Beware the Lasting Impression of a 'Temporary' Selfie

 
 
Some social media apps promise to delete your messages after they are read. The problem: The memory of your uninhibited behavior lingers. Research by Leslie K. John and colleagues.
 
 
by Rachel Layne
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Think that probably inappropriate Snapchat selfie is safe from leaking into your professional life because it disappears? Think again.

Features on some communication apps like Snapchat and Instagram Stories allow you to share your images and messages with the comfort of knowing that they will disappear quickly from the public eye after having been seen by the intended recipients or after a short period of time.

Disappearing selfies are seemingly the ideal solution for people who enjoy life on social media but who are also keenly aware that 93 percent of job recruiters check social channels before hiring candidates.

“These temporary-sharing technologies…are supposed to solve this problem of the internet never forgetting,” says Leslie K. John, the Marvin Bower Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, who co-authored a new paper on social sharing. Yet they’re not the cure-all that we want them to be. "That’s because the impression that a temporarily shared selfie makes does not disappear when the [photo] disappears.”

In other words, some things once seen are difficult to unsee.

What’s more, the researchers discovered, through its impermanence, the technology encourages people to take more risks when they decide to post. So the impression from those posts can linger in the mind of an observer, say, a colleague or employer, and “come back to haunt,” according to new research published in a recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

“The temporariness induces you to take more risks—to share more risqué or uninhibited content”

The paper, titled Temporary Sharing Prompts Unrestrained Disclosures That Leave Lasting Negative Impressions, was written by Reto Hofstetter, a Professor of Marketing at the Faculty of Economics and Management of the University of Lucerne; Roland Rüppell, of Simon-Kucher & Partners; and John, of Harvard.

What could possibly go wrong?

To better understand how temporary sharing affects whether and what people reveal online, the researchers looked at 2,000 participants across nine studies.

Study one, conducted at a university, was designed to determine whether temporariness impacts disclosure and the impressions made upon others. Participants were asked to take a selfie and told that it would be displayed on the school’s “Moment Machine”—a mechanism that features live shots on big screens across campus.

Knowing that the selfie would be temporary made people 1.2 times more likely to take and share a selfie than those in a control group, the researchers found. The promise of temporariness also caused people to let their guard down—to share uninhibited selfies relative to the control group. “The temporariness induces you to take more risks—to share more risqué or uninhibited content,” John says.

The researchers coded selfies as uninhibited if, among other characteristics, they made a silly or unusual face, like sticking out their tongue, used an object as a prop, or exhibited nudity, drinking, or drug use.

As to the impact on observers of the posts, the temporary-sharers were characterized as having worse judgment than those who shared in permanent mediums.

That belief was underscored after participants in an experiment were able to recall people in a photo who they believed were showing poor judgement. engaged in uninhibited behavior, even after the photo was removed from view. “Sure enough the person in the uninhibited photo was perceived as having worse judgment than the person who looked inhibited.”

“It is often the more regrettable disclosures—compromising photographs posted in the heat of the moment—that are ripe for sharing and so perhaps [are] the hardest to undo,” the researchers conclude.

This behavior isn’t limited to millennials, who are popularly viewed as unfazed by the public nature of social media. Study participants spanned age groups from college students to people all the way past their 40s.

Defeating the ‘illusion of intimacy’

The lesson?

“I’d avoid temporary sharing for anything close to a professional purpose,” John says, “not because temporary sharing is in and of itself unprofessional, but because of its capacity to induce salacious disclosures.”

Given the “illusion of intimacy” that social media creates, users may be deceived about who sees your “temporary” post, John says. In follow-up surveys, the researchers found that many people who share temporary selfies have their settings set for wide public viewing: 29 percent on Snapchat, 22 percent on Facebook, and a whopping 58 percent on Instagram. Plus, it’s important to note that some supposedly disappearing photos can be saved by the recipient using screen-capture software.

Prospective employers reviewing such a post are unlikely to give the candidate much benefit of a doubt. “They might just think if you look uninhibited, you’re an idiot, and they don’t want to hire an idiot.”

She adds that future research might look at ways to avoid sharing content that you later stand to regret, akin to the Drunk Text Savior app. If the app detects that the user is intoxicated, they must correctly answer math questions for the text to be sent.

So think before you send. And then think about how people will perceive you long after you hit the button and what you shared no longer exists.

Rachel Layne is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.

Related Reading:

Sharpening Your Skills: Social Media
The Right Way to Cry in Front of Your Boss
The Surprising Benefits of Oversharing

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