Crafting Our Online Dating Profiles

Both sexes paint a more optimistic picture of themselves on their online dating profiles when they know subsequent interactions will remain online. But this isn’t an act of deception, it’s just how people imagine themselves, says WKWSCI Professor Joseph Walther.

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A young woman sits in front of her computer. The screen lights up and she logs into an online dating website. On it is a list of 13 positive physical and personal qualities that she can use to describe herself in her online dating profile.

The physical attributes include how attractive she is and the personal attributes include how intelligent, caring and adventurous she is. She rates herself from a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 indicating the lowest level of desirability.

This was part of an Amsterdam-based experiment where 92 heterosexual women, aged between 18 and 41, constructed a dating profile and anticipated either meeting a date face-to-face or through text-based chat.

The research done by Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information Professor Joseph Walther and his co-authors from the Amsterdam School of Communication Research has shown that how a person chooses to rate herself on an online dating website is affected by whether she expects future interactions with a date to take place in person or within the virtual world.

“If I’m imagining myself face to face (with someone), I’m imagining having to hold in my waist and hoping that I don’t have a pimple that day, and so I really do think it’s how we imagine ourselves rather than trying to fool somebody.”

“People who thought that their next encounter with their prospective date was going to be online, they described themselves more favourably when they created their profiles than those who anticipated face to face interaction,” Walther observed. Walther, who is also an associate chair at WKWSCI, has over 25 years of experience in computer-mediated communication.

While it is already fairly well-established that many tend to paint an optimistic portrait of themselves to lure prospective dates, Walther’s research expands on when and why it occurs.

The results showed that if participants anticipated online interaction, they tended to believe they could make a desired positive impression on their partner. Walther terms this as “self-presentational efficacy,” and believes this affected how they constructed their profiles; the participants rated themselves better and obtained higher mean scores on the 13 qualities.

This research paper, “Idealized Self-Presentation Online: Relationships Among Anticipated Online vs. Offline Interaction, Self-Presentational Efficacy, Self-Presentation, and Self-Esteem,” was awarded Top Four Faculty Papers in Communication and Technology by the International Communication Association in February. It was one of five papers from WKWSCI that won awards this year.

The ICA is an organisation that aims to advance the study and application of human and mediated communication.

Walther duplicated this experiment at WKWSCI last year and found that in a local context, men would also rate themselves better if they anticipated the following interaction to be online, the same way women did. Both experiments conducted in the Netherlands and Singapore yielded similar results.

However, more than just knowing when people would rate themselves higher, there was a bigger issue that surfaced from various published articles that people lie about themselves on their online dating profiles.

WKWSCI Shines at the International Communication Association

Professor Ang Peng Hwa is the incoming President of the ICA and will become the first Asian to be president.

His term will begin after the 66th Annual ICA Conference 2016, which will be held in Fukuoka, Japan. The theme of the conference will be “Communicating with Power.”

"Part of what it means to be the first Asian president is to say that in a way, ‘We have arrived.’ The quality of our scholarship is as good as anywhere globally. Our scholarship has arrived at an international level that is recognised," Ang said.

In addition, at the 65th Annual ICA Conference this year, WKWSCI faculty members earned a major haul of awards for their research papers that spanned across different fields.

Along with Professor Joseph Walther’s research, four other research papers from WKWSCI clinched awards by the ICA.

Assistant Professor Lai Chih-Hui’s paper on “A Longitudinal Investigation of Technological Affordances for Humanitarian Organizing” also won Top Four Faculty Paper in Communication and Technology.

Meanwhile, associate professors Augustine Pang and May O. Lwin’s paper on "Utilization of CSR to Build Organizations' Corporate Image in Asia: Need for an Integrative Approach” won the Top Faculty Paper in Public Relations.

Associate Professor Benjamin Detenber and Assistant Professor Sonny Rosenthal’s paper on “The Third-Person Effect Over Time: Support for Censorship in a Highly Regulated Media Environment” was awarded Top Four Paper in the Mass Communication Division.

Finally, Ph.D. student Jolie Shi's paper on “Intercultural Communication for Young Sojourners: Using Social Media Campaigns to Reduce Stereotyping in Intercultural Encounters” rounded off the haul by winning Top Student Paper in Intercultural Communication. She co-wrote the paper with Assoc Prof Arul Indrasen Chib.

Walther and his co-authors consider this to be one of the most controversial aspects of the Internet — the way it allows us to potentially alter the way we present ourselves to others.

But to them, it is not a deliberate act to deceive a prospective partner about their true qualities. Instead, it is simply about how people have a different perception of themselves.

“When you picture yourself (having a chat online), you don’t see this person looking at you,” Walther explained. “If I think I’m going to have an online chat, I’m seeing myself at the keyboard saying something funny.”

“But if I’m imagining myself face to face (with someone), I’m imagining having to hold in my waist and hoping that I don’t have a pimple that day, and so I really do think it’s how we imagine ourselves rather than trying to fool somebody.”

To Walther, the way people express themselves using computers is intriguing.

“I had never been interested in technology, but I’ve always been interested in the puzzle about human nature and the challenges that we face when we try to express ourselves through different channel systems,” he said.

His original research interests were in verbal communication, but his fascination with computer-mediated communication began during his doctoral studies in the late 80s, when one of his professors gave him research articles to read.

“I read the articles and they were interesting, but I thought there were some flaws in their assumptions about the communication process. They underestimated the potency of language and they underestimated people’s ability to use different cue systems to accomplish the same kinds of social goals,” he said.

While the technical aspect of computers does not interest Walther, he gets drawn to how people behave when they get on the machines. He enjoys doing experimental research in computer-mediated communication because he observes things that people do not normally expect.

Walther said: “I often see people developing surprisingly strong bonds, even in short laboratory experiments. Within 30 minutes, complete strangers are laughing with each other online and exchanging phone numbers. Because they themselves are surprised by it, it becomes very intense. I’ve been seeing that for years. That’s one of my favourite parts.”

His passion for the field of computer-mediated communication means he tries to work on at least two projects at the same time. His current projects include a study on self-perception in online communication.

He also plans to expand his research on idealised self-presentation. He and his team are repeating the experiment to find out whether the length of time it takes for subsequent interactions to occur, and what medium it will take place in, will affect the way people rate themselves.