Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Annotated Bib #2: Facebook Profile Pics

Hum, N.J., Chamberlain, P.E., Hambright, B.L., Portwood, A.C., Schat, A.C., & Bevan, J.L. (2011). A picture is worth a thousand words: A content analysis of Facebook profile photographs. Computers in Human Behavior, 27, 1828-1833. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2011.04.003

"Perhaps one of the most telling pieces of self-disclosure or image construction is the profile photo, the single default photo by which Facebook users choose to identify themselves within the entire network" (p. 1828). The goal of this research study was to add to the literature of the relatively new phenomenon of the profile picture.  Noelle Hum and her research partners wanted to learn what types of images Facebook members are using for their profile pictures and how the content of the pictures differs by gender (p. 1828).

These six researchers created a random pool of 35 Facebook users culled from their own Facebook friends.  Facebook friends were randomly chosen to receive an invite to participate, and from those who accepted, another random final pool was drawn.  The researchers then coded their pool of Facebook users’ profile pictures using six categories: “sex, quantity of profile photos in the participant’s profile picture album, level of physical activity, candidness, level of appropriateness, and the number of subjects” (1831). The researchers acknowledge that a possible flaw in their study of the profile pictures was the requirement of informed consent because the people in their pool could have changed their profile pictures in response to entering the study. 

Their findings defined as many further research areas as they did conclusions. Their findings indicated that college students were aware of “the importance of constructing … an identity” (1832) via Facebook. This led to their second finding: that the vast majority of the photos were appropriate, refuting many who say students do not make correct judgments about their profile pictures. Finally, they found little difference between the genders’ choices of profile pictures, which might indicate different social norms for online versus face-to-face interactions.

Two of their recommendations for future research align with my project ideas. First is the suggestion to delve deeper into their hypothesis that different social norms exist between online and face-to-face interactions; second is their recommendation to study other social networking sites beyond Facebook.  My project combines these two recommendations while also taking them a step further. My comparison of two different online spaces will offer a look into how social norms might not just differ between online and face-to-face. Do they also differ between online sites?  My comparison of differing sites is not specifically what these researchers were envisioning either because I am comparing the same people on different sites. So my project is offering a new lens into both of these suggestions.

As a final note, some of the coding categories are particularly interesting to me: candidness, level of appropriateness, and number of subjects.  I think each of these can offer an excellent split between academic and social norms.  I might be able to write out my hypothesis using them: I hypothesize that academic pictures are posed, overtly appropriate, and have a singular subject, while social photos are candid, edgier, and often include many subjects.  I also am pondering how these codes can fit with Williamson’s theory of design narratives (n.d.) – how profile pictures are design narratives moving from who (number of subjects) to what (appropriateness) to how (candidness).  Profile pictures seem to be strong candidates for visual design theory versus visual argument (Blair, 2004; Kenney, 2004).

Blair, J.A. (2004). Building Visual Communication Theory by Borrowing from Rhetoric.  In C. Handa (Ed.), Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook (321-343). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Kenney, K. (2004). Building Visual Communication Theory by Borrowing from Rhetoric.  In C. Handa (Ed.), Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook (344-363). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Williamson, J. Introduction. Visual Design Narratives: Participated Meaning and the Interior User in the Era of Convergence.


  1. I might have missed it in an older post but what other site/online community do you plan to use? Also how will you interact with said site? From the outside in or inside out?

  2. I am going to compare Facebook pics with profile pics on an academic site. I am just an observer of the pics -- looking into whether students approach these pics differently and how.