71% of Facebook Users Engage in 'Self-Censorship'

Men self-censored more than women -- particularly if they had large numbers of male friends.

Most Americans now know the feeling of typing something into a social media input box, thinking again, and deciding against posting whatever it was. But while it certainly seemed like a widespread phenomenon, no one had actually quantified the extent of this "self-censorship."

But now, new research based on a sample of 3.9 million Facebook users reveals precisely how widespread this activity is. Carnegie Mellon PhD student Sauvik Das and Facebook's Adam Kramer measured how many people typed more than five characters into Facebook content-input boxes, but then did not post them. They term this "last-minute self-censorship." The research was posted to Das' website and will presented at the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence's conference on Weblogs and Social Media in July.

The numbers are impressively large. Fully one-third of all Facebook posts were self-censored, according to the method Das and Kramer devised, though they warn they probably captured a substantial number of false positives. 71 percent of all the users surveyed engaged in some self-censorship either on new posts or in comments, and the median self-censorer did so multiple times. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of the study was the demographic correlations with self-censorship. Men self-censored more often, particularly if they had large numbers of male friends. Interestingly, people with more diverse friend groups -- measured by age, political affiliation, and gender -- were less likely to self-censor. 

While the researchers declined to speculate in this study about why people may or may not have self-censored, earlier research with a small group of users found five reasons people chose not share what they'd written: aversion to sparking an argument or other discussion, concern their post would offend or hurt someone, felt their post was boring or repetitive, decided the content undermined their desired self-presentation, or were just unable to post due to a technological or other constraint.

For Facebook users, the main takeaway here is probably: Feel free not to share. Facebook, on the other hand, has to have a more complex relationship to this research. Their interaction and business models depend on sharing, but it's not hard to imagine some circumstances in which it would be better not to share: racist content, say. So, Das and Kramer say that future research should address when the non-sharing is "adaptive," (which I think means good, in this context) and when, in the words of Das and Kramer, "users and their audience could fail to achieve potential social value from not sharing certain content, and the [social-network service] loses value from the lack of content generation."

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Crazy Tech Idea Could Become Real?

"There could be great intelligence enhancements, like infinite memory."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.



More in Technology

Just In