What your social network profile picture really says

Image caption,
Nina's Facebook page drew 3,500 members

Spare a thought for your profile picture on Facebook. Why did you choose it? What is the scene? Is it even you?

The psychology of profile pictures is now being laid bare in the form of one of the four finalist entries in BBC Radio 4's "So You Want to Be a Scientist?" project.

Nina Jones is a 17-year-old student from Buckinghamshire, and one of the four finalists. Earlier this year, projects were selected from over 1,300 entrants and given the chance to turn their ideas into real research projects.

Together with her mentor Bernie Hogan of Oxford University's Internet Institute, Nina has discovered some surprising - and some not-so-surprising - things about Facebook profile pictures.

"I spend a disproportionate amount of time on Facebook each evening, looking at the profile pictures of people I don't know," Nina says.

"I found it quite interesting the motivations behind certain people's choices. It snowballed into an idea and a hypothesis and then an entry into 'So You Want To Be a Scientist?'."

Duck cover

Nina started a Facebook page for her experiment, gathering over 3,500 members, who shared their reasons for choosing their profile pictures, including:

  • "My profile photo is meant to give the impression that i possess a higher degree of gravitas and sophistication than i actualy do."
  • "I never show me on my profile, I don't want to make is easy for me to be found, because of work."
  • "Mine shows my desire to be Grace Jones."
  • "This is a photo of my bike, Doris."
  • "Used to have my wedding photo, but separated and now it's one of me at the local getting sloshed…"
  • "I like ducks. I particularly liked this duck."

But with the benefit of a few demographic questions, Nina and Dr Hogan began to see some interesting trends.

"The theory we're working with is that people want to make their Facebook profile attractive to other people, but it turns out that they do that in very different ways," Dr Hogan said.

For instance, men were 50% more likely to have retouched their photo than women, and 20% less likely to be smiling in it.

Being in a couple raised the chances of a smiling photo by some 35%.

Respondents under age 30 were twice as likely to have a profile picture showing them at a party, while those over 30 and those in a couple were far more likely to have a child's photo as their profile picture.

'Calling card'

Overall 1% of people showed themselves smoking and 5% showed themselves drinking, leading Dr Hogan to speculate on the social role that profile pictures can play.

"Facebook is becoming one of the de facto ways that we present ourselves to friends and family," Dr Hogan said.

"This photo has become the new calling card, the first point of contact, so (it) is important for understanding what it is we want to show off to each other online."

Nina will be presenting her results, alongside the other three finalists, at the British Science Festival on 14 September at Aston University in Birmingham.

A panel of judges comprising psychologist Professor Tanya Bryon, engineer Professor Trevor Cox and science journalist Mark Henderson will then select which finalist will be chosen as the BBC's Amateur Scientist of the Year.

You can hear Nina Jones and Bernie Hogan talk about their research on Material World, 13 September at 2100 on BBC Radio 4.

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