BEHAVIOR
June 26, 2012

Facebook Photos as Cultural Symbols

What does your Facebook photo say about you? A recent study suggests it is a cultural indicator of the way you view yourself.

Your Facebook photo is how the online community gets their first impression of you, and it's well worth considering exactly what you want to show them. A new study suggest you’re your Facebook photo may say as much about the culture from which you come as it does about you. Taiwanese in particular and East Asians in general tend to select their photos differently from Westerners, preferring to put less emphasis on the face and more on the photo background.

Portraits in museums in the United States and East Asia also show this difference.

Westerners tend to focus more on specific objects such as the face, while Easterners tend to look at objects in a more contextual sense, seeing the face as a single part of the whole photo.

Analyzing Facebook photos of 100 students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (including 50 who were Taiwanese) and 100 students from the National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan (including 50 who were Americans), the researchers found a definite preference for close-ups among the Americans, with the face on average occupying 50% more of the photo space than for the Taiwanese.

The researchers attribute this to cultural differences, with Westerners being more individualistic and Taiwanese having a more collectivistic outlook. Westerners tend to focus more on specific objects such as the face, while Easterners tend to look at objects in a more contextual sense, seeing the face as a single part of the whole photo.

The Taiwanese also tended to smile less intensely, preferring not to show their teeth, unlike their Western counterparts.

The researchers also found a tendency for these preferences to change when people spend time in a foreign country: Americans attending school in Taiwan tended to reduce the size of their face in their Facebook photos. And Taiwanese attending school in Illinois tended to increase the size of their face, though the effect was much smaller than for the Americans in Taiwan.

To show that these results aren't simply limited to Taipei and Urbana, the researchers conducted a second study of over 300 photos from three East Asian countries (Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan) and three different U.S. cities (San Diego, Austin, and Berkeley). Results were similar to those of the first study.

When you think of your Facebook photo, your main concern is probably your face. The study shows that there's another possible approach. Your face just shows what you look like. A wider angled photo that shows more of your surroundings can tell Facebook users more about you and how you live than a photo that's just a close up of your face does. It's one way you can distinguish yourself from the herd. Considering the number of people who'll be looking at your photo, it's worth thinking about.

An article on the study was published online by the International Journal of Psychology.

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