Following role models on social media can help with major career decisions – if you’re authentic

Edinburgh Napier research suggests that following your work ‘heroes’ on social media can aid your personal development and help with career decision-making.

Date posted

1 February 2017

08:42

Last updated

1 February 2017

A study on the influences and benefits of having role models on social media has resulted in some surprising findings.

After conducting two separate surveys, researchers have found that engaging with online role models makes you feel more supported and, unexpectedly, reduces the temptation to portray an idealised version of your life.

The study was carried out by three authors: Lyndsey Jenkins from Edinburgh Napier’s School of Computing, Debora Jeske from Edinburgh Napier’s Business School (and now at University College Cork), and Ruoyun Lin, from Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien in Germany.

Who do you look up to?

Social media has made it easy to discover and engage with people who are more experienced or qualified than us.

Why do we follow successful people? Because these role models can offer information, support, and guidance as we look to make decisions about our career paths. Essentially, we want to interact with people who we respect and aspire to emulate. Via social media platforms, these role models can help us to develop ourselves while we stay true to our values.

The study found that following role models online meant an increase in the perceived level of support and access to career information.

You lose when you pretend to be someone you are not

Another finding was that people with social media role models felt that they presented themselves more realistically online than those without. This was a surprising result.

The researchers expected that participants would seek to enhance their reputation in order to impress their role models, and would, therefore, report that their social media presence wasn’t a true reflection of their personality. This wasn’t the case.

Perhaps, the researchers suggest, this can be explained by the fact that people want to be perceived as ‘the real deal’ when fostering a relationship with a mentor. What’s the point of falsely presenting yourself if you are trying to connect with someone precisely on the basis of your shared values and priorities?

Should you connect online with everyone who can advance your career?

While these findings seem to suggest that you should connect online with everyone who you admire, the research recommends caution: if you are simply looking to expand your network rather than create meaningful connections with mentors, you won’t benefit.

In other words, a strategy of connecting to role models as a means of gaining access to their network, rather than building a deep relationship with them, doesn’t result in perceived confidence, support, and guidance in career choices.

These positive outcomes are the result of meaningful interactions with someone who you admire, who has an attainable lifestyle, and who demonstrates that this lifestyle can be reached by applying the values that you identify with. The implication, while not specifically surveyed in the study, is clear: You can’t follow hundreds of role models and hope to form a consequential connection with all of them. So instead, intentionally decide who might be the most suitable mentor for you.

Be selective and authentic if you want to get the most from your role models

Overall, this new research shows that online role models can exert a positive influence on the personal development of their followers. These influencers can bring about change by prompting reflection on realistic and attainable career goals and life values. However, authenticity is important. It seems that the effort of creating a false persona negates the benefits of self-reflection.

While the study recommends further research to add clarity to its findings, it does point towards a conclusion that we can intuitively understand: to cultivate a sense of support and guidance in our digital lives, we should be more deliberate and thoughtful about who we choose to spend our time with online.

For more information, see Jenkins L., Lin R., Jeske D. (2016) Influences and Benefits of Role Models on Social Media. In: Dwivedi Y. et al. (eds) Social Media: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I3E 2016. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 9844. Springer, Cham