Our Digital Selves: An Honest Appraisal


Not all topics of conversation are created equally, at least through the lens of social media, according to a recent survey on digital identity. People readily share their thoughts on their race/ethnic background, traditions/rituals, community and pop culture but tend to steer clear of taboo topics, including politics, economics and religion. For most social media platforms, at least 70% of people indicated that they are  mostly “very honest” or “somewhat honest” in what they express online, rarely “not very honest” and never “dishonest.”

But one consideration here is the concept of honesty vs. forthcoming-ness. Someone who does not mark “very honest” for, say, “economic situation,” may feel that way because they choose not to disclose that information. They’re not being dishonest — they just prefer to stay mum on certain topics.  On reflection, a  further distinction between these concepts of honesty vs. disclosure in the survey would have been beneficial.

Here’s more of the nitty-gritty:

Survey Question/Prompt: To what extent on [insert social media type] are you honest of your views on [insert topic]:

The number in parentheses denotes the range in the number of respondents for the various topics. For the topic “Economic situation”, for example, 55 people marked an answer, whereas 78 marked an answer for “Traditions/rituals” and 101 for “Family.”

Facebook (55-101):

honesty fb topics

Not only do people indicate they’re not very honest about politics, economics and religion, they don’t even like to talk about it. These areas received the least amount of attention with the lowest participation rates, mostly across all forms of social media. “Work situation” was another taboo topic people avoided.

Instagram (13-39):

honesty insta topics

Twitter (11-18):

honesty twitter topics

“Religion” above is the only data set that received a 100% “very honest” response, although it had Twitter’s lowest number of respondents, with only 11.

LinkedIn (7-42):

honesty LI topics

YouTube (8-17):

honesty YT topics


On the topic of honesty in social media, what about language expression? Do people express what they want to say the way they’d normally say it in person?

Survey Question/Prompt: How often do you express your language (specifically your word choice, not your language type such as Japanese, English, Spanish, etc.) on Facebook, for example, as you would in-person? A person who always writes “y’all” and “howdy” on Facebook posts because that’s how they speak in person would select the option “I always express my language the same way as I do in-person.”


language expression

Here’s some of the feedback from respondents:

“I am more formal on Facebook because it is public, I would never talk normally like this one-on-one.”

”I always try to clean up my language on social media honestly. In Louisiana we don’t talk the same way we type.”

“I use LinkedIn purely for professional reasons. My language is therefore less casual and less like the typical language I would use in person.”

Dr. Russell Belk, of York University in Toronto, wrote an excellent piece titled “Extended Self in a Digital World.” I spoke to him recently on this topic, and he pointed out the notion of the “disinhibition effect:”

“People can say things online because of a sort of ‘disinhibition effect,’ that they might not say certain things face-to-face, so I think we get maybe better feedback or at least offhand feedback than what people might get than if they’re face-to-face…looking someone in the eye, it’s more difficult to tell them something that’s slightly derogatory…”

Survey feedback corroborates this:

“On FB, I don’t care who gets offended but in “real life” face to face, I worry that I will hurt someone’s feelings.”

At this point, we can already see that a filter exists when it comes to how culture and identity is expressed. It varies for people on what areas those are, but generally people are comfortable sharing information regarding their race/ethnic background, traditions/rituals, pop culture, science/technology issues and hobbies. They tend to be more reserved when it comes to politics, economics and religion. When we’re engaging with others, either in a casual, friendly manner or in a more formal way (say, we use social media as a tool to explore cultural representation), the limitations of our online identities become more evident; so too should our interpretations.

To read the first post on this survey, visit:

#1 Our Digital Selves: Mapping the Mosaic: This covers survey demographics, frequency of usage and how people use various forms of social media.