Just Untag It. #16 #cong14

By Caroline Lawless.

Tug of War

Facebook, the most popular social networking site (SNS) in the world with 757 million daily active users, receives over 350 million image uploads every day (Facebook, 2014; Internet.org, 2013; Pew Research Internet Project, 2013). Once uploaded the Facebook users featured in these photos can be tagged. This action impacts the self-presentation strategies and privacy of the tagged user as the photo is archived through the tagged users Facebook profile and can potentially be shared throughout the network with or without the knowledge or consent of the tagged user. This process can result in an online tug of war between the need to control self-presentation and the right to privacy.

Caroline Lang Lawless #16 please don't tag me in your facebook photosp

In 2010 Mark Zuckerberg defended changes to Facebook’s default privacy settings which resulted in the ability to see and search by user name, gender, city and other information on the assumption that “privacy is no longer a social norm (Zuckerberg, 2010 as cited by Johnson & Vegas, 2010).” Zuckerberg’s statement highlights some of the negative consequences of online self-presentation, namely, loss of control over self-image and reputation. People want to control their self-image but potentially lose this control when participating in social networking sites due to their collaborative nature. So is Zuckerberg right, have Facebook users accepted this loss of control as a by product of using social networking sites? From the results of this study it appears that Facebook users still consider privacy to be a social norm and work within the constraints of the social network to protect their online selves. 

Setting Facebook to one side, Instagram and Snapchat have built, and in Twitter's case expanded, their computer-mediated communication tactics on image based exchanges. Twitter recently introduced the ability to tag any user in photos without them having to be a friend or follower. Twitter users can also disable the tag feature through their account so the public or people they don’t follow can’t tag them. Instagram is similar whereby anyone can tag you in a photo once you haven’t blocked them. The privacy issues that result from these features are only going to become more prevalent, particularly with the speculated move away from open social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to emerging “dark” social platforms, such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, where communication occurs in closed, selected groups.

One of the factors that can cause concern for users sharing photographs within Facebook is the fact that the audience spectrum can vary from friends and family members to potential employers. Users are sensitive to the diversity of their audience and moving from a public to a more private online social environment, where the audience can be selected, could result in individuals sharing photographic content that is more personal and explicit nature. Taking Snapchat as an example, the images shared user to user on this platform “self-destruct” after being viewed for up to 10 seconds by the intended recipient. However a screenshot of the image can be captured by the recipient before being reshared by them, through Snapchat or other SNS platforms, with or without the knowledge of the photo subject.

More recently “The Snappening” has highlighted the vulnerability of Snapchat user’s photo exchanges to opportunistic third party “add-on” applications (Arthur, 2014). 

Management Methods

Caroline Lang Lawless #16 Tomorrow morning untag

So how do people manage perceived invasions of privacy in the form of undesirable Facebook photos uploaded and tagged by other users? Nineteen individuals participated in focus group discussions on the management of undesirable Facebook photos in November and December 2013. Group sizes varied from 1 to 8 participants and the participants were primarily female (6 male; 13 female), aged from 18 to 64 years (18 to 24 – 7; 25 to 34 – 7; 35 to 44 – 1; 45 to 54 – 2; 55 to 64 – 2). The methods identified through the thematic analysis of the focus group transcripts fell into three categories; direct, indirect and preemptive. As this study focused on managing an undesirable photo after it had been uploaded to Facebook the preemptive methods, such as deleting photos from a camera or requesting that photos are not uploaded to Facebook, were not taken into consideration. 

Meeting the uploader face-to-face to request the deletion of the photo was the only offline method discussed in the focus groups. Significantly the focus group discussions uncovered management methods which were not identified in previous studies due to their narrow focus on untagging,deletion requests, privacy settings and face-to-face confrontation (Strano & Wattai-Queen, 2012). Within Facebook, these methods indicated a creative use of the SNS to manage unwanted photos, including unfriending the uploader, commenting on the photo, and using Facebook chat or private messages to contact the uploader to request deletion or to request the photo settings were changed to private. Outside the realm of Facebook, email and text communication methods were identified, with these methods being used to contact the uploader to request the offending photo be made private or deleted.

Just Untag It

Caroline Lang Lawless #16 Racing to untag myself

One hundred and twelve participants completed the online questionnaire in January and February 2014. The sample was comprised of 37 men and 75 women (n = 112), aged from 18 to 61 with an average age of 29.54 years (18 to 24 –41; 25 to 34 – 48; 35 to 44 – 16; 45 to 54 – 3; 55 to 64 – 4: SD = 9.54). 84% of the participants had previously experienced an undesirable Facebook photo of themselves being uploaded and tagged by another Facebook user. This result indicates that Facebook users frequently disrupt an individual’s self-image by uploading a photograph on behalf of another user that is not in harmony with that individual’s self-presentation strategies. Through this action Facebook friends, can give the show away by selecting and presenting photographs that are not in harmony with the self-presentation strategies of the subject of the photograph. The strategies, or management methods, used by victims to cope with perceived invasions of privacy, such as, untagging the image or requesting its removal, illustrate the tagged users need to regain control. The main concern for the tagged user appeared to be ensuring that the negative impression was not associated with their profile. This suggests mindfulness on the part of Facebook users in relation to content that could potentially be harmful to their future impression management strategies. 

Untagging was the most popular management tactic with 75% of the sample choosing this method. Untagging a photo is an immediate action controlled by the tagged user that disassociates the image with the user’s profile. It can be considered to be a discreet self-presentation tactic, as the uploader is not automatically notified that a tag has been removed from a photo they have posted. However they may notice their image has been untagged if they manually review the photo. The high percentage of participants using this tactic suggests that untagging is the most acceptable management method available to users.  

In order to further dissect this result consideration must be given to the motivations behind choosing to untag undesirable photos over other management methods, and why Facebook users are satisfied with managing negative impressions of themselves through dissociation. Previous research has suggested that untagging a photo is used to avoid conflict with the uploader (McLaughlin and Vitak, 2012). The counter argument to do this would suggest that untagging an undesirable photo fulfills a need to regain control in an environment that offers its users limited control over their self-image and privacy. So have Facebook users have accepted this loss of control and privacy as a by product of using social networking sites? It could be concluded that this loss of privacy is a social norm that Facebook users are learning to live with by dissociating themselves with artefacts that depict undesirable self-representations. This dissociation results in an “out of sight, out of mind” effect whereby the photo is disconnected with the tagged users Facebook profile and timeline while remaining connected to the uploaders profile and timeline. This poses another question, if the subject of the photo is unaware of the extent to which the undesirable photo has been viewed, shared and commented on does this make it less intrusive on their privacy? Loss of privacy is important as it affects everyone, not just those that participate actively in SNS's. These undesirable images impact the privacy of the people featured within them. 

The popularity of untagging ultimately indicates that managing self-image and privacy through dissociation is sufficient for SNS users. This impression management tactic has also surfaced in other areas of the internet. Google recently introduced a link removal requests service whereby individuals can request negative online articles, in which they are named, are removed from google search results for their name. 


What others say about us is just as important as what we say about ourselves when it comes to self-presentation and impression management. When a Facebook user uploads an image that exposes an undesirable representation of another user they must manage that negative impression within the constraints of the online environment. Within social networking sites, the dichotomous relationship between privacy violations and control over online reputation inevitably results in a trade off between privacy concerns and impression management tactics. 

The findings of this study can be used as the groundwork for future research to extend our knowledge on this important area of cyberpsychology. 

Click to Hear


Arthur, C. (2014). Snapchat leaked pics came from Snapsaved.com, says researcher. Retrieved October 14, 2014 from The Guardian:

Facebook. (2014). Key facts. Retrieved January 25, 2014 from Facebook Newsroom.

Internet.org (2013). A Focus on Efficiency: A whitepaper from Facebook, Ericsson and Qualcomm. Retrieved November 25, 2013

Johnson, B., & Vegas, L. (2010). Privacy no longer a social norm, says Facebook founder. Retrieved August 17, 2014 from The Guardian:

McLaughlin, C., & Vitak, J. (2012). Norm evolution and violation on Facebook. New media & Society, 14(2), 299-315. doi:10.1177/1461444811412712

Pew Research Internet Project. (2013). Social Media Update 2013. Retrieved March 25, 2014 

Strano, M. M., & Wattai Queen, J. (2012). Covering your face on Facebook:Suppression as identity management. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, And Applications, 24(4), 166-180. doi:10.1027/1864-1105/a000076

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie