The Psychology of Social Media

Writing ‘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.

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