When Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg crafted Facemash, the forerunner to Facebook in 2003, the site was little more than a crude version of Hot or Not, compiling photos of female students for merciless rating games.
Today, Facebook is still a hall of mirrors for women who base their self-worth on their looks, says a new U.S. study that suggests the website hasn't come very far from its shallow origins.
Despite all one can do on Facebook, women who base their self-esteem on their appearance and the approval of others continue to use the site as a banal "platform to compete for attention," says study co-author Michael Stefanone, assistant professor in communication at the University at Buffalo.
"Attention is power. If your self-esteem is based on how you look, then Facebook is a great place to advertise that," said Dr. Stefanone, who looks at the social psychology of new media use.
Women generally disclose more on Facebook than men, sharing more photos and spending more time on the site, according to the study, published in the current issue of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.
Although the authors make no guesses as to whether the women - all university students - will grow out of their preening ways, some experts suggest it has always been women's place to catalogue life through photos.
The findings come amid news that Canadians spend more time online than anyone else on the planet - 43.5 hours a month, nearly double the worldwide average of 23.1 hours, according to data from Web research firm comScore released this week. Those numbers follow earlier trends that have shown Canadians to be voracious users of Facebook.
According to Facebook, users share more than 30 billion pieces of content (including photo albums, posts and links) each month.
The current Facebook study attempts to explain the appeal. Conducted last spring, the study involved 311 university students, half women, half men, with an average age of 23.3 years old.Each subject completed a questionnaire called the Contingencies of Self-Worth Scale, which measures people's sources of self-esteem. They were also asked about their behaviours on Facebook, including the amount of time they spent online, the number of photos they shared and the size of their online networks.
Men had fewer friends and photos and spent less time managing their profiles than women. The subset of women who based their identity on their appearance were the most "prolific in sharing photos online," Dr. Stefanone said.
On the other hand, women who said they based their self-worth on more traditional, personal domains such as family and "virtue" spent less time shaping their online personas than their more visual female counterparts.
Although both groups of women had the same amount of photos, "their motivations for using the technology were different," Dr. Stefanone said.
"These tended to be stronger ties with people they knew and communicated often with and felt emotionally close to. They were using it to maintain actual relationships instead of engaging in this attention-seeking behaviour."
The results dismayed Dr. Stefanone: "Some women are still basing their self-worth on image, which is largely a product of mass media, and using new tools and technology to ultimately compete for attention."
The research echoes those of a 2008 study out of the University of Georgia, which found that users with an abundance of flattering photos, self-promoting wall posts and friends often qualify as narcissists, people who, according to the study, use social relationships to boost their status and self-esteem.
Those findings mirror a previous study of Dr. Stefanone's, which showed that heavy consumers of mass media were often guilty of "promiscuous friending," making friends online with people they'd never met before.
"This is consistent with celebrity status," he argues. "Celebrities have massive, abstract audiences that observe them."
As for his current findings, they "help to explain why women use the site more than men," said Emily Christofides, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Guelph who researches the social effects of new media.
Along with her colleague Amy Muise, Ms. Christofides has also discerned a pattern of women keeping more friends, posting more photos and whiling away more hours on Facebook than men.
"If their self-worth is more closely linked with their image and appearance, then it would be more important to carefully manage that on Facebook. In some ways, Facebook gives people greater control, but others can post comments or photos at any time that can undermine a carefully presented image," Ms. Christofides said.
Communication through images has been gendered for some time, says Sidneyeve Matrix, an assistant professor in the media and film department at Queen's University.
"The visual culture of Facebook is by and large the product of female photo sharing and female photo tagging. That's also the basis of campaigns from Kodak, that mom is the 'chief memory officer' - the idea that women take photos, keep photos and share photos."
In this light, does a litany of Facebook photos suggest a woman is obsessed with her looks? Dr. Matrix argues the opposite - that more than ever before, the digital landscape has inured men and women alike.
"It's easier to get over yourself when there's a thousand pictures of you online," she says.
Dr. Stefanone's latest study was co-authored by Derek Lackaff at the University of Texas at Austin, and Devan Rosen at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.