The way you feel about yourself is often discussed as a relatively stable personality trait, but it’s important to remember that self-esteem isn’t self-contained. It can be seen as a mechanism for information exchange between yourself and the environment.
The self-esteem you display acts as a medium through which you transmit your qualities or status (or the one you’d like to have) to the world.*
What birds, insects, and other animals accomplish with displays of colors and body position, you accomplish with your posture, manner of speech, and eye contact. Then, by observing others’ responses to you, you receive a clue about how the world views your qualities or status, and are affected emotionally.
Just shifting from an inward-focused, subjective awareness of yourself to the awareness of your objective, observable presentation has an impact on how you act and feel about yourself. Self-esteem researchers have found that the presence or absence of a mirror nearby influences the way people behave when faced with an ethical dilemma: when a mirror is present, even if no one else is around, people tend to act more ethically.
It’s as if a glimpse of themselves as others see them triggers a comparison with social ideals. At the same time, people’s self-esteem also tends to decrease in the presence of mirrors, perhaps because we rarely measure up to that universe of ideals.
In the modern era, we have electronic means of conveying status and receiving information about our value to others, in the form of social media. We can literally broadcast a “status update,” upload a picture, or make a comment. In a previous article, I discussed the concept of “impression management,” which concerns the way people influence others’ opinions of them by expressing or withholding aspects of themselves.
On social media, the tools you need to curate your preferred self-presentation are readily available. You don’t need to upload unflattering photos, and you can choose to share only the wittiest and most insightful thoughts you have, and not the scary ones that come in the dark of the night. You know, the ones that may leave you feeling decidedly un-witty, unconfident, and unworthy of others' approval?
But you also have the choice to share those, too, perhaps as a means—consciously or not—of presenting yourself as a humble, flawed, open book.
Strong and weak ties
Now, some studies show that spending time in online chat rooms and on social media sites like Facebook can relieve feelings of loneliness and depression, and improve self-esteem, by helping you to feel more socially supported. But, in real life or online, all social support is not equal.
Your social ties can be weak, as with acquaintances, or strong, as with close friends, family members, or other people who can offer you emotional support. If you’re like most people, your closest ties’ opinions of you matter most; you probably don’t care as much about what the passerby on the street thinks of you.
But, unless your group of online friends consists only of people with whom you are close in real life, there is probably a mixture of strong and weak ties receiving your latest update.
The big difference between in-person and online communication is the immediacy of the former, and the way it is geared toward, and received by, specific people. In person, people are generally more self-enhancing (focusing on their positive characteristics) with their weak ties than their strong ties, because their close contacts already know how great they are, and too much self-enhancement can seem arrogant.
But online, you have no way of knowing which ones, if any, of your Facebook friends will happen across the tidbit you’re sharing. This arms-length distance and mixture of strong and weak ties usually leads people to be self-enhancing in their online presentation.
Facebook and self-esteem
All of these factors produce some interesting results when self-esteem is examined in the context of social media usage. While people exposed to a cold, hard mirror may feel worse about themselves, one study found that people who spend time reviewing their own Facebook page enjoy improved self-esteem. The effect was even more pronounced for those who actively edited their profile during the experiment (much as a bird might preen its feathers).
Of course, this sort of self-referential Facebook use (auto-electronica?) only goes so far: the point is, after all, to enjoy the benefits of a social network. But it turns out that who you perceive your online audience to be makes a big difference in those benefits.
In another study, participants who were bearing their strong ties in mind while reading their news feed, or while contemplating the information that they were sharing with others, showed improved self-esteem compared to people focusing on mere acquaintances or the information that people were sharing with them.
In other words, when you know that you have intimate connections, and when you imagine that your portrayal of yourself is being consumed by them, you feel better.**
What you can do
These findings support much of what we already know about people’s (offline) social needs. Namely, that being attuned with people who care about you is deeply fulfilling. Also, that reflecting on your positive attributes, rather than your failures or embarrassments, is likely to help you feel better about yourself.
As for recommendations for your social networking activities, if you’d like to use Facebook as a means of maximizing your self-esteem, then your best bet is to get rid of your weak ties and spend time each session reviewing your homepage and imagining all of your real-life friends basking in your wonderfulness along with you.***
But then, seriously, after you’re done, turn off your computer for an extended period of time and instead spend it in person with those strong ties of yours. The benefits of wired connection notwithstanding, nothing will replace the face-to-face connection that you’re really wired to have.
* By status, I’m not talking about socioeconomic status, although that can certainly be part of it. I’m talking more broadly, about what researchers call your “relational value,” or the extent to which you’re accepted and valued by other people.
** Not only that, but those people with improved self-esteem showed reduced levels of self-control following their Facebook session, as manifested in higher rates of binge eating, overweight, and spending, and lower credit scores. (This isn’t surprising, because reduced self-control is often associated with higher self-esteem.)
*** However, given (**), if your primary concern is an impulsivity problem then beware of indulging in things following your Facebook session. Better yet, start adding more distant acquaintances to your friends list so that your close friends comprise a lower proportion of the total. What you’ll lose in self-esteem, hopefully you’ll gain in self-control. Extensive networks of weak ties aren’t a bad thing, either: they can help you expand your base of information and opportunities.