Writing ‘The Psychology of Social Media’

The Psychology of Social Media

Note: this piece first appeared on Routledge’s ‘The Psychology of Everything’ website – you can read more about the other books in the series there too. My book, ‘The Psychology of Social Media‘ is available to pre-order now and will be published on April 16th 2019. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

There is something slightly preposterous about writing a book with this title. Psychology and social media are such hard to define topics I often felt like I was trying to catch two clouds with one sieve.

Conceivably, the whole of human experience could have been included, along with the most popular technologies the world has ever seen. More to the point, both psychology and social media are topics about which practically every reader would have pre-conceived theories.

In that regard, I hope you will appreciate how I have worked to make scientific research on psychology and social media both accessible and interesting. This research, and hence this book, is ultimately about you, after all: your psychology, and your use of social media.

As a result, it was important for me to achieve a number of aims with this book. Firstly, I was at pains in the opening chapter to clarify precisely what it is about. So, I spent some time distinguishing ‘social media’ from ‘social networking site’ and ‘social network’. I also took the time to explain why it is important to separate psychology the academic discipline from psychology its subject matter – the psychology of psychology, as it were.

Secondly, I had to be clear that, given it was to be no more than 30,000 words long, this book was not going to be definitive. Any book on psychology or social media is necessarily going to be a kind of personal perspective, but particularly so in a short one. Hence, this was going to be a tasting menu, not a feast, and many dishes were left off the menu.

Whilst I am confident that I managed to fit in most of social media’s major concepts, I’m sure keen eyes may note omissions. I managed to cover identity construction, self-presentation, social capital, hyperpersonal communication, the privacy paradox, the Panopticon, Dunbar’s number, context collapse, online disinhibition, and presence. But I didn’t get to examine Metcalfe’s law, the small world problem, nor emotional contagion.

Similarly, while I covered #FreeAmina, the ice bucket challenge, the Twitter Joke Trial and ‘Weinergate’ as case studies, there were others I would have loved to include. I couldn’t find a place for the famous ‘Ed Balls’ tweet nor #hasJustinelandedyet nor indeed Samaritans Radar, nor the 2013 hack of the Associated Press’ Twitter account.

I did manage to talk about many concepts from internet culture, such as FOMO, subtweeting, fraping and memes. And while I discussed research on Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Last.FM, YouTube, 4chan, Instagram, VK, Periscope, WeChat, and WhatsApp, I couldn’t find a place for LinkedIn or Second Life. I also thought that it was important to cover defunct social media services too, so I managed to cover Orkut, Friendster, Shox, and Meerkat, but would have liked to mention services like GeoCities, Vine, or App.net.

Which brings me to my third aim with this book. While writing it, I’ve tried to implicitly make the point that despite the fact that it’s been around for well over a decade, social media still feels ‘new’. It seems we have a shallow cultural memory, and hence little active learning from its history – such as what happened with dead social media services. For example, I think we can learn a lot about selfies and Instagram from the study of the defunct Israeli website I report in chapter 5, Media.

Similarly, I would have loved to draw out what we can learn from comparing phenomena – such as the ice bucket challenge and the Momo challenge. Somehow, the summer of 2014 seems like centuries ago when compared to the social media of 2019. Essentially, I believe that we can learn a lot about social media – and our selves – by studying its history. And there is a lot of research that needs to be done there – which will have to wait until my next book!

Finally, another aspect of writing a brief book for a general audience is that you don’t really get a chance to develop a main argument. But I’d like to think that in the final chapter, Values, that I get close enough to this.

I remain convinced that the best way to understand social media psychologically is as a kind of self-help, a ‘technology of the self’, if you will. Throughout history, people have used various tools or techniques to try to put some kind of order on their lives, whether it be prayer, mediation, therapy or simply keeping a diary.

What makes social media different is primarily how public they are, but also the fact that they are run by profit-making corporations. Moreover, these corporations claim to be ideology-free, but they do have a particular assumption about human nature – that it can be accurately described using a variety of quantitative measures.

To a social media service, you are essentially a probability calculation – the likelihood that you know this or that person, the likelihood that you live here or there, but fundamentally, the likelihood that you will click on a given advertisement. That is a clever way to run an advertising platform, but a fairly coarse ideology on which to base psychological practice. The question then becomes one of how we value our selves. Deep down, are you actually just a number?

Naturally, this has implications within the context of ‘psychographic’ advertisement targeting which emerged in the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential election and the Brexit referendum, thanks to Cambridge Analytica. Not forgetting of course issues like bots, censorship, and fake accounts. How authentic is our psychology in such an environment?

Ultimately what I was trying to achieve with this book is a kind a of public address. I wanted to explain the concepts that underly psychology and social media, but not conclusively. I wanted to push readers into a place where they would start reflecting on their personal use of social media, but then leave them to decide what to do next.

So now – over to you!

For more information – please contact me.

The Psychology of Social Media – pre-order now!

The Psychology of Social Media

I am delighted to say that my book is now available to pre-order! You can find The Psychology of Social Media on Routledge and Amazon!

I am really proud to be part of Routledge’s Psychology of Everything series, and published alongside so many great authors writing on an extraordinary range of topics.

From the blurb

Are we really being ourselves on social media? Can we benefit from connecting with people we barely know online? Why do some people overshare on social networking sites?

The Psychology of Social Media explores how so much of our everyday lives is played out online, and how this can impact our identity, wellbeing, and relationships. It looks at how our online profiles, connections, status updates, and sharing of photographs can be a way to express ourselves and form connections, but also highlights the pitfalls of social media including privacy issues.

From FOMO to fraping, and from subtweeting to selfies, The Psychology of Social Media shows how social media has developed a whole new world of communication, and for better or worse is likely to continue to be an essential part of how we understand our selves.

I am really pleased with how this has turned out, and I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I’ve deliberately written it to be accessible to anyone with an interest in social media. While it does rely on scientific research, it is meant to be readable by anyone who has ever used Facebook, Twitter or any other social media service. I wrote this book for you – to scratch below the surface of social media, not just to help us understand the but also our selves.

If you would like to know more about the book, or have any other questions, please do contact me!

‘The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use’ #mustread

Noteworthy paper using large-scale dataset just released by researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute. From the abstract below, it looks like it will pour cold water on recent tabloid hyperbole regarding the effects of technology usage on mental well-being. I’ll be reading it with much interest.

The widespread use of digital technologies by young people has spurred speculation that their regular use negatively impacts psychological well-being. Current empirical evidence supporting this idea is largely based on secondary analyses of large-scale social datasets. Though these datasets provide a valuable resource for highly powered investigations, their many variables and observations are often explored with an analytical flexibility that marks small effects as statistically significant, thereby leading to potential false positives and conflicting results. Here we address these methodological challenges by applying specification curve analysis (SCA) across three large-scale social datasets (total n?=?355,358) to rigorously examine correlational evidence for the effects of digital technology on adolescents. The association we find between digital technology use and adolescent well-being is negative but small, explaining at most 0.4% of the variation in well-being. Taking the broader context of the data into account suggests that these effects are too small to warrant policy change.

via Nature (Human Behaviour)

The Times (IE) – “New minister must get to grips with cybersecurity”

I am writing in this morning’s The Times (Ireland edition) on the state of the Ireland’s national cybersecurity strategy: “New minister must get to grips with cybersecurity” [behind a paywall, but you can contact me for a copy].

Final paragraph:

Mr Bruton needs to get to grips with the cybersecurity sector quickly as businesses throughout Ireland are vulnerable, as is our national reputation. At the next reshuffle, the taoiseach would do well to consider a junior minister overseeing not only cybersecurity, but online safety, data protection and digital innovation.

Open Letter on the Digital Age of Consent

I was delighted to help put this letter together, calling on the Government to stick with 13 as the ‘Digital Age of Consent’. Great to get support from so many eminent experts and leaders in this field, many thanks to all who put their name below.

Published here on Medium:  Open Letter on the Digital Age of Consent and reproduced in full here:

In relation to the Data Protection Bill, we note that the report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, having studied this issue carefully, recommended setting the digital age of consent at 13. It is therefore of great disappointment to us that parties to that report have now tabled amendments contrary to that recommendation. As such, we call on the Minister and the Government to remain steadfast in their commitment to 13.

With regard to the current situation, Ireland already has a de facto digital age of consent set at 13. As research such as the EU Kids Online Project has shown, we already have many issues with under 13s using online services in spite of this restriction. Setting the digital age of consent at 16 will not solve these issues, in fact, it will only multiply them.

It is worth stressing that the ‘digital age of consent’ is a data protection issue, not a child safety one. Protecting children from targeted advertising is quite different from protecting them from cyberbullying or online predation. Using data protection law to achieve an online safety effect is, in our view, extremely misguided.

In that light, far too much energy has been wasted on this debate when we could have been talking about how to actually protect and educate children about their digital rights. Our children need a proper digital education and we are failing to deliver this.

What this debate has painfully highlighted is how disconnected many parents feel with regard to their children’s online activity. Rather than delivering a knee-jerk response to those fears, the Government should commit to a properly resourced campaign of parental digital education.

Setting the age of consent at 13 would ensure that social media companies continue their efforts to try to make their online spaces safe and appropriate for under 18’s. If the digital age of consent is set to 16, online platforms would be able to argue that their spaces are for adults only, and reduce protections accordingly. Put simply, the higher age gives parents an illusion of control while at the same time letting industry off the hook.

Finally, given how few viable technical solutions to age verification have been proposed during this debate, setting the digital age of consent to 16 will inevitably lead to more young people simply lying about their ages. Whether with or without their parents’ help, this probably the worst first lesson in digital education a child should ever receive. More to the point, this is unlikely to encourage a child to tell their parents if something bad happens to them when online.

As such, we, therefore, urge the Government and the Oireachtas to implement the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality in setting the digital age of consent at 13.

Yours, etc.

Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon, Director, Institute of Cyber Security

Ronan Lupton BL, Internet Content Governance Advisory Group

Ian Power, Executive Director, SpunOut.ie

Harry McCann, Founder, Digital Youth Council

Prof Brian O’Neill, Director of Research, Enterprise and Innovation, Dublin Institute of Technology

Mark Smyth, Senior Clinical Psychologist

Alex Cooney, CEO, CyberSafeIreland

Tanya Ward, CEO, Children’s Rights Alliance

Grainia Long, CEO, ISPCC Childline

Prof Joe Carthy, College Principal and Dean of Science, University College Dublin

Dr James O’Higgins Norman, Director, National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre, Dublin City University

Dr Vincent Mc Darby, Senior Clinical Psychologist

Ian O’Grady, Senior Counselling Psychologist, President-Elect Psychological Society of Ireland.