Are people more honest or dishonest on social networks?

"Just sitting in my cubicle trying to get some work done."
"Just sitting in my cubicle trying to get some work done."
Katrina Wittkamp/Getty Images

In the early days of the Internet, it was clear that one of the main benefits would be for humans to connect to other humans. Sure, it's a source of information and a way to shop for goods without leaving the house, but as soon as the chat room made its first appearance, it became a place to meet other people. Chat rooms soon gave way to online dating groups, and eventually the social network was born. LiveJournal and Black Planet were two of the first major social networks to be launched, both in 1999. But it wasn't until Friendster and MySpace came along in 2002 and 2003, respectively, that social networks really took off. MySpace provided just what it said in its name -- a space on the Internet that you could call your own. Users could upload pictures and music, write daily posts, host videos and interact with other MySpacers. It continues to be a popular way for people to connect.

In 2006, Facebook took the Internet by storm by appealing to a broader and older audience than MySpace did. Suddenly, people in their 30s and 40s were using social networks to find long lost friends, and the Internet hasn't been the same since. The Nielson Company stated in March 2009 that social networks and blogs are now visited by more than two-thirds of the online community. Social networks are now the fourth most popular online category, even ahead of personal e-mail. These stats may soon change, as Nielson also found that social networks are growing four times as fast as any of the other four largest online sectors. Facebook alone is visited by three out of every 10 users of social networks and one of every 11 minutes of online activity goes to social networks Web sites [source: Nielson].

With all this activity, it makes you wonder whether or not people are being honest when they tout accomplishments, post photos and give updates on day-to-day activity. There are no fact checkers in the world of social networks, so there's really no way to know if that high school classmate you remember is really a successful business owner now, or is holed up in a dark basement, stroking a Persian cat in his underwear.

Honesty on Social Networks

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, when that beholder is you.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, when that beholder is you.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

So are people more honest or dishonest when it comes to revealing things about themselves on social networks? There's really no way to know for sure, but we can look at some trends and human behavior to posit a good guess.

Consider this: An article from a British newspaper in March 2009 revealed that fraud investigators are looking at Facebook to bust people lying in order to get government sponsored financial benefits. They found that people claiming to be single and living alone may actually be married or living with other people. Of course, these are people lying to try to get money, so it's not the same as lying about your accomplishments to old friends. In fact, it's the truth telling on Facebook that's getting them in trouble in this case.

Before the huge growth of social networks, a study was performed at the University of Western Sydney in 2002 about honesty in chat rooms. Out of the 320 people surveyed, they found that men were more likely to lie than women and the lie was typically about how much money they made. Women were found more likely to lie for safety reasons. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise -- men are probably vying for attention from women who are more inclined to keep their details private until they feel more comfortable.

Internet dating sites were once rife with people lying about their looks, height, weight and how much money they made. That seems to have tapered off some as the less legitimate sites have gone away, leaving more reputable sites to honest people looking for a partner or friend. Lying on dating sites doesn't really do anyone any good anyway. Why bother telling a prospective date that you're six feet tall and athletic if you're really a short, dumpy couch potato? All will be clear as soon as you show up to meet at the coffee shop and you'll be exposed as a liar and likely reported and banned from the site. The popular dating site eHarmony.com prohibits lying in its terms of service:

  • You will not provide inaccurate, misleading or false information to eHarmony or to any other user. If information provided to eHarmony or another user subsequently becomes inaccurate, misleading or false, you will promptly notify eHarmony of such change.

Dishonesty on Social Networks

"Me and my homies are just chillin' by the pool, waitin' on some ladies to drop in"
"Me and my homies are just chillin' by the pool, waitin' on some ladies to drop in"
Liz Gregg/Getty Images

When it comes to Facebook, it's generally believed that most people stick to the highlights. While some users may reveal their deepest and darkest failures, you can usually browse the status updates of your friends and see everything from "Closed a big deal today" to "My band just got signed." Regular users of Facebook will tell you that you'll rarely see "I'm filing for bankruptcy" or "I gained 10 pounds last month." You'll see some posts that aren't users simply bragging -- "I have no idea how to work my TiVo" or "My cat is on life support," but these are often pleas for assistance or support.

All people lie. It's simply one of the odd things about being human. An interesting study about lying in e-mail was performed in 2008 by Rutgers, Lehigh and DePaul Universities. They gave 48 full-time MBA students $89 each and told them they had to divide the money between themselves and a fictional party, in whatever amount they wanted to. Some were instructed to send an e-mail to the unknown recipient and others were to write handwritten letters, detailing the amount of money they were given and how much they would dole out. They found that 92 percent of the e-mailers lied about the amount of money they received, compared to just 64 percent who had written letters [source: eurekalert.org]. Not only does it indicate that lying is part of human nature, but that there's something about e-mail that makes it easier to be untruthful. The same could be true of social networks.

Not everyone is 100 percent satisfied with their lot in life, so a little exaggerating on Facebook to build up your self-esteem isn't the worst crime you can commit. Neither is downplaying your low points. The fact is, users of social networks have the right to reveal as much or as little they want to, and in some ways, can create whatever persona they choose. Maybe you list NOVA as one of your favorite TV shows to appear more intelligent, when you're really into reruns of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Perhaps you claim to love the novels of William Faulkner when you're more into People magazine.

Facebook appears to be more about selective truth telling than blatant dishonesty. Unless you have a real problem with lying, what good does it do to tell your high school classmates that you own a wildly successful software development firm if you don't? Facebook is a great way to network and make business connections, so you'd only be hurting yourself in the end.

One thing that may clue us in to the honesty question is the launch of a new Facebook application called the "Honesty Box." Here, users can send and receive completely honest anonymous messages to and from friends. It's a safe haven where you have no reason to lie because you can't get found out. The only information that the receiver of the message gets is whether you're a male or female.

It seems that Facebook would only feel the need to create an honesty "safe zone" if there was a good reason to do so -- that is, that people may be more prone to fudge the truth. In the end, if you find that you're a liar in "real life," then you'll probably lie on a social network to some degree. If you're Honest Abe, then you're more inclined to be a straight shooter. Or, if you're like most people, you fall somewhere in the middle.

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Sources

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