When posts embarrass: saving face on Facebook

By Adam Earnheardt

I love my mom, but sometimes her Facebook posts are a little embarrassing.

This is completely her right: to post stuff to Facebook that I find cringe-worthy.

I suspect it’s a right parents have enjoyed for centuries – to say things that will embarrass their kids.

We’re bound to read social media posts from friends and family we find off-putting or embarrassing. We’ve become accustomed to it.

But when those embarrassing posts are about us, and they threaten our reputation, the gloves sometimes come off and things can get messy.

It still begs the question: what should we do about embarrassing posts, especially when they’re about us. Ignore them? Or should we publicly condemn those who made the uncomfortable posts?

In a recent Computers in Human Behavior article, researchers Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch (University of Connecticut), Jeremy Birnholtz (Northwestern University), and Jeffrey Hancock (Stanford University) explored the embarrassment we feel when others post about us on social media.

Birnholtz and Hancock were working on something called ‘butler lies,’ or small polite lies we tell. Like white lies, a butler lie is saying, “I missed your call,” when you just didn’t want to talk.

“Jeff [Hancock] and Jeremy [Birnholtz] did a survey about how people dealt with being embarrassed by others on social media,” Oeldorf-Hirsch said. “Our study was an extension of that survey, to test the effects of various types of embarrassing posts.”

Oeldorf-Hirsch, Birnholtz and Hancock were surprised by the strong physiological reactions people had when an embarrassing act wasn’t actually happening in-person, and the fact that on social media, the audience wasn’t physically present.

In some cases, the person who was feeling embarrassed didn’t even know the audience.

The types of posts their research team used were face-threatening posts. These posts triggered strong feelings of embarrassment, regardless of the content or the type of reputation threat.

“Other-generated, face-threatening posts are posts users make in which they disclose information about other users that contradict what those other users might have disclosed about themselves,” Oeldorf-Hirsch said.

“We certainly found a strong effect overall, but in terms of specific content effects, we may just not have captured the right types of content to find differences.”

The next step might be categorizing what type of content is really embarrassing and what’s not.

Still, when you are embarrassed, you can ignore it or you can do something about it.

“We found that deleting the offending post is the quickest and easiest option,” Oeldorf-Hirsch said.

“We also recommend discussing your feelings about the post with the person who posted it. But do it offline, away from Facebook.”

Adam Earnheardt is chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn. Have a column idea? Email him at acearnheardt@gmail.com

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