based Communities, Christina Jaschinski and Piet Kommers of the University of Twente, The Netherlands, explain how they have carried out a preliminary study to try and understand better how relationships develop online. "Social network sites have become essential for managing relationships in today's life," they explain. "Therefore, it is increasingly important for scientists to understand how impressions are formed and connections develop in the virtual world."

The advent of the so-called "Web 2.0", the interactive and sharing version of the world wide web, which includes blogs, video and photo sharing sites, social bookmarking, social media, microblogging sites, such as twitter, and online social networks including Google+ and Facebook, has enabled the sharing, connecting and collaboration of people all over the world with very little technological friction. This has grown considerably especially since the marketing of relatively inexpensive smart phones and the growth of broadband internet connectivity.

People meet, connect and interact in these online communities by using a profile as a representation of their identity, the team explains. Unfortunately, the formation of impressions about a person online almost entirely lacks non-verbal cues other than those based on their profile photo and the status and content of their friends' profiles. Users can control their photo, but not how it is perceived but more importantly they cannot control the profiles of other users. This latter point is not so different from the social networks we form offline, where a newcomer may judge a person based on the company they keep. At least offline the person has the opportunity to project themselves in a more comprehensive manner and deflect such judgements by their own actions and behaviour rather than just that of their friends and associates.

The team recruited 78 students who use perhaps the most popular online social network, Facebook, apparently fast approaching 1 billion users, to investigate how the attractiveness of Facebook friends affects the impressions formed of friends of friends by users. The study simply involved mocking up Facebook profiles and asking the students to carry out a "hot or not" type assessment based purely on the visual appearance of the user's profile photo within the page. The team found that someone is considered more likeable and seen as a potential friend when they are associated with good-looking friends.

The findings could have implications not only for social scientists hoping to understand these new modes of interpersonal behaviour but might also be used by companies and other organisations hoping to benefit from social networking applications. Additionally, the extension of traditional networking for marketing and job hunting offered by the online world is increasingly important and users are more aware of how they are creating an impression, good or bad, in the online world.

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