Clandestine chatters: Self-disclosure in U.K. chat room profiles
First Monday

Clandestine chatters: Self-disclosure in U.K. chat room profiles by Chris Fullwood, Mike Thelwall and Sam O'Neill



Abstract
With the increasing popularity of social networking sites, it has become relatively common for Internet users to develop an online presence via a personal profile page. Moreover, some chat rooms allow members to develop profile pages too. As a potential first point of contact, effective profile construction may play a pivotal role in the management of first impressions. Identity construction in profiles seems to be particularly important for chat room users, because they are often likely to interact with strangers. Since chat rooms can be used for anti–social purposes, the type and extent of the information posted in chat room profiles seems likely to be different from that in online profiles for social networking sites, which may be more closely tied to offline identities. This investigation of information in 324 profiles from two Lycos chat rooms for adults found that most users include a picture of themselves on their profile, hence apparently tying themselves to their offline identity. Nevertheless, the majority remain anonymous, probably many more than for social networking sites and blog authors. There are sex differences in the types of information posted on chat room profiles, with women tending to include more personal information. Furthermore, older users are more likely to post information about relationship status and location than younger users. These sex and age differences in profile content may be a consequence of the different motivations for using the service as well as disparities in self–disclosure norms.

Contents

Introduction
Methodology
Results
Discussion and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

For many of the over a billion Internet users (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2009), the Internet seems to serve an important social function, providing convenient and simple methods to establish or sustain connections with others. The Internet also presents opportunities for people to manage their online personas, for example with brief and informal written descriptions (Wallace, 1999). A key feature of online impression management is increased control over self–presentation. For example, pictures can be carefully selected and even edited. We may also wish to promote certain desirable personality traits and omit those that are more unpleasant. Essentially, it is our decision as to what we say and the manner in which we say it (Wallace, 1999). It is therefore easy to see why certain individuals may prefer to present themselves online. With the increasing popularity of social networking sites (SNSs), it is now relatively easy, even for novice users, to have an online presence. One does not need to be proficient in computer programming to design a simple online profile as a means to interact with others. Although Lenhart and Madden (2007) found that that 49 percent of U.S. teens using SNSs do so to make new friends, the existing literature suggests that SNSs are used principally to maintain pre–existing off–line networks (boyd and Ellison, 2007; Ellison, et al., 2007). Therefore, communications will take place primarily between individuals who have had some form of previous contact off–line. One place where encounters with strangers are likely to take place more frequently however is the chat room (Nie and Erbring, 2002; Mileham, 2007). Therefore, the chat room represents an online arena in which zero acquaintance interactions take place more frequently.

Like SNSs, many chat rooms afford members the opportunity to create a profile and it is likely that many first impressions will be based on the information presented there. One would expect that many chat room users would choose whether or not to interact with another member on the basis of the information presented in their profile. Chat rooms allow for synchronous communication with the possibility of interacting with multiple strangers (or at least individuals who have not been previously met face–to–face). Indeed, Nie and Erbring (2002) report that the “overwhelming majority” of chat room interactions take place between individuals who are anonymous and not known to one another. For this reason, effectively managing first impressions through the construction of the profile would seem to be particularly relevant in the chat room. Furthermore, chat room users are said to construct their profiles in a manner that increases the possibility of being contacted by desirable others (Li, 2007). For these reasons, one might expect the type of information that chat room users make available about themselves to differ from the profiles on other online applications (for example, SNSs or blog sites). Motivations for creating profiles in nonymous environments (in other words, environments in which personal identity information is readily available), such as personal Web pages and social networking sites, may also differ from those who choose to create a profile in an environment in which users may remain anonymous. The manner in which we manage impressions might therefore be intricately linked to the type of online application being used as well as the motivation for taking part in a specific online activity. Therefore, this study is principally interested in investigating the types of profile information that chat room users make available about themselves so comparisons can be made with previous findings from profile construction studies on social networking and blog sites.

Self–disclosure off–line and online

Self–disclosure has been described as the process by which we tell others about ourselves (Jourard, 1971), the revelation and concealment of private information (Burgoon, 1982) and more recently as the divulging of intimate information about the self (Derlega, et al., 1993). Self–disclosure is said to play an integral role in relationship development, with deeper levels of self–disclosure being likely to occur in more intimate relationships (Altman and Taylor, 1973). Moreover, Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) argued that whereas boys gather together in larger peer groups, girls prefer smaller, more intimate friendships and for this reason this may incline females to self–disclose more than males. In adulthood, females may self–disclose more frequently than males because confiding and communicating are perceived to be more appropriate forms of interaction for women than for men (O’Neill, et al., 2004). Empirical evidence does indeed seem to support the view that women of all ages disclose more personal information about themselves than men. For instance, Dindia and Allen (1992) performed a meta–analysis of 205 self–disclosure studies with a total of 23,702 participants. Across the studies, women were slightly more likely than men to self–disclose. Furthermore, relationship status was a moderating factor, insofar as that men and women disclosed similarly to a stranger, but women disclosed more often to a close acquaintance (e.g., friend, parent or partner). More recently, Morgan (2005) provided evidence for the notion that whereas the sexes may disclose similarly concerning non–intimate topics, women disclose intimate information to others more freely. Age is also said to play an important role in self–disclosure. Parker and Parrott (1995) for instance noted that whereas young adults (19–24) are more likely to self–disclose to their friends, elderly adults (65–93) are more likely to self–disclose to their family. This finding may be an upshot of a reduction in social circles as one ages. Their findings also intimate that the greater the generational gap between individuals, the less likely that self–disclosure will occur.

In a face–to–face context, an individual’s physical presence would make it difficult to make claims about his/her appearance that were not true. Common knowledge regarding personality and social history would also mean that in pretending to be someone we were not, others would be wise to this deception (Zhao, et al., 2008). One problem associated with an increased level of control in online self–presentation is that it becomes relatively easy for someone to stretch the truth. Cues to physical appearance are often unavailable in online communication, and an increased likelihood of interacting with strangers means that shared knowledge about personal backgrounds will be inaccessible in many online interactions. Wallace (1999) even suggests that people might not think it deceitful to change characteristics online; instead we might see it as a game. She suggests that we may play “with our own identities” and try out “different hats to see how they feel and how others will react to them” [1]. This may not be as uncommon as one might suspect. Recent statistics illustrate that nearly half of all teens with online profiles give out false information about themselves (Fox and Madden, 2005), although the intention may not be to mislead. Teens may post fake information as a form of protection or to be ‘playful’ or ‘silly’ (Fox and Madden, 2005).

Certain online contexts may also make it easier to post false information or indeed a lack of information altogether. Cornwell and Lundgren (2001) for example suggest that chat rooms are ideal locations for individuals to pretend to be someone that they are not. Noonan (1998) asserts that anonymity is the key factor at work when it comes to falsifying, exaggerating or omitting information about oneself. Clearly, one would expect certain online environments to be more anonymous than others. “Anchored relationships” (Zhao, 2006), or online interactions between off–line acquaintances, may be more likely to exist in the context of a social networking site for example (Zhao, et al., 2008). Communication in ‘anchored relationships’ may therefore be more similar to face–to–face interactions due to common ground and shared knowledge. Overall, evidence suggests that individuals are more honest and realistic in the way in which they present themselves to others in nonymous environments such as dating Web sites (Ellison, et al., 2006) and social networking sites (Zhao, et al., 2008). Essentially, nonymous environments promote self–presentation that is line with normative expectations and this may be because people have to be accountable for their actions (Cinnirella and Green, 2007). However, although the chat room may encourage members to disclose less identity information, chat room members may be less likely to converse with friends and people often feel more comfortable opening up to strangers (Parks and Roberts, 1998). Whitty and Joinson (2009) suggest that an awareness of the environment in which individuals are disclosing information is a crucial factor in self–disclosure. For example, in disclosing very personal information that may subject us to embarrassment or ridicule, it would be preferable to disclose this via a ‘leaner’ medium, or one that has “fewer cues, less opportunity to be overheard and a reduction in the impact of rejection” [2]. Therefore, it would seem that self–disclosure has a complex nexus with sex, age and anonymity.

The individual’s motivation for using the chat room may also impact upon the level of self–disclosure. Chat rooms are frequently used by those who wish to engage in flirtatious or highly sexualised communications (Subrahmanyam, et al., 2004; Subrahmanyam, et al., 2006; Vybíral, et al., 2004) and therefore it is likely that disclosure may be of a more intimate and personal level when communications take place on a one to one basis. Evidence also suggests that males are likely to communicate in chat rooms in a more sexually explicit fashion, whereas females communicate sexual information more implicitly (Subrahmanyam, et al., 2006). Chat room communications are also more likely to contain sexual themes when the chat room is unmonitored (Subrahmanyam, et al., 2006). Chat room users may therefore choose to use these services because they can get away with behaving in a more socially improper way. Indeed, Fullwood, et al., (2006) found that chat rooms were more likely to be frequented by women who were impulsive nonconformists, and therefore individuals who may be more likely to behave in rebellious fashion.

Profile construction in various online contexts

As the online world is not a homogenous one, it would seem likely that the types of and amount of information individuals make available about themselves is going to be highly dependent upon the online application being utilised as well as the user’s motivation for taking part. Although there has been relatively little research which has considered profile content in a chat room context, Fox and Madden suggest that 55 percent of online teens in the U.S. had some form of profile in 2005 and we should expect this figure to increase. As a way of comparison, blog users typically post some form of name, whether it be their full name (31 percent), their first name only (36 percent), or a pseudonym (29 percent) (Herring, et al., 2004). Furthermore, the same study also found that over half of blog authors indicate some form of demographic information, including age, location, occupation or a link to a personal home page (Herring, et al., 2004). So why would the majority of these individuals choose to identify themselves when the option to remain anonymous is available? This seems somewhat anomalous considering that blogs are often personal, candid or intimate (Huffaker and Calvert, 2005). One might expect these types of expressions to be easier in an anonymous environment. According to Huffaker and Calvert (2005) it is likely that identity information is important to blog authors as the personal journal encourages disclosure. A closer inspection of these figures however may suggest an alternative explanation. Unless the reader personally knows the blog author, the inclusion of a first name only would make it difficult to connect a particular blog to a specific individual in the offline world. Potentially, a great deal of demographic and personal information would be needed to identify an individual blogger offline. Bloggers may therefore still feel some degree of security and anonymity even when they supply some form of identity information. It may also be the case that bloggers feel free to disclose identity information, as they are unaware of the potential size of their audience.

Social networking sites are systems allowing members to have their own profile page and to publicly create “Friend” connections to other members (boyd and Ellison, 2007). Sites like MySpace and Facebook generally allow members to post personal data. A photograph and some general information are frequently requested, including age, gender and geographic location. Moreover, MySpace and some other sites ask a range of optional questions, such as occupation, religion and relationship status. MySpace also solicits some opinions, for instance concerning attitudes to children, as well as for lists of favourite books, films and music. All social networking sites also allow members to post content in pictures, blogs, comments or biography sections that may reveal additional personal information. For example, photographs may illustrate personal relationships and blog postings may function as a diary. It seems that the optional profile information is frequently not completed and there are varied attitudes towards privacy and personal security amongst members (Hinduja and Patchin, 2008). Nevertheless, the content of profile pages seems to be an important aspect of the popularity of social networking (Joinson, 2008), which gives an incentive to publish personal information.

With regards to the amount of information typically included in a SNS profile, Gross and Acquisti (2005) found that 90.8 percent of the Facebook profiles sampled included a picture, 87.8 percent disclosed date of birth, 39.9 percent revealed a phone number and 50.8 percent indicated a current address. It would seem that SNSs encourage self–disclosure and identity revelation. This is not surprising considering that members of these services use them predominately in an anchored way, in other words to correspond with pre–existing offline friends and acquaintances. There are also gender differences in the extent to which profile information is reported in social networking sites. A study of profile information from a large sample of MySpace members found that females were more likely than males to have a private profile (Thelwall, 2008). A study of college users of MySpace and Facebook explored gender differences in the types of profile information reported (Tufekci, 2008). Females more frequently listed favourite music, favourite books, and their religion. In contrast, males more frequently listed their phone number. There were non–significant gender differences in the use of real names and the listing of political views, favourite films, romantic status and sexual orientation. A tentative explanation would be that males may be more likely to use these applications for pursuing romantic or sexual relationships with other users.

One might expect the pattern of disclosure to be different for chat room profiles, comparative to blog and SNS profiles, as the motivations for using such sites may be very different. A cross–cultural study by Li (2007) examined what types of information chatters provide in their profiles in English and Chinese chat rooms. The data were collected from Yahoo chat rooms and the presence of categories including name, location, age, marital status, occupation, e–mail and homepage were recorded. Overall, it was found that over half of the chatters included a personal photo on their profile. Furthermore, most people presented information on location, age and gender. Li also reports that “some chatters” disclosed their real name and over half of these were fake. Overall, chatters were disinclined to include highly personal information in their profiles, for example marriage status and e–mail address. However, in comparing the profiles of the Chinese and English chatters, the English chatters were significantly more likely to include personal information, for example marriage status (58.3 percent overall compared to 8.7 percent) and e–mail address (18.2 percent overall compared to 8.7 percent). Comparatively to blog and SNS profiles, it would seem that chat room profile owners may be less likely to disclose identity information, however precise figures on the proportion of profiles containing the names of the users was not made available in the Li study. However, there does appear to be some tentative support for the notion that the amount and types of information individuals display on their profiles is influenced by the online application being used.

Sex and age as potential factors in chat room profile construction

Another important factor to consider when regarding impression management and self–disclosure online is the sex and age of the user. A number of sex and age differences have been noted in Internet usage patterns generally, but also with regards to chat room behaviour and this might influence the types and amount of information posted on the profile. Men seem more likely to go online regularly (Fallows, 2005) and are more likely to use chat rooms (Fallows, 2005; National Opinion Research Center, 2002). Fallows (2005) suggests that women are less likely to participate in chat room communications due to an increased public awareness concerning anti–social and worrisome behaviours that take place in them. There is also some suggestion that whereas women are more likely to use the Internet to maintain social relationships, men are more likely to use the Internet for dating or to pursue sexual relationships (Fallows, 2005). It may be likely then that men use chat rooms more regularly for this purpose than women. This might also reflect the types of information that men post about themselves on their profiles.

As well as there being interesting sex differences in Internet use patterns, a number of investigations have also revealed differences between age groups. Patterns of Internet consumption are relatively stable between the ages of 12 and 39, however after the age of 40 a steady decline in Internet activity is evident (Fox and Madden, 2005). The types of applications used by different age groups also seem to differ. For example, communication applications such as chat rooms and instant messenger services are said to be more popular with adolescents (Boneva, et al., 2006; Gross, 2004). Chat rooms also seem to be more popular with younger adults. 40 percent of 18–29 year olds surveyed in the United States indicated having used chat rooms compared with only 20 percent of 30–49 year olds (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2008). Teens and young adults are also more likely to have an online profile. 64 percent of 15–17 year olds surveyed had an online profile, compared with 50 percent of 18–29 year olds and 15 percent of 30–49 year olds (Madden, et al., 2007). Research also reveals that teens who have profiles online (and this will include social network sites where it is more common to include detailed information) 82 percent include their first name, 79 percent have a photo of themselves, 66 percent include photos of friends, 61 percent reveal the name of their hometown, and 29 percent include a personal e–mail address (Lenhart and Madden, 2007). Although no comparison with other age groups is available, it appears that teens tend to include a lot of information about themselves on their online profiles and are unlikely to remain anonymous from other users.

Aims and expectations

The literature review would suggest that there are at least four factors that are likely to influence self–disclosure online. The first of these factors is self–disclosure norms. Self–disclosure norms are likely to differ between the sexes and varying age groups but also between different online genres. For instance, it may be more acceptable for an individual to disclose their sexual fantasies in a chat room due to the shared motivations and common goals of the chatters, but less acceptable in a social networking environment. The second factor is the types of individuals with whom we interact with in specific online environments. Social networking sites tend to be used in anchored ways, therefore individuals are communicating on the whole with friends and acquaintances. Chat rooms on the other hand are used mainly to communicate with strangers. The kinds of individuals we typically communicate with are likely to influence to types and extent of information we disclose about ourselves in our profiles. For instance, it would be more difficult to be deceitful in an SNS context as other users would be wise to this deception. The third factor is the motivation for using a specific online application. There are said to be three main motivational factors for blogging: self–expression, identity management and networking (Fullwood, et al., 2009). These factors are likely to influence the level and types of disclosure in the blog, but also in the profile. We might expect people to be less inclined to identify themselves if they are writing about very personal issues for example. Social networking sites may be used primarily to sustain existing friendships and therefore individuals may be more inclined to reveal identity information. In a chat room context, the motivation for use might be quite different and considering the often sexualised nature of chat room communications, identity information may be less forthcoming. A more anonymous environment may encourage disclosure of a sexual nature, as individuals may feel more comfortable communicating personal thoughts and feelings when others do not know their identity. Motivations may therefore inform how much and what types of information people include in their profiles. Finally, anonymity is likely to influence self–disclosure and profile construction. One would expect chat room users to be more anonymous than blog or SNS users and this is likely to result in a less detailed profile with less identity information.

People commonly behave in a less inhibited fashion online and this is a likely product of anonymity and invisibility (Suler, 2004). Comparative to face–to–face interactions, we might therefore expect people to disclose more explicit and personal information online generally. This investigation, however, is concerned with the manner in which the use of a specific type of online application (the chat room) influences self–disclosure and profile construction. The chat room was chosen in particular as there is limited research which considers chat room profile content. Moreover, the chat room is a unique online environment as interactions take place principally between strangers (Nie and Erbring, 2002). Data collected from this investigation can therefore be compared with profile construction data from previous investigations using blog and social networking profiles in order to help elucidate potential factors that influence profile construction and self–disclosure online. The profile is also an ideal location to explore self–disclosure as it represents an online social CV in which the individual chooses how much or what types of information to disclose. As most online profiles request similar types of information, this also allows for a more direct and fair comparison between various profiles for different types of online applications. Furthermore, sex and age have been highlighted as potential moderating factors in self–disclosure. Therefore, this study is also concerned with whether disclosure between the sexes and different age groups differ as a function of the online world in which we are interacting. In order to test these aims, profiles of male and female chatters from two Lycos chat rooms (‘18+’ and ‘30–something’) were analysed in terms of the types of information disclosed. On the basis of the literature reviewed, it was expected that men would post less information about themselves than women, as well as less identity information. It was also expected that the younger chat users would post more information about themselves. Overall, it was anticipated that chatters would reveal less identity information about themselves comparative to previous studies investigating profile construction in blog and social networking environments. Finally, it was predicted that the average age of chatters in the ‘18+’ chat room would be younger than that of chatters using the ‘30–something’ chat room.

 

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Methodology

‘18+’ and ‘30–something’ Lycos chat rooms were accessed by the investigator (http://uk.worldsbiggestchat.com/). These chat rooms were chosen as they were expected to appeal to different age groups, therefore allowing for an age comparison of profile content. It was also thought that, as they were not focused on a specific interest or group, they would appeal to a wide array of chat room users, therefore allowing for the results to generalised more readily. Lycos chat rooms are password restricted; other than requesting that chatters are at least 18, users do not have to meet any other restriction criteria. Profile information is available to view by any user on the chat room; therefore it was assumed that the information posted in them would be public domain information. A content analysis approach was employed. The data were coded using emergent coding (i.e., categories were established after a preliminary examination of the data took place). In the first instance, the investigator accessed profiles from both chat rooms and noted all types of information that users posted on their profiles so a codebook could be constructed. The types of information that users posted on their profiles included: age, picture(s) of the user, other pictures (for example of friends and family), information about the user’s location (for example, hometown or country), the user’s first name, last name, hobbies and interests, relationships status, a personal description (for example, a description of the user’s personality), a physical description (for example, colour of hair, height, etc.), a link to their e–mail address, and link(s) to Web page(s) (for example, the user’s personal Web page). Category development therefore derived from the types of information that actual chat users revealed about themselves in their profiles.

Each chat room was accessed on two different occasions, once in the afternoon and once during the evening for a period of one–hour in each instance. Therefore, each chat room was visited for total period of two hours. Profiles of chatters available in the room at those times were accessed by clicking on the name of the chatter and following the link ‘who is he/she.’ Each time a profile was accessed, the investigator noted down which types of information were posted on the profile by indicating ‘yes’ if the profile contained the information and ‘no’ if it did not. In total 140 profiles were accessed during the daytime slots (between 15.00 and 16.00) and 184 profiles accessed during the evening slots (between 19.55 and 20.55). In total, data were collected from the profiles of 324 chatters. Eighty–one profiles were of males from the 18+ room; 81 profiles were of females from the 18+ room; 81 profiles were of males from the 30-something room; and, 81 profiles were from females from the 30–something room. A second coder coded a subset (20 percent) of the profiles for inter–rater reliability purposes. Using Cohen’s Kappa, agreement levels were significant for all variables (coefficients were above 0.7 for all variables).

 

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Results

Sex and chat group differences in chatter age and quantity of profile information

A relative measure of the amount of information contained in each profile was calculated by summing the total number of ‘yes’ responses for all types of profile information. Age was also included as a dependent variable in order to determine whether the reported ages of chatters in specific groups differed as a function of sex and the chat room they were in. Age and amount of profile information were entered into a 2 x 2, between–subjects analysis of variance, with chat group (‘18+’ or ‘30-something’) and sex (male or female) as the factors. Means and standard deviations are shown in Table 1.

 

Table 1: Mean age and amount of profile information (standard deviations in parentheses) of chat room users by sex and chat–group.
SexChat–groupMean (s.d.)N
Age       Male18+27.90 (6.61)81
3033.33 (6.80)81
Total30.62 (7.22)162
Female18+23.41 (4.53)81
3034.69 (8.09)81
Total29.05 (8.64)162
Total18+25.65 (6.08)162
3034.01 (7.48)162
Total29.83 (7.99)324
Profile info       Male18+1.25 (1.61)81
301.14 (1.14)81
Total1.19 (1.39)162
Female18+1.96 (1.82)81
302.17 (1.88)81
Total2.07 (1.85)162
Total29.05 (8.64)162
Total18+1.60 (1.75)162
301.65 (1.64)162
Total1.63 (1.69)324

 

There was a significant main effect of chat-group for age (F1, 320=128.654, ρ<0.001), meaning that the ‘18+’ chatters were significantly younger (25.65) than the ‘30–something’ chatters (34.01). There was a significant main effect of sex for age (F1, 320=4.527; ρ<0.05), meaning that the male chatters (30.62) were significantly older than the female chatters (29.05). There was also a significant Interaction for age (F1, 320=15.767, ρ<0.001). Males in the ‘18+’ group tended to be older than their female counterparts, however in the ‘30–something’ group males and females tended to be of a similar age. There was a significant main effect of sex for amount of profile information (F1, 320=23.183, ρ<0.001), meaning that the female chatters included more types of information in their profiles overall than the male chatters. There was no significant main effect of chat group and also no significant interaction effect.

With regards to the types of information included in the profiles of chatters, the most common type of information posted was a main picture of the chatter, with 62 percent of all chatters including this in their profile. The least common type of information posted on the profiles was a link to Web pages(s) with 0.9 percent of all chatters posting this type of information. Twenty–six percent of chatters included some form of information about their location. Twenty percent of chatters included their first name and only 1.5 percent their full name. Eight percent of chatters included a personal description, four percent of chatters a physical description and 13 percent made reference to hobbies and interests.

Sex differences in types of profile information posted on the profile

Multiple two–way Chi–squared tests were computed to test the association between sex and whether or not specific types of information were included in the profile. Table 2 below contains figures relating to the total percentage of male and female profiles containing each type of profile information.

 

Table 2: Percentage frequency with which each type of profile information is contained in male and female profiles.
Profile information typeMale profilesFemale profilesOverallStatistical significance
Picture of user51.85%72.22%62.03%χ2 (df=1)=9.118; ρ<0.01
Other pictures9.88%20.99%15.43%χ2 (df=1)=14.272; ρ<0.001
Location19.14%33.95%26.54%χ2 (df=1)=7.662; ρ<0.01
Relationship status2.47%11.11%6.79%χ2 (df=1)=9.558; ρ<0.01
Personal description4.94%11.73%8.33%χ2 (df=1)=4.889; ρ<0.05
Physical description1.23%7.41%4.32%χ2 (df=1)=7.465; ρ<0.01
Hobbies and interests7.41%19.14%13.27%χ2 (df=1)=9.680; ρ<0.01

 

Results indicate a significant association across the categories for picture of user, other pictures, location, relationship status, personal description, physical description and hobbies and interests. Female chatters were more likely to include all of these types of information in their profiles than male chatters.

No significant associations were found for sex and the inclusion of Web page(s), first name, last name and e–mail address.

Age differences in types of profile information posted on the profile

Chatters were categorised into three age groups (18–29, 30–39 and 40+) based on the reported age of the individual as indicated in the profile. Multiple two–way Chi–squared tests were computed to test the association between age group and whether or not specific types of information were included in the profile.

 

Table 3: Percentage frequency with which each type of profile information is contained in male and female profiles.
Profile information type18–2930–3940+OverallStatistical significance
Location22.22%27.62%43.59%26.54%χ2 (df=2)=7.598; ρ<0.05
Relationship status5%5.71%17.95%6.79%χ2 (df=2)=8.776; ρ<0.05

 

Results indicate a significant association across the categories for location and relationship status. No significant associations were found for age group on all other variables. 40+ chatters were more likely to include all of these types of information in their profiles than 18–29 and 30–39 chatters.

 

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Discussion and conclusion

The study findings indicate that chatters using the ‘18+’ chat group were significantly younger than those in the ‘30–something’ chat group. Broadly speaking, this would seem to suggest that chat rooms dedicated to specified age groups appeal more readily to individuals who fall within those age restrictions. This may be because individuals feel more comfortable disclosing personal and intimate information to others of a similar age (Parker and Parrott, 1995). Furthermore, on average males in the ‘18+’ group tended to be older than the females, however males and females in the ‘30–something’ group were of a comparable age. There could be a number of implications for this finding, for instance one might say tentatively that there is a stronger preference by older males to engage with younger female chatters, however this conjecture requires further exploration. As males are more inclined to use the Internet for dating or to pursue sexual relationships (Fallows, 2005), it is possible that this also applies to the chat room. The discrepancy in age between male and female chatters in the ‘18+’ chat room may therefore reflect human mating strategies off–line. Indeed, evolutionary psychologists like Buss (1989) suggest a degree of universality in males’ preference for younger women, as youth is associated with fertility.

Findings also indicate that the majority of online chatters posted a picture of themselves on their profile (62 percent). This means that it is common for chat room members to reveal their physical identity to their fellow chatters, although it would be difficult to discount the possibility that some chatters could have included a fake picture. Interestingly, this figure is lower than that quoted for all types of online profiles (79 percent) (Lenhart and Madden, 2007) and for SNS profiles (90.8 percent) (Gross and Acquisti, 2005). Therefore, it may be more common to include a picture of oneself on a social networking site profile than on a chat room profile. This is only a tentative conclusion, however, as the study only covers two chat rooms and youth chat rooms, for example, may have different privacy norms. Furthermore, as the study only measured profiles in U.K. chat rooms, it would be difficult to generalise these findings to profile construction rules in other cultures. However, it seems likely that, comparative to SNS users, chatters prefer to remain unseen because this offers benefits when it comes to interacting with strangers. One only has to consider Suler’s (2004) work on online disinhibition for an explanation. Remaining unseen would mean users would feel more comfortable discussing personal and sensitive issues. As chat rooms are often favoured by nonconformists (Fullwood, et al., 2006), it may also be easier to act rebelliously without other users knowing what one looks like.

Compared to statistics on blog site profiles (Herring, et al., 2004) the chatters were less likely to indicate their name on their profile (20 percent revealing first name, and 1.5 percent indicating full name, compared with 36 percent revealing first name and 31 percent indicating full name in Herring, et al.’s (2004) investigation). This suggests that chatters are more likely to choose to remain anonymous than bloggers. Whereas the intimate and candid nature of blogs encourages identity revelation, the same does not seem to hold true for chat rooms, at least when it comes to the construction of the profile. However, anonymity may actually create an environment in which chat members feel more able to express themselves in the chat room. Whereas blogs may not be directed at specific individuals, conversations with complete strangers will take place in chat rooms and therefore one might expect a more overtly sexual style of communication (Subrahmanyam, et al., 2006). Also, far fewer individuals revealed their name in the chat room profiles comparative to previous findings reported for all profiles (where 61 percent of online profiles included a name (Lenhart and Madden, 2007). Moreover, 26 percent of chatters included information in their profile regarding their location. Again this is much lower than figure of 50.8 percent reported by Gross and Acquisti (2005) for social networking profiles. Overall, these figures would seem to suggest that it is less common for chat room users to disclose identity information comparative to other types of online profiles. Findings also suggest that the disclosure of personal and intimate information is not common in chat room profiles. Indeed, only six percent of all chatters made reference to their relationship status. Furthermore, only eight percent provided a personal description and a mere 12 percent made reference to their hobbies and interests. One might expect chatters to more readily reveal these types of information in one–to–one communications with other chat room members.

Overall then, it would seem likely that self–disclosure norms in chat room profile construction differ from those in social networking sites and other online profiles. The chat room genre may not encourage identity revelation in the profile in the same way as SNS or blog sites. Whereas the SNS would seem to encourage users to reveal their identity because interactions take place between existing friends and acquaintances, chat rooms are not used in this anchored fashion. As chat room interactions take place more regularly with strangers, chatters can be more flexible in their communications if their profiles are sparse. Furthermore, zero–acquaintance interactions may mean that there just isn’t an expectation that chatters reveal their identity. Chat members may well have common goals and expectations that dictate what is acceptable behaviour in the chat room. It is also possible that chat room users feel more inclined to reveal personal information in private communications rather than in their profile. Indeed, a common opening greeting for chat room users is ‘a/s/l?’ (age/sex/location?) (Wallace, 1999). Chatters may wish to have more control over identity information and this may have something to do with recent reports of worrisome behaviours taking place in chat rooms (Fallows, 2005). The inclusion of a picture may be considered more important to chatters as this could be used to help them decide whether or not they would like to communicate with another chat member. Chat room users may enjoy the privilege of knowing what the person they are taking to looks like. Indeed, users are often vilified if they are suspected of including a fake picture. It may be also considered safer to include a picture, rather than a name, as a form of identity information. Users would not necessarily be traceable from a picture, but the inclusion of a name, location or e–mail address would make it easier for others to locate and contact them outside of the chat room.

Contrary to expectations, younger chatters were not more likely to include more information about themselves in their profiles. In fact, the older chatters were more likely to indicate their relationship status and location. Although younger adults may be more likely to have an online profile (Madden, et al., 2007) they do not seem to spend more time polishing their profiles with the inclusion of more information. It is therefore likely that the common aims and goals of chatters of all age groups reflect similar types of identity revelation. Statistics suggest that younger adults are more likely to use the Internet for dating or to meet people online (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2008), and in the current investigation more of the older chatters revealed their relationship status. If younger adults are more likely to use the Internet for dating, one might expect their profiles to contain more information than older adults, but this was not the case. However, one advantage of a less complete profile is that the user can be more adaptive to the individual with whom they are conversing and not restricted to the persona outlined in the profile. It may simply be the case that location and relationship status information are more important to older chatters as they may be seeking out similar types of people in the chat rooms.

With the exception of e–mail address, name and links to Web pages, females tended to post more information about themselves. Included in this were images of the users, relationship status and personal descriptions. Considering Fallow’s (2005) claim that women are less likely to use chat rooms over concerns of anti–social and worrisome behaviour, one might have expected women to be less likely to reveal personal information. The fact that they revealed more personal information implies a strategic behaviour. The inclusion of more personal information seems to add weight to Fallow’s (2005) claims that women value the Internet for enriching their relationships. It would seem sensible to suggest that those who are willing to make new friends or maintain current social networks would be more serious about creating an online presence. A larger degree of self–disclosure in this online context also seems to reflect previously reported self–disclosure patterns in the off–line world. The fact that men posted less information about themselves may reflect sex differences in motivations for using chat services. Indeed, Cho (2007) suggested that those who use chat rooms for forming relationships or for sexual activities are less likely to disclose identity information. Considering that men are more likely to use the Internet to pursue sexual relationships, it may be that they are less inclined to provide copious amounts of profile information.

Although the research findings indicate some interesting sex and age differences in chat room profile construction, there are number of limitations that should be considered. In order to maintain the integrity of a truly observational approach it was not possible to ascertain whether the disclosed information in the profiles was real or indeed faked. It is the conjecture of the authors however that an alternative lab–based, experimental approach would lack ecological validity and would therefore be unable to truly recreate the types of conditions that chat room members experience in the real world. For example, an alternative approach could entail asking participants to ‘create’ a profile which is intended for use in a chat room. This would however be problematic for a number of reasons. First, there would need to be an assumption that the participant would actually use a chat room in the first place. Second, and more importantly, creating a profile for imaginary chat room interaction would entail a completely different set of motivations than those involved in the creation of a real profile for interaction in a specific chat room.

Although deceitful behaviour on the Internet has been heavily emphasised by the media, in most respects it is of little concern whether or not chat room members provide fake or exaggerated information in their profiles. For example, it makes little difference if a member claims that he has blonde hair when in fact his hair colour is brown. What is important is that the member has chosen to self–disclose to other members who will react to this information under the pretence that is real. Knowing the extent and what types of information chatters reveal, whether they be truthful or deceitful, also gives an insight into what information chat room members want others to see and therefore a better understanding of profile construction norms in this context. It is, however, important that the user does not provide false information about their age and sex as conclusions have been drawn concerning differences in profile construction between these groups. Research by Roberts and Parks (1999) and numerous examples reported by Whitty and Carr (2006) however suggest that experimental behaviours like gender–switching are not as common as one would expect in the online world. Indeed, they may be more likely to occur in the context of MUDs (multi–user dungeons) in which users may purposefully adopt the persona of their online character. The authors therefore propose that the likely influence of faked data, particularly with regards to false information concerning the sex and age of the user, would be minimal. Further research may however wish to consider the possible influence of relationship status on chat room profile construction. Although the majority of chat room users are said to interact primarily with strangers, it may be possible that many members have pre–existing relationships with other chatters. One might expect the self–disclosure norms of chatters who interact with other members they are already familiar with to be quite different to those who interact more regularly with strangers. End of article

 

About the authors

Chris Fullwood is a senior lecturer in the Psychology Department of the University of Wolverhampton, U.K. and is a member of the Wolverhampton Internet and Technology Society (WITS) research group.
E–mail: c [dot] fullwood [at] wlv [dot] ac [dot] uk

Mike Thelwall is Professor of Information Science and leader of the Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group at the University of Wolverhampton. He is also visiting fellow of the Amsterdam Virtual Knowledge Studio, a Docent at Åbo Akademi University Department of Information Studies, and a research associate at the Oxford Internet Institute. He has developed tools for downloading and analysing Web sites, blogs and social networking sites, including the research Web crawler SocSciBot and software for statistical and topological analyses of site structures (through links) and site content (through text). He has published 152 refereed journal articles, seven book chapters, and two books including Introduction to Webometrics, is an associate editor of the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology and sits on eight other editorial boards.

Sam O’Neill is a graduate from the University of Wolverhampton Psychology Department.

 

Notes

1. Wallace, 1999, p. 47.

2. Whitty and Joinson, 2009, p. 9.

 

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Editorial history

Received 8 November 2010; accepted 22 April 2011.


Creative Commons Licence
“Clandestine chatters: Self–disclosure in U.K. chat room profiles” by Chris Fullwood, Mike Thelwall and Sam O’Neill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Clandestine chatters: Self–disclosure in U.K. chat room profiles
by Chris Fullwood, Mike Thelwall and Sam O’Neill.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 5 - 2 May 2011
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/3231/2954





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