A new study identifies four unique types of social-media users and highlights the main reasons they log online.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated July 18, 2017
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Credit: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons we log onto Facebook, from sharing our own news to skimming the latest headlines to checking up on friends and family. Now, researchers from Brigham Young University say they’ve distilled typical Facebook behavior down to four distinct categories—and they say that knowing which one you fall into may teach you something about yourself.

According to the study published in the International Journal of Virtual Communities and Social Networking, most Facebook users can be described as one—or a combination—of the following: relationship builders, town criers, selfies, and window shoppers.

Those names may be pretty self-explanatory. But this being a scientific journal, the study authors also included a detailed description of each type, based on interviews with 47 people who answered questions about their social-media use and other aspects of their personalities.

Eight people in the study were classified as relationship builders, which means they used Facebook primarily as an attempt to maintain real-life friendships and connections—not just ones that occur on-screen. “Relationship builders love to gather and share information; by posting photos and videos, receiving likes, and chatting via the messenger function they are able to develop and nurture relationships with the important people in their lives,” the authors wrote.

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One woman, defined in the study as a relationship builder, said that Facebook was like “having a journal without having a textual journal.” She used the platform to keep her loved ones informed of her daily life, and expected the same in return. In a world where it’s not always possible to call or text friends and family as often as we’d like, the study authors say, Facebook can be a quick and inexpensive way to keep up with loved ones all over the world.

Town criers, on the other hand, are unconcerned with sharing photos or stories about themselves; instead, they are “a cyber version of what was once an official who made public announcements in a community.” They will often let their personal page lapse out of date and consider Facebook an inappropriate venue for discussing personal or emotional information.

For these people (nine of the study participants), Facebook exists simply for them to reach as many people as possible and disseminate a message—not to make friends, flirt, or form emotional bonds. One town crier in the study even said she doesn’t talk to her family on Facebook, because “they are more important than that.”

Then there are the selfies, who use Facebook to—you guessed it—self-promote. They post photos, videos, and text updates, but unlike relationship builders, they’re mainly focused on getting attention. They see likes and comments as a way to “get validated,” according to the study, and they get more pleasure in reviewing their own posts and updates, versus other people’s. This was the biggest group in the study, consisting of 11 people.

And while these people crave reactions from others, that’s not the only reason they’re posting. One person interviewed for the study said that “taking [a] picture and letting it sit on my phone makes it nothing and useless, but once I post something on Facebook, it shows I’ve done something.” Another described Facebook as a “good way of documenting my own life, not just for other people, but for me.”

The smallest group of Facebook users in the study (only two participants) was the window shoppers, who feel obligated to be on social media because their friends and family are, but rarely post personal information. Instead, they spend most of their time on Facebook looking at other people’s profiles, i.e. “Facebook stalking.”

Window shoppers consider themselves too private to express themselves on such a public platform, and they “literally peek into the Facebook world from the outside,” the study authors wrote. “Window-shoppers like collecting information about other people, but neglect to provide any of their own; likewise, they prefer to remain rooted in a tangible, physical world.”

The study authors say that relationship-builder and selfie behaviors on social media have been studied extensively, but that town criers and window shoppers are relatively new distinctions in the scientific literature. For now, they say their research has simply been exploratory—they’re not looking to make recommendations or infer how different types of Facebook use may affect physical health, self-esteem, or how users are perceived by others.

But future research could do just that, they add. In the meantime, they say, it can be valuable to just be aware of the main types of behavior and to think about which you fit into. (Most users identify with more than one, the authors say—and almost everyone has at least some selfie tendencies.)

"Social media is so ingrained in everything we do right now," said co-author and assistant professor of communication Kris Boyle, Ph.D., in a press release. "And most people don't think about why they do it, but if people can recognize their habits, that at least creates awareness."