The yearbook of a teenager popular in high school typically has two defining characteristics: A legion of friends who have inscribed page after page with fawning comments and the yearbook's owner appearing flawless in nearly every photo.
If Facebook is now the yearbook of life, the same rules appear to apply: The community's most self-absorbed members tend to boast hundreds of fast friends, their walls are littered with provocative posts and their photos usually number in the hundreds - all irksomely flattering.
Facebook, which counts 100 million users, and other social networking sites have become essential to the way a whole generation manages its relationships. Along the way, they have become fertile ground for the vain, and psychologists have taken note.
A new study released by the University of Georgia saw participants singling out narcissists just by looking at their Facebook profiles. The study found that users with an abundance of friends, wall posts and attractive (usually sexual) photos often qualified as narcissists.
According to the study, narcissists use social relationships to boost their self-esteem and enhance their status. They thrive when others like them immediately upon meeting and make it their goal to be perceived as leader-like, exciting and sexually desirable. They believe they are unique.
With Facebook's opportunities for constructing a persona, uploading photos and forging insincere relationships in "sound-byte-driven" conversations, the researchers found it to be overpopulated with narcissists. Lead author Laura Buffardi says the way narcissists behave on Facebook is consistent with the way they live in the real world.
"Generally speaking, they are relatively unconcerned with warm, lasting, intimate relationships. They are more concerned with seeming cool, popular and dominant," says Ms. Buffardi, a doctoral student who wrote the study with associate professor Keith Campbell.
"Facebook allows for the maintenance of shallow relationships more than other forms of communication because it's quite simple to keep a lot of friends in your network."
The researchers, whose results appear in the October issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, gave narcissism personality questionnaires to 129 undergraduates aged 18 to 26 who use Facebook. The questionnaire asked the undergrads if they enjoyed looking at their own body, if they saw themselves as more capable than others, and so on.
Researchers then analyzed four features on the undergrads' pages: the profile picture, the "about me" section, the users' quotes and 20 other photos. Were the quotes clever or self-promoting? Were the photos modest or vain?
"When we looked at [the quotes] they were generally found to be less clever, less entertaining for narcissists in comparison to non-narcissists," Ms. Buffardi said. "This was surprising because in general, at least on initial meeting, narcissists tend to be perceived as charming, entertaining, likable individuals, kind of the life of the party."
She admits the observers might not have found the narcissists' quotes clever because they did not know them personally and had missed the context. But she also said many of the quotes were not appealing because they were self-promotional.Finally, they got strangers to look at the profiles and rate their impression of the users' narcissism.
By and large, users with sexy, "self-promoting" pictures, wall posts and lots of friends were more likely to be deemed narcissistic. The average friend count among the 129 undergrads was 171, although some had as few as six friends and others as many as 604.
Toronto "writer about town" Sarah Nicole Prickett, 23, has 737 friends on Facebook and 795 photos on her profile. Most show the fashionable young woman partying.
"I think [Facebook]certainly makes it more acceptable to be narcissistic," Ms. Prickett says.
Although she uses Facebook to socialize with friends and network in Toronto, Ms. Prickett says that she has also used the site to construct a persona, like many others.
"Instead of revealing, I think it just gives us a chance to edit ourselves and, in that way, conceal the real self. Facebook profiles are about the persona more so than the person ... Narcissism and voyeurism feed off each other in this case."
Beyond showcasing them, are Facebook and MySpace breeding a new generation of narcissists?
Although she says there are plenty of modest uses for Facebook - staying in contact with distant friends and relatives, for example - Ms. Buffardi believes the site's focus on self-promotion may eventually "shift norms" for what people say and do, online at least.