Before I continue, I should note that this is a re-posting of a guest blog I wrote for a friend's site, fellow writer, Keira Wong (of whom there are references strewn about the place!). It's written for the general public, and I thought others on this site may enjoy it.
Social networking is evolving at an incredible rate, however it appears to be evolving faster than we’re able to adapt to it. Like Europe before the introduction of manners and chivalry, we’re at an undeveloped stage: all stuck interacting with lots of different people, but metaphorically puking in the streets and headbutting strangers.
Facebook and Twitter are now part of everyday vernacular, every bit as much as something like telephone, radio, or television. Love it or hate it, social networking has become very firmly established – but are the general population ready for it?
Just within the last week or so, there’s been a military scandal on Facebook, involving all sorts of xenophobia, racism, homophobia, and sexism. On the other hand, social networking is largely credited as being a major contributor to ‘The Arab Spring’. Simultaneously, we have families re-connecting with people long-lost, while we also have cyber-bullying, driving some users to suicide.
Clearly social networking is much like the telephone or television, or even the internet itself: a neutral or perhaps dualistic technology, capable of good and bad. But the former listed technologies, despite being culturally transformative, have been around long enough for us to adapt our behaviour around them, developing our own etiquette and behaviours in their presence.
So what about social networking? Is it something that we’ll just get used to, like any other technology? Or will it behaviourally require something extra of us – something for which not everyone has given thought?
Long psychology bit
Before we continue, allow me to introduce you to some basic structural information about the psyche from a Jungian perspective, or otherwise the following will just be a load of psycho-babble, of which no one else will understand.
The Human Psyche:
If we start with the conscious mind, second down is the Ego. Now, this doesn’t mean how full of yourself you are, the ego refers to your main conscious mind, responsible for functioning in everyday life, rational thought, and so on. You wake up, blow away the mental cobwebs, and you’re in a basic ego-state. So far, so good?
Now, the top layer is the Persona. The persona is the mask we wear; the image we present to the outside world. It acts as a protection to the ego, as well as shadow contents (shadow contents in particular are what we want to hide from others). You’re at a party and you apply manners, rather than blurting out every thought that comes to mind, and this is persona. Or perhaps you’re acting on stage, then this is persona in a very literal sense. Persona – your image to the outside world.
And lastly for now, the Shadow. The shadow is the first layer of the unconscious (note that you have an Unconscious by the way, not a ‘Subconscious’; psychology has tried to do away with this term for a century due to it being incredibly misleading and inaccurate, portraying a picture very nearly in reverse to the psyche’s true form). The shadow contains everything that is evil and what we hate about ourselves, and wish to hide from others – the contents of which some are conscious, and some are unconscious.
There is also the Anima/Animus and the Self, but they’re not really relevant for this topic.
So to re-cap: the persona is the mask, the shadow is our dark side, and sitting in between the two is our conscious ego, often acting as mediator between the two. And it is this persona that I really want to highlight.
Real Life and Net Life
In real life, we generally take our persona for granted, and understand its role intuitively. Without the persona, marriages would break down, friendships would end, and wars would blaze on an unimaginable scale.
However, on the internet, the persona has always been a much different affair. Especially when chat rooms were popular, the internet was seen as a place where the persona could be explored in many different ways – perhaps the most common being spotty nerds attempting to talk to women for the first time, without fear of obvious personality traits getting in the way! Indeed, the trend continues in online role-playing games (another rather literal instance of persona), where people often meet daily in their own communities, with their own online identities.
Part of the appeal of an internet persona is that various personality traits can be explored, and if someone plays their cards right, this can all be done without affecting real, waking, everyday life. Social networking on the other hand does the exact opposite: real life feeds into and shapes social networking – and what crucially must be understood – social networking often feeds into and shapes real life.
The difficult part of being either a politician or celebrity has always been the public persona – keeping strict watch of what one does in the public arena. But now with services like Facebook and Twitter, what has traditionally been the burden of politicians and celebrities has now passed on to the general public. Things that are said and done online can now have serious consequences offline, and people at large are really just starting to wake up to this fairly recently.
All of this I feel is leading up to a new stage in social development; adding another conscious layer on top of the pre-existing structure. Guarding what we do and say in a whole new sphere of life is leading people to adopt what is essentially a second persona.
Now I could try to coin a term for this new layer (although “The Second Persona” does have a certain ring to it), but I dare say that we’ve collectively produced our own name for it: the Avatar.
So if you’ll allow me to continue with the term, what has your avatar been getting up to, how is it affecting your real life, and what are the psychological implications of all this?
Controlling the Avatar
Well, in terms of Facebook, what happened with your last party among friends? Were you invited, and how? Was it a mass invitation, or was it sent to you specifically? If you were invited, how did invitation through social networking affect the social dynamic of the party in real life? And if you weren’t invited, what happened when you saw the photos of your friends partying without you? Perhaps resentment and jealousy… and how did it affect your relationship with the party’s host?
Indeed, the ramifications of what you do and don’t share online require a great deal of forethought, with a medium that can make or break relationships. And even if you’re smart with your social network usage, you may even have difficulty via a third-party.
For instance, what if you were skipping out on work and went to a party, or dirt biking, etc? Hopefully you’ll be smart enough not to share said event on Facebook, and hopefully your boss isn’t on your friends list; but what if one of your mates puts up photos with you in them? And what if your boss sees you in the photos – does this mean you’ll have to get a guarantee from all of your mates not to share the event online before heading out?
Or perhaps more innocently, what if you skip out on an event to which you didn’t really want to go, but try to spare the other person’s feelings by offering an excuse? (Hey, we’ve all done it.) If you went somewhere else and the event was put on Facebook, then chances are that they’ll find out, and the publicity of our everyday lives will introduce an element of brutal honesty that we’ve so far grown up without, and may be crippling on those who aren’t socially adept.
Leaving behind the topic of parties and returning to the avatar, one has to consider not only the effect on the personal life, but also the professional. How many times have we seen someone become ruined professionally when they post something inappropriate in the public sphere? It seems everyday there is a footballer who makes racist remarks and gets sacked, and of course there’s the aforementioned Facebook military scandal, for which the reprimand is something I cannot begin to guess.
Indeed, it seems very unwise to think that one can share their life online without caution, and not expect to run into some kind of professional strife because of it.
I think our own Keira (an author of children’s books) has grasped this concept intuitively, with the Facebook account ‘Keira Wong’ only being used to disseminate certain information, while an alternative account (which I will not name, but close friends will know) under a different name is used for everyday postings – some of which shouldn’t be shared by nine year olds! Public image is also a reason why my avatar isn’t online, and I for one don’t want my Linux Journal readers tracking me down (nerds can be scary)!
On a more serious note, you should be very aware of governmental snooping, as privacy is waning and government surveillance is increasing (and becoming dangerously pervasive). Something Julian Assange noted eventually led to me deleting my former Facebook account: it’s noted in modern revolutionary manuals that if you belong to any organisation which governments don’t like (my people are often hated by governments), do not use Facebook or Twitter. With an increasing wave of McCarthyism coming from our current governments, stitching up a case against anyone on a social network is extremely easy – pretty much handing over all they need on a platter.
(Note that my IT reporting has necessitated that I now have a second account, but it’s under an alias with no personal info or pictures, living in another town at a made up address. Keira is my only friend there and I genuinely don’t want people adding me. This way I can still keep track of Facebook’s development without getting involved. Although hypocritically, I do have a Twitter account after a celebrity wanted to add me, and I do regret some of my tweets, which may be of concern later in life if this McCarthyism continues.)
All records on Facebook are stored permanently, and with Facebook selling on user information to private corporations, the idea of actual privacy is an illusion. And only recently, the US Government has demanded the details of any user who has used the #occupy hashtag on Twitter. How does this sit with you?
The Avatar and the Psyche
Returning to – and finishing with – all things psychological, what impact will this have on our behaviour, and our psyche in general?
The psychological rule has always been, “the taller the persona, the deeper the shadow”. In other words, the more we identify with our persona – rather than our true selves – the more the shadow builds up, making people neurotic or even psychotic. I’m sure we can all think of someone we know, like for instance a real estate agent who’s obsessed with giving off a veneer of professionalism to the outside world, but underneath is completely restless, often being one of those smokers with the shaky fingers and a desperate, maniacal laugh!
But that’s just the offline real world, in which all of us adults grew up. What will be the effect of the avatar on the psyche moving into the future? Well, time will only tell, but already, some strange and twisted behaviours are emerging.
Both Keira and I came across an article on trolling addicts: people who have become obsessed with stirring up trouble online. Often seeking crueller forms of trolling for a greater high, a particularly dark form has emerged, where the troll will try to stir up trouble on the Facebook page of someone recently deceased. Which leads to the question: what is happening inside the person to lead them to such a path? And what will these people be like in real life, away from the computer? Do they have any real social skills?
Moving away from such dark developments, I’m finding it increasingly common that people I know are becoming addicted to social networking, to the detriment of their real life. You will be talking to them, and mid-sentence, they will get out their phone and check Facebook or Twitter, forgetting all social niceties, channelling most of their emotional investment into the online world, with their physical self perhaps being little more than a slave to the avatar.
But let’s finish up, and finish up with the future at large.
Up until now, imperfect humans have grown up with privacy as an essential part of societal function. Even in highly populated and more collective cultures like India, it’s taken for granted that a certain amount of privacy is essential for an imperfect person to maintain some kind of psychic equilibrium. But social networking is imposing an entirely different structure upon us.
In a world that has traditionally relied on privacy, for better or worse, social networking is imposing a world of transparency – bringing with it a brutal honesty. I’d say that despite all odds, social networking is here to stay, and maintaining one’s avatar will be a necessity.
Are you ready for it? Are we ready for it?