So, I got thinking about the meaning of all this, and mustered up the motivation to do some original quantitative research. I logged onto Facebook, clicked on my 'friends' section, and slowly trawled through every single one of my Facebook friends—all 486 of them. Yes, even YOU! (Note: On my profile, Facebook tells me I have 502 friends, but this number is evidently off.) As I did this, I had a pen and some paper next to me, and I was keeping a tally. I observed each profile picture, and noted whether the person posed alone, with at least one other person, or didn't feature in the picture at all.
Here are the criteria I established in the process:
* In order to satisfy the 'alone' category, the person must either be completely isolated, or, if anyone else is in the frame, they cannot be facing the camera, or must be in the background by accident.
* In order to satisfy the 'with company' category, the person must be with at least one other individual who is engaged in the photograph. That is, the other person/people must know the photo is being taken. Animals and statues do not count as other people. Babies/infants do count ('company' is not restricted to friends).
* In order to satisfy the 'N/A' category, the person who 'owns' or moderates the account must not feature in the photograph at all. Deactivated accounts which have the default Facebook display picture do count. Other examples of things under this category: pictures of celebrities, logos, solitary animals.
Alone = 185 (38.1%)
With company = 205 (42.2%)
N/A = 96 (19.8%)
OBSERVATIONS & DISCUSSION
As suspected, most of my friends had chosen profile pictures where they are posing with at least one other person. However, there is only a 4.1% difference between the 'alone' and 'with company' categories, which means the desire to be seen with other people isn't the greatest priority on Facebook. Sure, it must feel good to be perceived as popular, but an imaginative solo shot can really impress people. Even if I did attend more outings, I don't think I would want anyone else to feature in my profile picture. To me, the main function of a profile picture is identity. If there is more than one person in a profile picture, it can become unclear which person is connected to the account. I'm sure some people realise this and set group photos as profile pictures to maintain a sense of ambiguity and perhaps even anonymity.
Couple photos were frequent, but not everyone in a relationship had set their profile picture as one with their significant other. I find that if I see a male and a female together in a profile picture, I assume they are romantically linked. Of course, I make exceptions in cases such as a father posing with his daughter. Sibling shots seem to be a rarity, unless the siblings are around the same age and hang out together as friends. Black and white or filtered photos were more common amongst people who posed alone. People who posed alone were less likely to smile, probably because the photo was not taken at an event. Like I mentioned earlier, the smile you see in my profile picture is completely fake (sorry guys). The majority of accounts that fell under the 'N/A' category were deactivated accounts. This indicates that most people on Facebook want people to know what they look like, even if it isn't obvious at first.
All in all, my findings aren't all that revelatory. My hypothesis turned out to be true: most people on Facebook set their profile picture to a photograph where they are not alone. Of course, my list of friends is just one sample. If you primarily used your Facebook account for maintaining business contacts, and most of your friends were bosses of big companies, most of them would probably pose solo to appear professional. I would guess that some people display a profile picture with other people in it just to feel popular, but this is not a true reflection of how many friends a person has. A person can pose with three other people, but those three people may be his or her only friends.
On a side note, if I were to conduct this experiment with my Twitter followers, the majority of people would fall under the 'alone' or 'N/A' category. Group photos are not that common on Twitter. Here's my theory as to why that is: On Twitter, you're not just interacting with a circle of friends. You will most likely chat with strangers every day (who often become friends or acquaintances). You have to sell yourself to get followers, and if you pose by yourself, you help people emotionally connect with you. On Twitter, the focus is on the tweets. That's it. If you can't craft 140-character zingers, hit the road. On Facebook, you're maintaining an entire profile. Photo albums are important, and there are a lot more parameters on there than on Twitter. If you set your Facebook display picture to one with your two best friends, your Facebook friends will probably know who those two people are because you can tag the photo. It's a lot more intimate and close-knit than Twitter (although I find I have the better relationships on Twitter). Think of Twitter as the modelling portfolio and Facebook as the family photo album. On Twitter, you have to win people over. On Facebook, you've already won the people over, so you can just be yourself.