November 20, 2007

Disclosure of Personal Information during Friendship Formation through Internet-Based Communication

Over the past 50 years, the Internet has been developed from a government-run system to help fight the Cold War (DARPA, 2007) into a multimedia, communications, commerce, and informational system that is used around the world (Slabbert, 2007). A Nielsen//Net Ratings study published September 30, 2007 reports that 1.24 billion people (18.9% of the world’s population) used the Internet in the past month. Additionally, 234 million people used the Internet in North American countries, which is 70.2% of the population in that region. Most residents of North America and about one-fifth of the world’s population use the Internet at least once a month. A survey of Internet users showed that the most common use of the Internet is for interpersonal communication (Kraut, Mukopadhyay, Szczypula, Kiesler, & Scherlis, 1998). During interpersonal communication, conversational partners may provide information about themselves. Some researchers have suggested that information disclosure (the process of communicating information about oneself) is an extremely important factor during friendship formation because increased information disclosure leads to intimate, more satisfying, and more stable relationships (Altman & Taylor, 1973). Internet users disclose information about themselves to their conversational partner differently than in face-to-face interaction, but the accuracy of this information can be affected by the user’s anonymity, and perceived anonymity may affect the accuracy and type of information disclosed on social networking websites.

Information Disclosure through Face-to-Face Interaction in Friendship Formation
Information disclosure is important in friendship formation (Peter, Valkenburg, & Schouten, 2005). During the initiation and maintenance of a friendship, the quantity and quality of information disclosure affects the strength of the relationship (Hendrick, Hendrick, & Adler, 1988). In early stages of friendship formation, each person begins by revealing superficial personal information. When a person decreases the superficiality of the information disclosed, this person will discuss a wider variety of more personal topics, which leads to an increased sense of intimacy and trust (Altman & Taylor, 1973). This personal information disclosure leads to feeling validated and understood by the other person during or after the initial establishment of the relationship (Bargh, McKenna, & Fitzsimmons, 2002). Information disclosure is also important after the relationship has been initiated. Good friendships are often characterized by a great deal of information disclosure (Matsushima & Shiomi, 2001). Information disclosure occurs more often after more interaction, increases perceived intimacy, and is a feature of a good friendship. Past research has established that information disclosure has important effects on friendships, and recent research suggests that Internet users present relatively accurate information about themselves during Internet-based communication, but may also present idealized information if it is more difficult to verify this information.
Types of Information Disclosure to Conversational Partners on the Internet
An individual is likely to provide personal information based on the actual ideal rather the ideal self during Internet-based communication. John Bargh and Katelyn McKenna have done several studies based in Higgins’ (1987) self-discrepancy theory. Bargh , McKenna, and Fitzsimmons (2002) conducted an experiment in which two participants used computer-mediated communication[1] to communicate while sitting in two separate rooms. They found that each participant’s actual self (who the person believes to be and what other people believe him/her to be) was more cognitively accessible than the participant’s ideal self (who the person wants to be or who other people what him/her to be; Higgins, 1987). The participants’ actual self was more accessible, so they were more likely to draw upon the concepts in their actual self when providing information about themselves. Expressing the actual self is likely during Internet-based communication and is beneficial to both the Internet user and the potential relationship. People who believe that they can only reveal their actual self through Internet-based communication are more likely to have long-lasting and increasingly intimate relationships through this method than people who believe that they can reveal their actual self in face-to-face interaction (McKenna, Green, & Gleason, 2002). Presenting the actual self can lead to better friendships because information disclosure is a factor in good friendships. The results of these two students suggest that presenting the actual self is both likely and advantageous in developing relationships. Internet users are more likely to present the actual self than the ideal self, but presenting the ideal self can allow aspects of the ideal self become part of the actual self.
Despite being more likely to present the actual self during Internet-based communication, presenting the ideal self can allow aspects of the ideal self to be incorporated into the actual self. An important part of a person’s actual self is what the person perceives other people’s concepts of that person to be (Higgins, 1987). An individual can provide information about concepts from the ideal self during Internet-based communication, and will likely believe that the conversational partner includes this information in his/her concept of the individual, which makes it part of the actual self (McKenna, et al., 2002). Presenting information about the ideal self can make it part of the actual self if other people believe that the information is accurate. A feature of Internet-based communication allows users to present the ideal self because they are given more time to respond during a conversation. An Internet user can “craft” the response because an immediate reply is not necessary (McKenna & Bargh, 2000). An Internet user has more time to think of a response to a statement, comment, or question during Internet-based communication than in face-to-face interaction. Although the actual self is more cognitively accessible than the ideal self during Internet-based communication, the time-delay for an expected response during Internet-based communication allows the user to retrieve information from the ideal self and present this information to the conversational partner. In addition to presenting the both the ideal self and the actual self during Internet-based communication, Internet users must provide information about nonverbal features that are easily accessed during face-to-face interaction.

Internet-based communication requires different methods of information disclosure than traditional face-to-face interaction does because Internet-based communication lacks much of the nonverbal information found in face-to-face interaction (Walther, 1994). Nonverbal information that appears in face-to-face interaction but not most methods of Internet-based communication includes body language, physical appearance, tone of voice, and eye contact. Researchers studying Internet-based communications in the 1990s and earlier hypothesized that the friendships formed through Internet-based communication would be of poorer quality, less intimate, and shorter-lasting because of this “lost” nonverbal information (Kraut, et al., 1998; Walther, 1994). However, some studies have revealed that the lack of nonverbal information in Internet-based communication is “made up” over time: when researchers allow participants to have open-ended interaction, they have intimate and satisfying relationships similar to ones that occur through face-to-face interaction (Parks & Floyd, 1996). Additionally, without visual access to the dress, physical attractiveness, and mannerisms of the other person, a person will project ideal or desired characteristics of a potential friend onto one’s conversational partner when the initial conversation has been enjoyable (Bargh, et al., 2002). Although this projection does not rely on information disclosure, it suggests that people are willing to fill in the gaps in their concept of the other person with positive information rather than negative information. Information about physical appearance may also be transmitted by providing one’s conversational partner with a picture of oneself, but it is possible that a person will provide an outdated, particularly flattering, altered picture, or a picture of someone else. Many people believe that nonverbal information is very reliable during face-to-face interaction (Fiske, 2004, p. 90), but the nonverbal information disclosed during Internet-based communication may be less than accurate. Information about nonverbal features is important during friendship formation, but it is malleable by both parties because of the anonymity of Internet-based communication.

Effects of Anonymity: Deindividuation and Nonconforming Behavior
One key difference between Internet-based communication and face-to-face interaction is the anonymity of the conversational partners. Specifically, a person has the option to remain relatively anonymous through Internet-based communication, which is not as easy in face-to-face interaction. An Internet user can choose a nonidentifying screen name (e.g., “wildcat7493”, “soccerfan99”, “kweenbee”), conceal his/her IP address that could be used to identify the user’s general physical location, and omit any identifying personal characteristics such as job title or city of residence. Some researchers have predicted that increased anonymity may lead to increased information disclosure. In a study of face-to-face interaction, Gergen, Gergen, and Barton (1973) found that participants who sat in a darkened room where they could not see one another disclosed more personal information than participants who sat in a lit room. Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that an individual may disclose information to a person who cannot interact with the individual’s friends and family (the “stranger on the train” phenomenon; Rubin, 1975). When the conversational partner cannot interact with the individual’s friends and family, the information disclosed cannot be verified and there is very little cost of disclosing false information. Interacting with people outside one’s immediate social circle allows the Internet user to try on a variety of identities because these identities cannot be confirmed (Bargh, et al., 2002). The presented identities may be of a different religion, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status, or education level than the Internet user is in reality. When interacting with friends and family, information disclosure and identity presentation are constrained by the conversational partner’s expectations (Pennebaker, 1990). These expectations are not present during Internet-based communication between Internet users who do not know each other outside of their Internet-based communication (Bargh, et al., 2002). The “strangers on the train/Internet” can disclose information that cannot be verified by their immediate social circle. The two conversational partners perceive a “wall” around their conversation that cannot be breeched by friends and family, also known as the “dyadic boundary”. An Internet user can converse with another Internet user without worrying that the information will break the dyadic boundary, and the user may engage in behavior is socially unacceptable.
When people believe that they cannot be identified, they are likely to behave differently than when they can be identified. Increased anonymity leads to deindividuation, during which people regulate their behavior less, do not engage in long-term planning, react based on emotions, are less concerned with their actions’ social desirability, and are less likely to be aware of the behavior of others (Zimbardo, 1970). Internet-based communication is more anonymous than face-to-face interaction, and individuals may engage in behavior that they perceive to violate social norms. An increase in nonconforming behavior may signal a lack of concern for social norms, which may in turn lead to increased honesty that would normally not occur because of self-presentation concerns (Johnson & Downing, 1979). If an individual is a member of a socially marginalized group (e.g., homosexuals, practitioners of non-major religions), that person may be able to meet other individuals of this group over the Internet. Finding and joining a group of similar others (a group that the individual may not have been able to contact in the past), leads people to gain emotional support by feeling less isolated and disclosing a part of their identity that was previously held private (McKenna & Bargh, 1998). Deindividuation can lead Internet users to reveal aspects of their identity that may be kept secret from their usual circle, and perceived anonymity may lead Internet users to disclose information on social networking websites.

Information Disclosure on Social Networking Websites
Social networking websites provide alternative means for individuals to disclose information about themselves compared to other means of Internet-based communication such as instant messaging and newsgroups. Social networking websites feature user-created profiles, which provide some amount of information about the user. A user often selects other users as “friends”; these relationships may or may not exist in the offline world. Unlike Internet-based communication, a user’s profile exists as a standalone description of that user and the information in this profile may or may not be accurate. Can social networking profiles serve as a form of information disclosure?

Information disclosure occurs on social networking websites, although the information provided has malleable accuracy. Name and academic classification (freshman, senior, graduate student, etc.) are disclosed most often: 87% of a sample of college students (Stutzman, 2006) and 82% of a sample of teens report including this information in their user profiles on social networking websites (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). More than three-quarters of both samples report including a picture of themselves (77% of college students, 79% of teens). Less than two-thirds of the samples include the name of the city in which they live (62% of college students, 61% of teens). More than half of college students include information about their political views and membership in certain clubs (55%). Less than two-fifths of the college student sample include information about their sexual orientation and a brief biography of themselves (37% of college students) and provide a link to their personal website or web blog (18% of college students, 39% of teens). Although these samples of college students and teenagers revealed that they disclose information about themselves in their profiles on social networking websites, this information may not be accurate because users want to remain somewhat anonymous. Providing more information that is accurate about oneself leads to increased identifiably. A sample of more than 1,000 college students reported that the participants agree that their social networking profile is accurate (M = 4.16 on a Likert scale where 1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree; Lampe, Ellison, & Steinfeld, 2006). However, a survey of teenagers almost 1,000 teenagers revealed that 46% of those teens included at least some false information in their social networking profiles (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). The same survey found that the amount of reported false information in social networking profiles decreases with age: younger teens reported including more false information than older teens. It is possible that younger people are more concerned with being identified than older people, which would explain why the college students believe their profiles are accurate and the younger teens reported including false information. College students report that it is important to protect their identity information online (M = 4.21 on a Likert scale of 1 to 5, where 5 = strongly agree), are somewhat concerned about the consequences of sharing identity information (M = 3.29), somewhat likely to share their identity information online in the future (M = 3.34), and less likely to believe that their identity information is well protected online (M = 2.66) (Stutzman, 2006). Both of these samples of people with social networking profiles report being concerned with the identifiability of their profiles, but younger people are more likely to provide false information than older people. Regardless of the amount of false information in social networking profiles, these profiles play a role in the maintenance of friendships.

Many researchers have reported that participants establish interpersonal relationships through online communication. Another survey of 600 Internet users found that 50% of those respondents had formed a relationship with another person online that resulted in a face-to-face meeting, and 20% had developed a long-term romantic relationship through online communication (McKenna, 1998). Nearly two-thirds of respondents to a survey (60.7%) reported that they had established at least one personal relationship through participation in online newsgroups (Parks, 1996). In a national sample of adolescents, 25% of the participants reported having a friendship with someone that they knew online but had never met in person (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2002). However, these friendships were formed through participation in newsgroups/forums, direct emails, and instant messaging, not through social networking profiles. It is possible that users use social networking websites to meet new people who they do not know from offline contact (face-to-face interaction). Some research has suggested that social networking websites are fundamentally different than Internet-based communication because social networking websites are used more often for discovering information about people that the user knows from face-to-face interaction. A study by Lampe, et al. (2006) found that students with social networking profiles do not look for new friends online. Instead, they use social networking websites to find out more about people they know offline. Although many studies have found that Internet users have formed friendships over the Internet, these studies primarily examined newsgroups and computer-mediated communication between two individuals. It is possible that newsgroups/forums, instant messaging, chat rooms, and direct emails are useful when the conversational partners do not have access to each other in the online world, but social networking profiles are useful when the two parties know each other from face-to-face interaction. It seems probable that social networking websites are fundamentally different than communications method previously research in studies of computer-mediated communication and newsgroups because these methods are used during different stages of friendship formation.
Information disclosure occurs through Internet-based communication differently than through face-to-face interaction, but information disclosure through both methods is important to the development of friendships. The amount of information disclosed increases over time, which leads to increased intimacy and more rapid development of friendships. When disclosing information, people are more likely to provide information about their actual self rather than their ideal self, but presenting information about the ideal self can allow this information to be incorporated into the actual self. Descriptions of one’s physical appearance may or may not be accurate, but all nonverbal information that is easily accessed in face-to-face interaction must be explicitly stated in Internet-based communication because of the lack of visual image of one’s conversational partner. The lack of easily-available nonverbal information makes Internet-based communication relatively anonymous. Increased anonymity leads to deindividuation, which can lead to expressing nonconforming views and displaying socially unacceptable behavior. Anonymity is of concern to Internet users with profiles on social networking websites, but this concern decreases with increasing age. People use social networking websites to find out more information about other people that they already know from offline contact, rather than to meet people who were previously unknown. Information disclosure occurs through Internet-based communication, is affected by anonymity and deindividuation, and occurs on social networking websites but with users’ concerns about the consequences of providing this information.

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[1] Computer-mediated communication is a process by which two individuals converse through an Internet connection. This includes instant messages, email, and experimental/laboratory settings in which two individuals sit in adjacent rooms and discuss a topic via written text messages to the other person on one of two computers.