The Psychology of Impression Formation

Individuals carefully craft their meatspace personas: giving people the "right" impression about oneself is a critical factor in getting them to act toward us, and react to us, in ways we find desirable.

It is assumed that the majority of users simply bumble onto the Internet without giving their online persona much thought, at least until it has done us harm or interfered with our objectives.

A parallel is the growing trend of the use of "image consultants" to help professionals project the right image in real life, while meanwhile neglecting the same things online.


The terms "warm" and "cold" are central concepts to our dispositions toward others: whether we feel disposed to like them and be forgiving, or whether we feel put-off and even hostile towards another person.

The cues one gives and reads to form the warm/cold impression of a person are mainly nonverbal: expressions, gestures, posture, tone. None of these are communicated online - and users have to go by your words alone.

What's more, the way a person communicates on the internet (writing) is significantly different than the way they communicate (speech) in meatspace.

As a result, the Internet is a very chilly place.


An early, primitive method of overcoming the emotional distance of the Web is by the use of emoticons, used to add "feeling" or "expression" to the words one types. Some consider this to be effective, others puerile.

Linguistic softeners are also common in online communication - inserting some of the nonsense syllables (um, well, like, you know, er, etc.) from verbal communication into the context of a message.

In chat-rooms, "stage directions" that imply actions are often interspersed with the dialogue - so show a smile or extend a hug, or simply describe an expression or action that connotes emotion.

These techniques are described as "primitive and blunt," but demonstrative of the acknowledge of, and desire to overcome, the lack of nonverbal cues in the online medium.


A person's e-mail address or handle is an immediate indication of personality:

An e-mail address is a cue: is it a jumble of random letters, a person's name, or a goofy nickname. The choice you make (when it is up to you to choose) can be helpful or detrimental to establishing a productive persona.

The domain on the right of the '@' can also be important in some forums - xxx@ahrvard.edu gets a lot more credibility, right off the bat, than xxx@aol.com - though in many cases, this cannot be controlled.

Handles, the nicknames used in chat rooms and the like, are similar in nature to the first part of the e-mail address. In most instances, these are entirely up to the user to choose.


In any medium, a person tends to use categories and stereotypes to classify people, regardless of the person's own behavior, which sets expectations.

Age and gender are the "big two" in meatspace: just the phrase "a 60-yaer-old woman" creates a preconception of the personality of a person. However, these two factors are largely imperceptible online, though gender can be implied by the user's choice of name.

Ironically, asking a person's age or gender happens quite frequently in chat rooms - people may be subtle, but they are most often completely blunt about demanding this information from others.

One common reaction is that people online tend to be friendlier and more accommodating to individuals who claim to be female than they are to those who claim to be male. What's more, anecdotal evidence suggests that users will pester a newcomer with a gender-neutral avatar to select something that discloses a gender.

The third most frequent question is location (in fact, the acronym "ASL?" is chat-room shorthand for asking a person's age, sex, and location), such that out national or regional archetypes come into play.

Another important meatspace factor, race, tends to be a taboo online, generally because racial prejudice is seen as unacceptable (whereas gender and age prejudices are tolerated?)


There is the concept of "category priming," where a person is inclined to "classify" a person in a specific way because of the environment in which they are encountered - whether that is by virtue of the site on which a forum exists, or a "neutral" site has an array of name forums that appeal to specific "types" or person.


In meatspace, an impression is formed quickly, as we receive a lot of information immediately upon meeting a person. Online, it tends to be slower and choppier.

A single exchange of e-mails may take place over a week (between message sent and reply read); even a chat room involves a delay of several seconds between one line and the next (depending on typing speed, whether the participants are communicating in multiple threads, etc.)

The author notes that the tempo of conversation online is different than that in meatspace, but I don't believe she draws a specific conclusion from the difference.


Some sites present users with the opportunity to create and manage a personal profile, or initiates to a new group are generally asked to post a "welcome message" that provides this information.

The author suggests that managing these can be effective, but doesn't mention how. She also doesn't cite any statistics as to how many people actually look up a person's profile (which is something I'm doubtful about), or what the consequences are if the profile seems to conflict with their behavior in the forum.


The author refers to the personal home page as an opportunity to manage your online persona, suggesting that the 10 MB or so you get with an Internet access account gives you an opportunity to present a lot of information using various presentation technologies.

Quote: "The personal home page phenomenon is taking off with incredible momentum" - and she cites GeoCities as an example of a company that earns revenue by providing free Web space.

EN: this is highly incorrect, and highly outdated. Personal pages never were very popular, were largely relegated to people with development skills, and were very rarely visited by anyone the person didn't already know in real life. However, I expect Face Book, LinkedIn, and MySpace are bringing back the concept of a personal profile that others can reference, though it's much more limited in its capabilities, and such sites are also often used not to present oneself to strangers, but to help bridge the gap between meatspace acquaintances and the virtual world.


Having a personal home page can give a person an "exaggerated sense that others are watching us with interest." They are especially important with teens and young adults, who are egocentric by nature. And in that way, it becomes fuel for narcissism.

She suggests that the same is true of any online communications forum - that a person posting to a bulletin board may have the belief that they are speaking to a very large audience.

EN: Others have suggested the exact opposite: that people have a false impression of privacy online, and beileve themselves to be communicating to one person or a closed group, and are often shocked or offended with someone "intrudes" on what was always a public conversation.


Another aspect of the Internet is separation of qualities by which people tend to pre-judge others in meatspace: there is no gender, no age, no race, and no social class. Unless this is disclosed, the tendency online is to assume that other people are "like" yourself. While it generally helps to make people more amenable to one another, it can also be shocking when you learn the "truth" about another person's identity.