By Alan Resnick
I’m a private person by nature, so my social media presence is minimal. I’ve never moved beyond Facebook and, even now, it’s more as a voyeur than as an active participant. My posts are limited to sharing significant events or milestones in my life or those of my family, photographs from vacations, botanical gardens, or zoos, and articles that I find thought-provoking or funny. And I’ll make an occasional comment in regard to a friend’s posting, but I’m a tough audience and rather tight-fisted about doling out emojis.
So there are lots of things on Facebook that I struggle to understand, such as why, back in the good old days prior to COVID-19, some people felt it necessary to let others know where they were dining or what play they were attending. One of the current things that has me perplexed is the phenomenon of what I call “third party” or “proxy” Facebook posts, which I define as posts in which a formal appeal is made to either like, share, or repost a photo and the accompanying caption. However, the person who posts the photo does not even know the people in the snapshot; they are simply serving as an agent or proxy for the subjects in the picture.
Here’s an example of what I mean. A couple of days ago, a friend posted a picture of a very attractive, newly married couple who would be classified as “little people.” The caption is in the husband’s voice and indicates that the he believes that people are not sharing this picture because he and his wife are short, and concludes with: “Can we get a share?” Thinking they must be cousins, I messaged my friend to learn about the relationship. But my friend informed me that the newlyweds were complete strangers. They saw the picture on another friend’s post, found it cute, and decided to serve as a proxy for the couple.
There are numerous variations of this type of post, such as: “It’s my birthday and nobody wants to share my photo,” “I bet there aren’t 100 people who will repost this,” or “Do you care enough to share this?” The accompanying pictures often are much tougher to look at than the newlyweds, graphically depicting people who have been in horrific accidents, burn victims, or abused pets. They are clearly intended to not just tug at your heartstrings, but rather to reach into your chest and yank your heart out.
I’ve been thinking about how others react when they see these types of proxy posts. My noodling has led to the hypothesis that people’s responses reflect one of five personality types, and that the percentage of people in each type roughly corresponds to the bell-shaped or normal curve. I’ve also developed a completely unscientific one-item test to help you identify your type. The test is as follows: Your friend, Sandy, who does not own a dog, posts a picture of a young black and tan German Shepherd lying on the grass, curled up with its head propped up on its rear haunches, limpid eyes looking lovingly up at the camera. The accompanying caption reads: “I’m so sad no ever loves me. I don’t think I’ll get any likes.” Which of the following best matches your reaction to this post?
A. Sandy would be so upset if I didn’t like this picture.
B. What a sweet doggie. Of course I’ll like your picture.
C. My neighbor had a German Shepherd.
D. I wish my dog could type that well.
E. Not from me, you won’t.
People who answered “A” fall at the far left end of the bell curve. I call this personality type avoiders, the roughly 3% of the population who respond to these types of postings as requested, but not because of their emotional content. Instead, avoiders respond either out of feelings of guilt or out of fear of some interpersonal confrontation. They dread that Sandy may ask them what they thought of the posting, and don’t want to lie or simply be honest and say that the picture did not move them. Avoiders don’t want to appear uncaring or unfeeling, so they take the bait and preempt a possibly uncomfortable conversation.
People who answered “B” are empathizers. These are people like my friend, the 13% of the population who are simply good, decent, kind, caring, and compassionate individuals. The picture resonates with them at an emotional level, and they readily share, repost, and/or give it a “like.” For an empathizer, responding as requested is a gesture of sympathy and support and only takes a few seconds, so what’s the big deal?
People who responded “C” are in the middle of the curve. They are consumers. They are in that 68% of the population who look at the picture, read the caption, and move on to the next item on their Facebook feed. There is minimal, if any, either intellectual or emotional reaction. For them, this type of post is nothing other than a visual Skittle or popcorn kernel, simply another tidbit of entertainment or information to be consumed.
Moving on to the right-hand side of the curve, the people who answered “D” are cynics. They are the Jerry Seinfelds, the folks who have more of an intellectual, detached, somewhat jaded view of these postings. Cynics wonder if the German Shepherd is being presumptuous in asking for affirmation. They struggle with the existential question of whether directly asking for approval in these types of posts is even necessary because, if the post is funny or impactful enough, people will respond without prompting. But they enjoy the irony of a dog or toddler being able to type or speak.
And out on the far right end of the curve are those people who answered “E,” the crazed. If the cynics are the Seinfelds, the crazed are the George and Frank Costanzas of the world. They look at these posts and begin to mutter and sputter, pacing back and forth, mumbling to themselves questions like: “Who is a complete stranger to tell me what to like?” or “You bet I won’t share your photo? Well, you win that bet.” They start to scan their mental hard drive of snappy responses to perceived slights, so that they can put these emotional extortionists in their rightful place. “You want 100 likes? I hope you get 99.”
In the spirit of transparency, I fall somewhere on the right-hand side of the curve. My typical initial reaction to such proxy posts is to ask myself: “Why would I do this?” So I guess I’m between types, not really cynical, but certainly not crazed.
So, that’s my theory. Take a minute to complete the test and identify your type. Then, of course, feel free to like, share or repost.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.