Perception and the Internet

Perception distinguishes us as individuals. What I perceive varies from another based on my previous experiences and influences. It is the reason two people raised in the same environment in the same way can have very different perspectives. There is perception as an individual as well as social perception. Social perception is defined on psychwiki.com as, “…the process of forming impressions of individuals. The resulting impressions that we form are based off of information available in the environment, our previous attitudes about relevant stimuli, and our current mood. Humans tend to operate under certain biases when forming impression of other individuals.” Social media is a unique scenario where individual and social perception is distorted by anonymity on the internet.

When I meet a stranger a social setting, my perception is based on my individual biases. My biases include a multitude of experiences over the course of my life. I’ve had a negative experience in my childhood with a girl named Erin, who had blonde hair and green eyes. As a teen, I knew of another girl named Erin who was a bully to my cousin. As an adult, I was lied to by a woman named Erin who had brown hair and brown eyes. When I meet a woman in the grocery store, my first perception is based on my bias of her appearance. She has brown hair and green eyes, like myself, and gives a warm smile as she approaches me. My immediate perception is that she is like me, and I am a likable person, so there is no immediate negative perception. When she introduces herself as Erin, my negative bias I associate with the name “Erin” floods my perception.

The distortions of perception within the realm of social media are also filled with personal bias. My Facebook “friends” include my immediate family members, my extended family, friends I went to school with, friends I’ve met as an adult, frequent acquaintances, and even some strangers I’ve never met in person. When I post a status update, it is based on my individual perceptions and bias. To my list of “friends”, their individual bias floods their social perception of me.

This social perception of me is based on individual bias, and potentially, by complete strangers. The lines of social perception get even more blurred when the arena is more public and fewer people actually know you. Getting to know a person takes time and effort, but social media has created a sense of time and effort that is nonexistent in connecting socially.

I attempted a social experiment on Facebook to get a greater sense of how I am perceived online and why. I used a “Vague-book” (a term used for a vague Facebook status) post stating, “I’m irritated.” In actuality, I was not irritated, but I believed I would have more people comment on that than something more cheerful (my own perception). I asked for my Facebook “friends” to message me what they believe I was irritated about and why they came to their conclusions. I had five “friends” message me their thoughts, and it was enlightening.

The first message I received was from my aunt. She has known me my whole life, not just as a child, but I have spent quality time together with her as an adult with my children. She believed I was irritated about something that was out of my control based on her own experiences of feeling irritated when something is out of her control.

The second message was from a friend I went to school with for six years. Our social interactions with each other extend only to our childhood, but we are now both married and have children. She first said she thought I may be irritated with my husband. I was curious why she would believe my husband to be the source of my irritation since she had never met my husband. At some point, she read a status of mine which mentioned my husband that sounded irritated, and based on her own experiences, husbands can be irritating. She then went on to say that my husband was actually her second thought. Her first thought was that I was irritated with her for not completing something she told me she would complete. She internalized the status believing she was the source of my irritation.

The third person thought my husband was the source of my irritation. She knows both myself and my husband and we have all spent many hours together interacting. She knows that it is less likely for me to be irritated with my children or something out of my control than my husband.

The fourth person is a distant relative. I have only met with her in person a handful of times, but when I interact with people, I am usually an open book. I am also very honest, sometimes to a fault. During our interactions, if I was having a problem with a family member, I would explain in great detail. She can also read what I post on my Facebook and what my family posts on Facebook to come to some conclusion. She thought I was referring to one of the following: bullying, my mother, or one of my sisters. I thought hers was one of the most interesting conclusions since it is not only based on what I say on my Facebook posts, but what my family members say on theirs.

The fifth was the most interesting to me since I know this person the least. Her and I know each other through a softball league we had been on together several years ago. Our social interactions were on the field and in the dugout, and we would go out for drinks after the game with the rest of our team. Since then, our only interactions have been on Facebook. She thought one of the following was the source of my irritation: someone who doesn’t live up to being the person you thought they were or someone who isn’t doing right by their kids. She elaborated how she came about her conclusions. For the first conclusion, she remembered a post I wrote about people being true friends. For the second conclusion, she said she knows my children are my world.

Through this little social experiment, I have learned quite a bit about perception on the internet. The post itself didn’t even need to be as vague as I had for a perception of me to be formed. Social perception happens all the time without taking into consideration the impact of the words you choose and the pictures you post and the comments you make on others’ posts. Much of that perception is completely out of your control. I can’t control what my sister writes about me on her own Facebook page, and I may never even know she wrote something, but a mutual friend or family member may take a mental note at that particular point forming a bias.

What happens is much like a game of phone tag, but there isn’t just one cord, there’s tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, millions… depending on your privacy settings, or the social media you are using. Imagine the game of phone tag with 20 people, you are the one to say something to start, and somewhere down the middle of the line, that person runs off and begins another game with 20 people, and again and again and again… This is social media.

The answer isn’t to stop using social media. Social media has many great qualities and can be used with purpose. Being mindful of what you post and how it’s worded is your best chance at giving a decent perspective of yourself. Everyone has bad days, and sometimes, just saying it makes you feel better. In those instances, call a trusted friend or family member. Writing a status about the issue emblazons in the mind of your social network a perception of you that may not be who you are at all.

Commenting on a post on a public page can come back to haunt you with people who know you, but can be even worse when there are few people who actually know you reading your words, especially if you are sarcastic. Take the recent case of 19 year old Justin Carter as example. He had commented on a public Facebook page, and someone called him crazy. He sarcastically wrote, “Yeah, I’m so crazy, I’m gonna shoot up a school full of kids. JK LOL” This comment of his landed him in jail, and he is awaiting trial—for terrorism. He was reported by a stranger who read that comment and took it at face value. His mother is petitioning his release on change.org. I have not signed, and I remain conflicted on the justice of the case.
In one respect, I can understand his being sarcastic and he may never have pondered acting on his sarcasm. On the other hand, I also see the good in prevention of the potential act. He may have written “jk lol” (just kidding, laughing out loud), but what if he was serious and my calling the police could mean the difference between the life and death of innocent children? At 19, I’ve likely spouted many things I thought, but would never act on. The consequences of my choice of words never crossed my mind at 19. This isn’t just a teenager’s problem, though.

Recently, a friend shared a picture that showed up in my Facebook News Feed with the name and location of a convicted child molester. It was a warning for parents in the area to be aware of this man’s presence. He was convicted and was registered as a sex offender, so there was no speculation. I have many dark thoughts about sexual offenders when there are children involved; thoughts that I may tell a close friend or family member who knows me well, but never to a complete stranger. When I read the comments, I was both horrified and fascinated with what was written by both men and women, some twice my age. There were some very descriptive ways of how the child molester should be killed.

All I could imagine is if this man was murdered in one of the many descriptive ways, that person(s) may be suspected of murder based on a Facebook comment. Can you imagine? On a lazy evening in June, while checking your Facebook, you make a comment that seems insignificant at the time. It was just a moment in time and may have been just one of 20 comments you made on Facebook that day. A homicide detective shows up at your home 6 months later while your children play in the background. They ask about a comment you made on Facebook in June. Do you even remember what you wrote? When the detective mentions the child molester, you recall the picture, but can’t remember what you said. Do you remember where you were in November the night he was murdered the exact way you described? Is there anyone to confirm your alibi?
Many commentators were adults old enough to know words have meaning, so why would they write it? They used their real names to comment, so it isn’t about the idea of anonymity online. My belief is that when others commented first, there seemed to be agreement about this one common person to hate, and the comments became more and more horrific. It was as if there was camaraderie between these strangers, with a virtual pat on the back (“likes”) the more graphic the description, and it escalated with each commentator.

Perception is blurred anywhere you turn online. It is a virtual perception of your social self. It is hard to distinguish reality in the virtual world of social media. There is no tone to distinguish what is being read. There are opinions and inferences gathered by others with every stroke of the keyboard or Swype of a smart phone. Information is gathered about you through others and stirred with your own words. A good or bad perception of you can become completely out of your control. You are best perceived by your social circle when that circle is connected in reality, not just virtually.

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