The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: Connected-up Instantaneous Culture and the Self

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Over the past decade, the very nature of the way we relate to each other has been utterly transformed by online social networking and the mobile technologies that enable unfettered access to it. Our very selves have been extended into the digital world in ways previously unimagined, offering us instantaneous relating to others over a variety of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. In The Psychodynamics of Social Networking, Aaron Balick draws on his experience as a psychotherapist and cultural theorist to interrogate the unconscious motivations behind our online social networking use, powerfully arguing that social media is not just a technology but is essentially human and deeply meaningful.

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Chapter One: Psychodynamics

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“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true”

(Hawthorne, 1850)

This chapter will set out the main underlying psychodynamic principles that I propose are operating within the intersubjective system of online relating. I open the chapter by discussing how psychodynamic concepts may be deployed outside the clinic to gain insight into unconscious relational processes, before going into the main psychodynamic paradigm of relational psychoanalysis. This will be the most theoretically dense chapter of the entire book, as it lays out the conceptual basis for further developments of theory and the applications to social networking that will follow. The main aim of the chapter is to provide an overarching lens through which one can apprehend online interpersonal interaction from a relational psychodynamic perspective.

Psychodynamic applications outside the clinic

Psychoanalysis developed from within the clinical situation. It was Freud's observations with individual patients that provided the initial scaffold for the theory of psychoanalysis that was revised and worked over again and again in the light of new experiences and new evidence. No doubt theoretical dogmatism often obscured new possibilities and prevented fresh thought, ultimately creating a constellation of schools of psychoanalysis rather than a single theory undergoing successive revisions. However, the ideal of learning from clinical experience remained. Historically, applying the scientific method to psychoanalysis has been problematic, notably because the object of enquiry, the unconscious, is elusive to empirical observation. This, however, does not release psychoanalysis from the duty to offer evidence of its efficacy as both a treatment and a theory. Dreher (2000) addresses the problematic nature of putting the same nomothetic and quantitative tools so popular in social and empirical methods to use in psychoanalytic research. Dreher suggests an alternative to conventional research methods for psychoanalysis in which a conceptual approach may be preferred. That is:

 

Chapter Two: On Searching and being Sought

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“The individual discovers himself within an interpersonal field of the interactions in which he has participated long before the dawn of his own self-reflective consciousness”

(Mitchell, 1993, p. 132)

These days, online social networking sites are an important locus through which the psychodynamic functions described in the previous chapter are often mediated. However, there is another domain of the Internet, though not an SNS, which, none the less, requires investigation from a psychodynamic perspective first. That is, the most omnipresent function of online life, the Google search. According to the web information company Alexa (2012), Google is the most visited website in the world, followed closely by Facebook. It is the ubiquity of Google that captures our attention here, not so much as a tool to acquire information about things across the Internet, but also to gain information about ourselves and people that are known to us. Vanderbilt (2013) describes how, as the Google search has developed, it has become more reflective and responsive to the multitude of search queries it receives, responds to, and learns from. “We once used search engines to look for information,” notes Vanderbilt, “now we use search to find us – what once seemed transactional now seems an extension of ourselves” (p. 107). Behind the scenes, search engines like Google go about the virtual business of organising “entities” into a “knowledge graph” that contains more than 500 million of these entities (Vanderbilt, 2013, p. 107); Facebook, alternatively, uses what it calls a “social graph”. These entities become online identities that are constructed around real human individuals. Such online identities are compiled on behalf of individuals, mostly outside of their control, resulting in what I call a passive online identity (as opposed to an active online identity which may be deployed via a social networking profile or personal website); it is Google that actively manages our online identities, while the subjects of those identities can only passively look on. There are businesses that, for a price, will offer to manage your online reputation. In reality, they only maintain the capacity to influence the organisation of content about you online, increasing the chances that the links you prefer will rise to the top of a Google search under your name; other information remains online, it just takes a bit more effort to locate it.

 

Chapter Three: The Matrix

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“the electronic age gave us the means of instant total field-awareness. With such awareness, the subliminal life private and social, has been hoicked up into full view”

(McLuhan, 1964, p. 52)

The previous chapter demonstrated how a controlled environment may be utilised to understand, as much as possible, the interpersonal psychodynamics that were provoked by a virtual impingement. The consultation room is a setting in which a variety of external variables are conscientiously muted in the hope that what is left between therapist and patient approaches what might be the closest thing to raw relational data that can then be worked through by way of the therapeutic process. My experience with Thomas showed that, despite all the contrivances put in place to mute these extraneous variables, the therapist's consulting room is not impregnable to impingements (virtual or otherwise): it never really has been. However, the presence of “the third” within the therapeutic holding environment allowed the two of us to work through the dynamics that were found to be operating in response to the impingement. The intersubjective psychodynamics described in both Chapters One and Two have been refined and worked over for more than a century in the continued development of psychoanalytic theory. The application of these refined concepts and understandings from the clinical situation to the social one equally offers us another lens through which we can come to better understand the less conscious aspects of online social networking. Like the consultation room, an individual's relationship to SNSs occurs within a wider context of the larger social matrix that is operating in a highly complex relational environment where all variables are active at once. As online social media is contained within this broader social milieu, we can begin to conceive this matrix as its own kind of holding environment, or container, alongside what we might call an online social third. In this chapter, we leave the consultation room behind, but we take its concepts with us. We turn a psychoanalytic eye not only to the unconscious intersubjective dynamics that underlie interactions across online social networks, but also to how these interactions, through mobile technologies, are now a ubiquitous part of our online and offline realities. In this chapter, we look at the larger ecosystem of technological relating that takes place within the broader socio-cultural system. These interactions are understood to take place within a socio-cultural matrix of online relating.

 

Chapter Four: Who's Afraid of being an Object?

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“I'm your only friend
I'm not your only friend
But I'm a little glowing friend
But really I'm not actually your friend”

(They Might Be Giants, 1990)

All SNSs were not created equally; as we have seen, the turnover of the SNS from one faddish iteration to the next seems now to be slowing, and today (mid 2013) Facebook is by far the most dominant SNS on the planet with an online population of around one billion people (Facebook, 2012b). Five years ago, Ofcom (2008) reported that half of their UK respondents had a MySpace profile; today Myspace's demise is illustrated in its fall in global website ranking to the 208th most visited site, according to Alexa (2012), compared to Facebook occupying the number two slot, just behind Google's search engine, making it the most visited social network on the Internet. In the UK, there are a variety of variables that attract a certain kind of user to a given social network, most notably, age and, to a lesser degree, class (Ofcom, 2008). Facebook's success in its transnational colonisation (Swift, 2012) supports McLuhan's (1964) prediction that “we approach the final phase of the extensions of man—technological stimulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society” (p. 3). Although all of the hype and anticipation that Facebook would be as financially successful as its popularity would suggest were dashed when its shares rapidly declined after its IPO. By mid 2013 it shares had mostly recovered, though they are expected to remain volatile. The Economist's (2011) optimistic claim that “The only area of business that seems to be recession-proof is social media” may not have been misguided after all. Whatever happens to its shares in the short term, however, is in no way indicative of Facebook's success in functioning as a social platform; in fact, the way in which it has historically been difficult to monetise is actually a point of interest. Is it that, as a primarily social network, it resists, in some inherent way, the monetising and objectifying of its users for market purposes? Perhaps Google is enormously more effective with advertisers than Facebook because people go to Google, amongst other things, to search for things to buy, but go to Facebook in order to socialise with each other. If Benjamin (1988) is right that the primary human motivation is to seek and be sought and to recognise and be recognised, then the marketer's desire to make consuming objects out of socialising subjects has been a rather difficult route to plan by way of the SNS. Still, Facebook's investors continue to look for ways to exploit their massive captive audience to better use the platform to create profit. One of the ways this is developing is through Facebook's “ecosystem”, the way in which the social network grows and colonises an individual's online activity far beyond interacting with friends through basic text based messaging systems. This is exemplified in Facebook's 2012 purchase of the popular photography application Instagram, an application that enables individuals to take pictures on the move and share them with friends. Shortly after its purchase, Instagram changed its terms and conditions to allow it to use “any or all of…[a user's personal] photographs for advertising and other purposes, at its sole discretion” (Naughton, 2012b, p. 27). In reflecting on this development in the Observer's Comment section, Naughton wryly reminds us of “the old Internet adage ‘if the service is free than you are the product’”. If there is any indication that the world's largest online social networking site is trying to make a commercial object out of human subjects, this is certainly one of them.

 

Chapter Five: Being in the Mind of the Other

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“The way people interact reveals implied or tacit assumptions about their relation to the self as object. Each person forms his own ‘culture’ through the selection of friends, partners and colleagues. The totality of this object-relational field constitutes a type of holding environment and reveals important assumptions about the person's relation to the self as an object at the more existential level of self management”

(Bollas, 1987, pp. 48–49)

In the previous chapter, we looked into the variety of ways in which an individual may be vulnerable to objectification over an online social network. This gravitational pull towards objectification is somewhat paradoxical, since it fundamentally lies over the innate motivation to be recognised as a full subject, and, subsequently, to recognise the other as such. However, as we have seen, there are aspects embedded within the architecture of online social networking that might work in a synergistic way with the functions of false self and persona, transference and projection, that encourage relating as an object to objects rather than the fuller form of intersubjective relating. The dynamics of internal object relations as they are experienced within the subject as well as projected outwards are always in play with an other in the relational matrix, both on and offline. However, unlike with online relating, interpersonal cues in offline relationships provide a context in which a lean towards intersubjectivity is encouraged. My own experience, as described in Chapter Two, provides an example of how the intersubjective experience within the consultation room was threatened by the virtual impingement that happened outside that space because it lacked a psychoanalytic “third”. A similar concept to the “third” is Winnicott's theory of “holding”, that is, both the physical and the loving relationship that creates the relational environment around the infant and its primary care-taker in which the infant is also psychologically held in mind by the mother figure. The developmental opportunity that holding offers the infant also includes the growth of the infant's ability to “hold” the image of the mother figure in its own mind (and know that it is also in the mind of the other), which allows the process of separation and individuation to begin. The fundamental process that occurs here is intersubjective. The infant learns that it is in the mind of the other, that it is held there, and, thereby, can also internalise the other and keep her inside as an internal companion, enabling the infant to go out and explore the world. The nature of how this process proceeds will go on to inform the quality of its future relationships.

 

Chapter Six: Identities are not Virtual

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“I thereby concluded that I was a substance, of which the whole essence or nature consists in thinking, and which, in order to exist, needs no place and depends on no material thing; so that this ‘I’, that is to say, the mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, and even that it is easier to know than the body…”

(Descartes, 1637)

In the introduction to this text, I posed the question: “Is the development of what has come to be called ‘Web 2.0’ changing us in some fundamental way, or is it simply a novel technological platform through which the same old psychological traits express themselves through a different medium?” It is my hope that the previous chapters have gone some way in enabling us to come closer to an answer to this question. So far, we have seen how the same relational psychodynamics that underlie offline relationships are at play across online social networks; these online social networks and accompanying technologies (smartphones, tablets, and the ubiquity of 3G and now 4G networks) that saturate our daily lives are posing additional opportunities and challenges to the way in which these psychodynamics are at play. The convenience of access to others in conjunction with the architecture of SNSs has a series of consequences with regard to the nature of our intimate and not-so-intimate relating. More and more, our internal and external worlds are merged as aspects of ourselves are present online twenty-four hours a day. As a result, we are, at the same time, made more accessible than ever before, but also more relationally distracted because we all share in this accessibility. The way in which individuals choose to relate to each other over SNSs is as diverse as the architecture of their platforms allows. Across SNSs, we can engage as extraverts or introverts, as voyeurs or as exhibitionists, as honest expressions of our selves (as we understand that to be), or as a well-honed persona. These choices are dependent, of course, on proclivities, psychodynamics, and personality styles; although SNSs may encourage certain kinds of relating, the nature of the identities of those who are relating across them is not “virtual”; it is a real identity expressed over a digital medium.

 

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