Facebook or Twitter: What does your choice of social networking site say about you?

Social networking sites have changed our lives. There were 500 million active Facebook users in 2011 and approximately 200 million Twitter accounts. As users will know, the sites have important differences. Facebook places more of an emphasis on who you are and who you know. Twitter restricts users to 140-character updates and is more about what you say than who you are. A new study asks whether and how the way people use these sites is related to their personality, and whether there are personalty differences between people who prefer one site over the other.

David Hughes at Manchester Business School and his colleagues surveyed 300 people online - most (70 per cent) were based in Europe, others were from North America, Asia and beyond. There were 207 women and the age range was from 18 to 63. Participants answered questions about the way they used Facebook and Twitter and which site they preferred. They also answered questions about their personality based around the "Big Five" personality factors of Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Openness and Agreeableness, as well as the dimensions of sociability and "need for cognition" (this last factor is about people's need to be mentally engaged and stimulated).

Perhaps the most glaring finding is that personality actually explained little of the variance - less than 10 per cent (rising to 20 per cent alongside age) - in the way participants used these sites. This suggests that other factors not explored here, such as intelligence and motivation, have a big influence.

However, the associations with personality were interesting. People who used Facebook mostly for socialising tended to score more highly on sociability and neuroticism (consistent with past research suggesting that shy people use the site to forge social ties and combat loneliness). Social use of Twitter correlated with higher sociability and openness (but not neuroticism) and with lower scores on conscientiousness. This suggests that social Twitter users don't use it so much to combat loneliness, but more as a form of social procrastination.

What about using the sites as an informational tool? There was an intriguing divergence here. People who said they used Facebook as an informational tool tended to score higher on neuroticism, sociability, extraversion and openness, but lower on conscientiousness and "need for cognition". Informational users of Twitter were the mirror opposite: they scored higher on conscientiousness and "need for cognition", but lower on neuroticism, extraversion and sociability. The researchers interpreted these patterns as suggesting that Facebook users seek and share information as a way of avoiding more cognitively demanding sources such as journal articles and newspaper reports. Twitter users, by contrast, use the site for its cognitive stimulation - as a way of uncovering useful information and material without socialising (this was particularly true for older participants).

Finally, what about people's overall preference for Twitter or Facebook? Again, people who scored higher in "need for cognition" tended to prefer Twitter, whilst higher scorers in sociability, neuroticism and extraversion tended to prefer Facebook. Simplifying the results, one might say that Facebook is the more social of the two social networking sites, whereas Twitter is more about sharing and exchanging information.

These results should be treated with caution. The sample was biased towards young females and the data were entirely self-report. Nonetheless, the findings suggest there are some meaningful differences in the personality profiles of people who prefer Twitter vs. Facebook and some intriguing personality links with the way the sites are used. "Different people use the same sites for different purposes," the researchers said.

  ResearchBlogging.org Hughes, D., Rowe, M., Batey, M., and Lee, A. (2012). A tale of two sites: Twitter vs. Facebook and the personality predictors of social media usage. Computers in Human Behavior, 28 (2), 561-569 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2011.11.001

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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