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First Impressions: How People Look at Your Online Persona


They say you only have once chance to make a good first impression. Whether going into a job interview, a blind date, or introducing yourself to people in a new town, how people perceive you matters. That first impression is fundamental in the way that human beings communicate with one another. It takes a lot to build positive rapport, but far less to destroy it. Over the last ten years, social media has changed the way that people perceive one another. You now no longer wait to meet someone in person before making judgments or formulating opinions about them. People make their first impression without even knowing it. Your online persona, and the way people perceive your social media presence, affects the way you interact with the modern world like never before.

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A Brief History of Faces

First impressions have always played a role in the survival of species. Perception and the evolution of eyesight practically go hand in hand. Prehistoric and remote ancestors of human beings might have developed eyesight as a way to identify threats. It was necessary to differentiate between predators and non-predators as quickly as possible.

This need to make a quick assessment of strangers has become ingrained in human cognition over the course of thousands of years. The humble beginnings of the species relied on smaller, tight-knit communities. Hunter-gatherer lifestyles did not require the level of communal cooperation to come. As the species evolved, these smaller social environments gave way to larger, more complex communities. Societies formed and people began to interact with strangers on a regular basis. A persistent lack of familiarity made split-second decisions about others an absolute necessity. In many cases, sizing up someone’s personality based on appearances meant the difference between life and death.

Though, the way that you perceive others when browsing a profile online rarely directly affects your physical survival. The advent of the internet has not changed the way you make these judgments. You still respond more positively to features and faces that are familiar. Anything that falls out of that purview requires closer attention.

Put Your Best Face Forward

Everyone knows the importance of a flattering profile picture. It’s the face you show your friends on Facebook. It’s the way to improve your chances on Tinder. It’s the way to look professional on LinkedIn. Your face matters like never before.

The judgments you make about a person based on their social media photos change the way you interact with them in the future. Scientists have called it a sort of “self-fulfilling prophecy.” If you believe that someone is shallow because of their profile pictures, you are more likely to focus on other traits that inform point of view. Post a photo of yourself making the dreaded duckface and you can expect visitors to your page to form a very specific opinion of you. Once the impression is there, it is difficult to reverse.

Numerous studies have measured the way people perceive certain facial features. Tracking characteristics such as dominance, approachability, and attractiveness, researchers observed how respondents reacted to certain physical traits. Physical features such as large eyes, broad smiles, and strong jawlines contributed to overall perceptions of people. A recent study found that people with larger eyes tended to rank as more attractive. Respondents considered those with masculine features to be dominant when compared to others. Broader smiles correlated to approachability. Interestingly though, when viewing photos of professionals, a grin gave the perception that a person was less competent than others.

Body language plays a role in the perception of your online profile, as well. If a person views your body language as reserved, they are more likely to deem you untrustworthy and less desirable. People whose photos display more expansive body language, stretched out torsos and open arms, are more desirable. This is especially true for online dating platforms. No one wants to swipe right on Tinder when a person has a grimace or crossed arms.

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Despite the large body of research linking perception to physical traits, judging someone by appearance does not always work. Human beings are fallible creatures. Just because they believe something about a person based on a photo from the internet does not necessarily make that belief true. There is no magical way to make a definitive connection between appearance and personality.

What This Online First Impression Means for You

Given the myriad characteristics human beings use when forming a first impression, you can manipulate the way people perceive you online. Flashing those pearly whites and displaying welcoming body language can help create the positive image you want. Doing so may very well lead to better in-person interactions.

Since people now have an increasing tendency to interact with people online before meeting in person, it stands to reason that you should improve perceptions of you. Not only does it affect the way your friends see you, but it could also impact your professional or romantic future. There is no shortage of ways which you can shape how others see you.

Planning the effect you want to have is most important. Identify the kind of message you want to get across to people browsing your profiles across social media. Ask yourself, “Who do I want to be?”

An easy, effective way to shape perception is through the clothes you wear. It is important to tailor your style to the platform you’re using. You obviously don’t want to appear slovenly for your LinkedIn profile. You also don’t want to seem closed off or unapproachable in photos on online dating sites.

Having more than one photo of yourself on your profile is perhaps most important. You want to give people ample opportunity to form a well-rounded perception of you. Don’t rely on one image of yourself when trying to make a positive first impression.

What does your profile picture say about you? Are people likely to view you as trustworthy and approachable? Or do you come off as overbearing, vapid, or negative? How do you normally perceive others when browsing profiles on social media? Let us know your thoughts on what you do to make your profile as positive as possible.


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