Archive | September 2013

Is the development of what has come to be called Web 2.0 and similar technologies changing us in some fundamental way, or are they simply novel technological platforms through which the same old psychological traits express themselves through a different medium?

#SMWLDN – Psychology Day

That wasn’t Social Media Week London’s official name for today, but that is the whole reason why I booked the day off work and made my way down to London (Covent Garden). There were two sessions by psychoanalyst Dr Aaron Balick, whose work I have come to really admire because he focuses on the individual – how people make meaning of their social media experiences, and how our online presence is very much an extension of ourselves, and very rarely our authentic selves. 

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The early afternoon session was a joint presentation with Natalie Nahai. Natalie’s portion was fascinating, because she addressed cultural influences on websites, and how websites and social media platforms can be tailored to the cultural norms of its audience. I’ve worked in marketing for a while and am currently working on a website and never thought about this before. 

She used the term ‘culturability’ – the relationship between culture and usability – for this approach. She went through Hofstede’s (2010) cultural dimensions and described how we could use those principles to design websites and use social media to appeal to the culture of the target audience. 

Aaron’s portion of this session, and his session later in the afternoon, covered a lot of similar points so I won’t go through both in turn; i’ll summarise the main points. 

Aaron’s starting point was:

“Psychologically, we discover ourselves in between ourselves and others”.

In other words, who we are is dependent, almost entirely, on how others see us. And this is the basis of his application of psychodynamics to social networking.

Aaron described how our fundamental need as humans is to relate to each other, and social networking and its many platforms allows us to do this more than ever before, however on a much more simplistic level. He pointed out recognition – we all crave recognition, however social media makes recognition as basic as a ‘Like’, a ‘Retweet’ and so on. The complexities of face-to-face recognition – affirmations, validations which are reinforced through eye contact, touch and body language are all bypassed. There is little or no context.

He also related theories of the self – especially the outward facing ego (yes, there was a bit of Freud in there) – with how we present ourselves. What I’m particularly interested in is how this affects our offline relations, and a couple of people in the audience asked that question before I could in the late session. Aaron said that this mode of relating could, eventually, be both good and bad.

At the moment it is concerning that interactions are beginning to get so simplistic and out of context; at what point does this affect how we relate to people ‘IRL’ [in real life]? However, Aaron mentioned the possibility that in years to come, if the stunted online relations do spill over into the offline and become the norm, that it will be just that, the norm, and we will regail our grandchildren with tales of when we used to talk to our family ‘on the landline’, and knock on our friends’ doors for a chat. For me – as someone who grew up without a mobile phone – that is very unsettling. 

Both sessions were very enlightening and made me want to pursue the subject in depth. Aaron kindly gave me a copy of his book, which will definitely provide further insight. 

Alone Together

I’ve just finished reading Sherry Turkle’s book: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. I highly recommend it. 

My immediate thoughts as I finished the book were ‘this is fascinating and depressing’. In the book, she discusses how technology has left us more connected than ever before, but also more alone than ever before. There is little room for hope in the world we seem to have created for ourselves: we have let technology damage us and our relationships. Overall I found it scathing and worryingly accurate to some extent. 

But what about Britain?

Despite that, some of the examples Turkle presented were pretty extreme – such as the mother who doesn’t look up from her BlackBerry as she picks her daughter up from school, or the person attending a memorial service who couldn’t help but pull out her phone. I have never experienced such a dependence on technology myself and it does make me wonder – are we that dependent in Britain? It would be fascinating to do a cross-cultural perspective; and what about the rest of Europe and other developed countries? 

Connected but alone

The narrative which resonated the most with my personal experience was the idea of many weak ties; how online connections and the highly networked enable us to find what we need and dispose of the rest, with little room for creating deep and meaningful connections. This is the really scary element of the book for me, and something I want to look into further – again from a British perspective. 

Nostalgia of the young

Another intriguing part of the book, and another that I could relate to. When I lost my mobile a few months ago and relied on the landline, I felt more ‘authentic’. I felt nostalgic, and I loved the idea of not being available all the time. This nostalgia is also prevalent in teenagers according to Turkle. You can see it current trends – retro design, analogue cameras, old fashioned phones, shops such as Urban Outfitters selling LPs and turntables – we want all of this because the pace of technology has disillusioned us – despite everything that’s going on, we also find a charm and appeal in the simplicity of the past. It makes us feel more ‘authentic’. 

The Self

I work in a University and I know a couple of people are currently carrying out research on social media and communities – yet I am fascinated by the micro level of this. The self – what motivates people to act how they do on the internet. How has it changed how they relate to each other? Is it a good or bad thing?