Are expectations of reality responding as expected?

The Information Age has birthed innumerable studies on the rise of New Media as well as its effects on the communication strategies we use, each presenting unique and fascinating results. A social cognitive approach to traditional media content and social media use: Selfie- related behavior as a competitive strategy by Stefanone et al.  is no exception to this. The authors conducted a study to explore the link between traditional mass media, particularly reality television shows, contingencies of self-worth, and social media use across platforms, a pose eight hypotheses on selfie-related behaviour. Though I agree with the findings of this paper, for the most part, I would like to highlight certain aspects of the paper which, in my opinion, are worth questioning.

The authors define self-presentation a “goal-directed behaviour to strategic image and influence how audiences perceive and interact with us”. They use the concept of a selfie i.e “an image of oneself taken by oneself” to highlight the prevalence of strategic self-presentation, or as media researchers prefer to call it, strategic misrepresentation in computer-mediated communication. While all the assumptions made and questions formulated are completely valid, the decision to use reality TV as a starting point to study behaviour on social media is questionable. As pointed out by the authors themselves in the limitations segment, the participants indicated rather low levels of consumption of RTV, which limits the interpretability of the data. Considering the near-total switch to the Internet and the slow, agonizing death of traditional media that we are witnessing (evidenced by the popularity of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video etc.), as well as the age range of the sample used to conduct the study, the consumption patterns of media, seem to be becoming more strategic. Rather than being consumers of entertainment and using the media to distract ourselves from our surroundings, we are now neck-deep in content generated by self-interested, utility-maximizing media users who also form the audience and are, as a result, more tuned to what people want to see/read.

It is argued that the competitive value system modeled by reality television leads to competition for audience attention and subsequent evaluations of self-worth, and it does not take a media philosopher to understand that this largely holds true. Perhaps Snapchat is not the best medium to assess selfie-related behaviour and competition, the reason being that the audience is probably already known to the producer of images. Moreover, the photos appear for a matter of seconds, and the sender is alerted if the recipient(s) replay the message or screenshot it. This relieves the pressure of having to present oneself in a certain way, as the senders and receivers are already past the stage of forming initial impressions, and the image sent is ephemeral. Additionally, the sender can choose to whom he/she wants to send the image, unlike other photo-sharing media, like Facebook and Instagram, wherein the photos are publicly posted. Therefore, although the authors effectively arrived at the conclusion that people do prefer to post selfies on Snapchat as opposed to Facebook, and state that “idealized self-presentation is less important in established relationships”, they did not explain how (and if at all) this has any links to social comparison and competition stemming from the RTV framework.

The authors also analyze the two types of editing typically used: composition editing (manipulating the overall image to adjust brightness etc.) and subject editing (changes made to enhance physical features). They arrive at the conclusion that composition editing has a positive effect on relationship satisfaction (between the user and audience), while subject editing has a negative effect. This is not universally applicable to all social media involving photo sharing. Online dating sites and apps provide an interesting example. The audience her consists of other users who are potential partners. While subject editing may be considered a negative consequence of ideas propagated by RTV (according to the authors), it could possibly lead to positive outcomes for the users in their quest for a mate. Of course, this depends on other variables, such as if the users are looking to form short-term or long-term ties. Hence, for some, subject editing may facilitate reciprocity, and may not necessarily generate less relationship satisfaction. Besides, the authors themselves mention that there is a chance that relationship satisfaction operates as an individual variable in driving behaviour online.

The effectiveness of the sample used to test the hypotheses can also be contested. The fact that the sample consisted of undergraduate students implies that the results are not applicable in all contexts and could potentially be the reason that the hypothesis that RTV viewing has a positive relationship with selfie-related behaviour did not produce results to the extent predicted. Some would argue that this sample exemplifies boutique diversity, as only 1.5% of the participants were Native American and only 7.2% were Latin American, while these two groups cumulatively make up over 20% of American population (Ethnic Groups in America, https://www.statista.com). This is part of the broader debate in social science studies on whether the various groups in a sample should be numerically represented or randomly selected to attain the most relevant results.

The study of new media is, without doubt, a relatively new branch of study, and due to the multidirectional nature of communication it is also highly dynamic, and the results might not always be as predicted. This also gives rise to discrepancies in the results derived by similar studies. Rather than regarding these limitations as flaws, I believe they raise several important questions and make conspicuous the knowledge gaps to be addressed in future research. For instance, Hal et al. mention in their paper, Strategic Misrepresentation in Online Dating, a five-factor model to predict the degree of misrepresentation exhibited by people possessing these traits. Findings suggest that those who show neuroticism and extraversion are more likely to misrepresent themselves online, as opposed to those who display conscientiousness, openness, and agreeableness. This brings forth a possible avenue for future research in exploring the extent to which these personality traits are amplified by reality TV and new RTV-like media such as YouTube. Another question that could be addressed is if/how RTV causes selective presentation/misrepresentation of assets and social status.

Image source: https://www.andertoons.com/selfie/cartoon/7599/narcisyphus

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