Reflections on Online Self-Disclosure

April 7th, 2011

This post had been sitting as draft on my blog for months, I’ve just published it now as companion to a shorter and cleaner version of some similar ideas.

I wrote the first part of this post when flying to Chile to present at a conference. I later didn’t publish it as I got caught up on “normal life”. The presentation went quite well and there were a couple of people that got very interested in my topic. Here’s that first part and the ideas I’ve been chewing since.

So I’m sitting here on a plane crossing the western hemisphere from north to south. On a quick trip to visit my hometown that is giving me lots of things to think about. Having collected the results of my survey little over a month ago and working on the draft since.  I was just reading a really nice article on online self-disclosure that I finally had time to sit and read calmly word by word. And yesterday I spoke about my project to a class of 19 year old undergrads, which was really interesting - BTW, none of them used Twitter. Anyway, being alone in the middle - or tail - of a crowded plane awoke the old blogger in me. That guy who liked to pour his head and heart into the keyboard to send them online, even if nobody commented. So now it’s odd to meet that part of me again, now that I’m dedicated to the scholarly analysis of this same phenomenon, and well aligned to writing a dissertation about the topic with piles of research articles and dozen theories attempting to explain this slippery problem. None of these seems complete to me at the moment. So now I’m trying to examine my own motivations given all this background knowledge… I was just reading a paper that recently fell on my lap for reviewing which, although discussing a different problem, points at Uses and Gratifications theory. And I’ve been trying to understand how one of my favorite UNC professors says that such theory is so full of flaws. I’ve recently been looking back at the Media Equation and it just hit me, Uses and Gratifications looks at people as rational beings, weighting all our acts in a careful manner. But I’m convinced that there’s a lot of unconscious processes leading to online self-disclosure. I think that a strong component is the healing power of self-disclosure: How the plain act of writing about what we think and feel, or about our problems, can make us feel better - even improving our health. I’ve also been going back to looking at studies that put anonymity as an important factor in self-disclosure. Only a few weeks ago I would challenge these theories based on the evidence we can find on social media, where people are making intriguing disclosures while using their names and many times their faces. But now I’m starting to see the shades of gray in the concept of anonymity. Anonymity is not only about a situation where others have no idea of who you are, but it ranges from there to more subtle cases that may include IM conversations where you are communicating with someone who knows you quite well, but your computer is offering a shield of protection and the only part of you that they can see are your written text. I can’t recall where I heard an anecdote that in one of those old IM/chat tools that used to be actually real-time, where you could see the conversation character by character; As some guy was chatting with his recent girlfriend, at some point he typed “I love you” and he immediately started deleting and editing to “I like you”, in this real time context, and he was never forgiven.

Anyhow, I hope this trip will continue to be as fruitful as this head start has been, seeing my family and old friends will be an interesting experience, and I’m sure it will give me a new perspective on at least a few things, maybe it will enlighten me for my research. Catch you later.

That was about a month ago. In the meantime, I’ve continued to read about the topic and have written about my dissertation plans. I’m coming up with this sort of model that describes three dimensions from where self-disclosure behavior emerges:

Personal: This includes psychological motivations and rational analysis as framed by reward/cost analysis of Social Penetration Theory. Some of the factors I’m considering in this area include the personal relief in disclosure, relationship development, social support that disclosure can yield, self-presentation, and the “need to share”. There’s a recent article by Krasnova that does a great job at analyzing online self-disclosure from this approach.

Social: Here, I’m thinking of the social norms that develop in the conversational spaces that define what is acceptable. Self-disclosure is reciprocal, so when we see our friends and contacts sharing their thoughts online we’ll feel compelled to act similarly.

Technological: Ever since the second wave of CMC research there’s been a series of indications that we have a tendency to disclose strongly when we communicate via the internet. Rheingold suggested there were inherent qualities in the medium that led to this. Walther comes up with the Hyperpersonal theory. Joinson has found that people disclose more on computer vs paper-based surveys, and in CMC over face to face conversations. My survey’s data suggests a strong relationship between frequency of use and online self-disclosure for all five measured tools. What does this all mean? I believe there’s a harder-to-grasp dimension that plays out in this mix, it may be related to what Reeves and Nass Media Equation points at: We are not yet biologically adapted to deal with media and technology, so the only option we have is to treat these as social agents.

Naturally this is still in early stages of development and I’m actually taking a leap of faith by sharing this in here, but I’m hoping it will trigger some interesting conversations on the topic and maybe I’ll get suggestions for exploring related authors and theories.

Three Dimensions for Online Self-Disclosure

April 7th, 2011

I’ve spent the last couple of years focusing on online self-disclosure, learning about different parts of this problem. After reading many papers related to this topic, and running an initial large-scale survey of my own - still unpublished - I’ve come up with an idea of how to group the factors that motivate, drive and moderate this behavior. I’m arguing that all of these variables can be fit into three different buckets: personal, social and technological.

Since the beginnings of self-disclosure research, there are findings that support different types of personal or internal motivations and drivers for self-disclosure. Just to give a few examples, we can point at:
Catharsis (Jourard, 1964; Rosenfeld & Kendrick, 1984)
Loneliness (Leung, 2002)
Self-esteem (Joinson, 2004)
Impression Management (De Souza & Nick, 2004)
Physical Context (Stefanone, Jang & Claes, 2009)
Work Experience

There are also a series of external factors that influence our disclosure behavior which relate to our social context; the people we are having a conversation with. Again, some examples can be found in:
Reciprocity (Boyd, 2008; Joinson, 2001; Moon, 2000)
Intended Audience (Gibbs, Ellison & Heino, 2006; Stefanone & Jang, 2008)
Relationship Maintenance (Boyd, 2006; Stefanone & Jang, 2008; Krasnova et al., 2010)
Environment Norms (Boyd, 2008)
Cultural Norms (Diaz-Peralta, 2003)

Finally, there is a large body of evidence suggesting that when communication is mediated by computers we will find different patterns for self-discosure. Examples can be found in:
Relative Anonymity (Rheingold, 1993; Joinson, 2001b; Christopherson, 2006; Tanis & Postmes, 2007; Bargh, McKenna & Fitzimons, 2002, Mesch & Becker, 2010)
Social Response (Reeves & Nass, 1996; Moon, 2000)
Frequency of Use (Rau et al, 2008; Frye & Dornisch, 2010; Mesch & Becker, 2010, my study)
Tool Privacy (Krasnova et al., 2010; Stutzman, Capra & Thompson 2011)
Interface Design (Sagolla, 2009)

This idea is a starting point for later constructing a theoretical model. I’ve found on my reviews that previous research tend to focus on different dimensions of this problem, as I’m a big picture kind of person, I can’t help attempting to integrate all these ideas into a single model. This model clearly needs more refinement, the lists of factors presented here are by no means exhaustive nor particularly curated based on any criteria, they are just examples to represent my larger position and hopefully start a conversation with other people interested in this topic. I’m looking forward to hearing your reactions on this.

A more chatty and disorganized version of this can be found in the following post.

Thinking of Libya

March 17th, 2011

Those of you who follow me on twitter may have seen I’ve been following the Arab revolutions with interest and concern. You may also be wondering why I care so much. I just think we should all care about this and send whatever form of support to these brave people fighting to shake themselves out of oppressive tyrannies that have abused their families for decades. I’ve been wanting to post this for weeks, and then came up the TED talk of the head of Al Jazeera that summarizes it so clearly: Event thinking about these people will help them.

A few weeks ago, I was amazed and upset by how little support I was seeing from everyday people to this conflict. We all pretend to care so much about freedom and civil liberties but then when we see people actually risking their lives for it, we don’t even care enough to comment on the news? Now the battle in Libya is practically lost, as the international forces have been to slow in determining how to aid the rebels, and the ruthless dictator is bombing them with all his force, literally crushing cities and all the families that remain inside. The revolutionary forces now blame us, the West, for not doing anything in their help; they say we do not really believe in freedom. These revolutions are not politically or religiously driven, they are young and smart people, who thanks to the global connectivity, have seen that a better life is possible, and that they do not deserve to live what their grandparents and parents have gone through, working all their life with nothing in return.

Well why do I care so much? First, I was raised to believe in people’s dignity, that every man and woman in this world deserves to be free and have a basic sense of security and dignity. Second, I grew up as a child under a dictatorship. As a boy in Chile of the 80s there were a lot of bad things going on in my country and in fact, while I lived in a fairly posh suburb of the city there was a horrible camp of the special police right in my block, around the corner of my house. At seven years, me and my friends saw and heard things that a child that age does not deserve to be exposed to. So I can’t help relate to these people who have been suffering that terror and oppression for years now attempting to toss the criminal out of their government and start anew.

But it’s too late, the international organizations have not taken action and by the time they make their minds the city of Benghazi will probably be flat (I still hope not!), and thereafter the crimes will not be as overt. The people who survive that last battle will be disappeared one by one and will probably face unspeakable cruelty like what happened in the secret prison around my corner, which remained secret for over thirty years until one guard could not resist the guilt and spoke up: the reason why nobody knew of that prison was because nobody left the place alive. It was a secret camp where people were sent to be tortured until death.

Gift Card Drawing Results

September 26th, 2010

Thanks again to all of you who participated in my Social Media survey, a total of 1273 people responded, and 1092 were eligible for the drawing.

I’ve just run the drawing for the gift cards via, and the winners are:

Winning number is 152

Number 152 is Cindy S. from USA.

Number 622 is Rob T. from New Zealand.

Congrats to both!

The gift cards have just been sent, have fun!

My survey is out!

September 6th, 2010

If you’ve been following my blog at all, you may know that I’m focusing on Social Media these days. Well, I’ve finally completed the proposal and IRB process for my first - very own study - on this topic. It’s a survey on the usage of a variety of Internet communication tools. I launched the survey last Monday, and will close it next Sunday, I’ve received some interesting data, but the more answers I collect, the more robust my analysis can be. Thanks to the sponsorship of the Information Architecture Institute’s Process Grant, I have two $100 gift cards to draw among respondents. You can find and respond to my survey at:

This survey is being distributed in a snowball method, it would be great if you can share the link with your friends. You can RT my twitter invite.


CALA BOCA GALVAO: Brazil games Twitter

June 15th, 2010

You have to give it to Brazilians for having a sense of humor: Since the inauguration of the South African World Cup, they have pushed the tag “Cala Boca Galvao” phrase into the top trending topic, where it’s been standing for a few days I understand. They made up a fake explanation of what this means in order to catch innocent bystanders into their game, and helping the TT float higher. The excuse is that it’s a campaign to save an endangered bird of the rain forest.

There’s also a fake Lady Gaga song preview about this, and lots of people also caught that one. What this phrase actually means is SHUT UP GALVAO, with Galvao being a popular sportscaster in Brazil that people are evidently tired of.

More info:

I think it’s a great example of how a country can game social media just for the lulz!

Online Social Networks & Privacy: My turn to rant about Facebook

May 19th, 2010

As someone who’s focusing his research on Online Social Networks and the Privacy/Disclosure topic, I’ve been quietly following the changes on Facebook, and especially the recent modifications that have taken things close to scandal proportions. It seems like these days everyone is discussing the FB privacy disaster (some of my favorites are Nancy Baym and Fred Stutzman), yet in practical terms, they have us hooked, there are actually very few people who will leave, and a large majority who don’t care and are not even aware of how dangerous this situation is. We’re not hooked to their clunky service but to all the people from our history that we’ve been able to reconnect with thanks to the popularity of their tool.

The more I think about this problem, what most pisses me off is how there could have been so many other simple ways to handle things differently, and how all these problems could have been avoided. But Facebook has taken every time the worst possible direction, making the most unethical decisions in favor of financial greed. I was recently attending a large conference, and by chance sat at the table with a high executive from Facebook, the scandal had just exploded and it was unavoidable that he ended up interrogated about how this could have happened, and after some pressure, he ended up confessing that it’s just Zuckeberg who single-handedly takes these kinds of decisions, pretty much without interest in other people’s opinion.

The two points that most upset me are: First, how they are giving users’ information to their business partners, when it would have been so much simpler (and ethical) to match businesses and potential customers while keeping the information protected. Second, it’s outrageous how cumbersome the privacy controls are: I’ve been a fist row spectator of the development of User Experience Design for the Web as a field and am sure that Facebook must have some good designers on board, so you don’t need to be a genius to figure out that they are making things hard for people on purpose, it should not be hard to protect your account, it should not take “only 20 minutes” as some third-party tutorials are now teaching us as a quickest solution.

And just today I find thanks to my Twitter contacts, two interesting pieces that address these exact problems. The Electronic Frontier Foundation released a proposed Bill of Rights for Social Network Users, which upon reading, seems like just plain common sense and makes you wonder how anyone would think that it’s good & sustainable business to do anything away from these lines. Yet if you’ve been following the current situation, it’s clear that their piece is clearly written in response to Facebook’s abusive attitude. The other piece is Fortune’s Hey Facebook! Here’s your privacy redesign, where a series of talented interaction designers share some ideas of how the privacy controls can be improved. And just as I was saying before, they are all giving interesting examples of how all this could have been managed better. From all those ideas the proposal I like the most is the circle by the guys from Sapient Nitro, it reminds me of the Altman & Taylor theory of Social Penetration: intimacy depth presented as concentric layers and areas as slices of a circle, very appropriate and straightforward. I’ve naturally been also thinking of how I’ve done this, some of my ideas are similar to the circle mentioned above, but disclosure is such a contextual issue that two variables are not enough and I’d also add topic to the mix. For a really good Online Social Networks we need strong controls for grouping our contacts in ways that can be easily modified and updated, and for keeping track and aim of what topic and level of information we share with these different groups.

I’m not sure how much ideas we should be giving away for free to this company that keeps on profiting until abuse on our private data, in fact their reputation is so low these days… as the great Elizabeth Buie put it recentlyI think I’d put either “privacy” or “policy” in quotation marks when referring to Facebook’s. :-)” I’d say, both!

Finally, I think that any private corporation managing too much personal information is a risk, it can be very dangerous, especially if they are run so irresponsibly as we are seeing the case of Facebook. I agree with Danah Boyd that services like this should be regulated, but the two major problems for that are that A, legislators are decades behind these topics and B, these services have international coverage so defining who has legal right to regulate them is an ordeal. Nevertheless they should not be run free of laws, and I wholeheartedly agree with the EFF Bill of Privacy Rights, I just can’t imagine a good service doing otherwise.

Breaking news, as I was making the final edits, I find on the BBC that FB is declaring they are listening to the users and will simplify the privacy controls. We’ll see, at this point I don’t believe much from them, they are just trying to cleanse their image.