What this book is about

It’s a short, accessible read, part of Routledge’s Psychology of Everything series., structured across the major features of social media.


Our profiles are where we spend most time when we first create a social media account. Chapter 2 of The Psychology of Social Media is about we express our identities in them.

It begins with a case study of the ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’ hoax, and what that tells us about honestly expressing oneself online. The structure of profiles is critical, as differences in customisation between social media services produce different levels of fakery. Hence, it may seem easier to implicitly display our identities by association, rather than explicitly describing ourselves in words: ‘show rather than tell’.

As a result, this chapter also explores how we can experience feelings of inauthenticity if we put too much work into trying to express ourselves accurately. This leads to a discussion of the privacy paradox: where social media users profess themselves to be concerned with privacy issues yet post considerable amounts of personal information to their profiles.

Consequently, this chapter explores how we may also find it easier to use temporary accounts or anonymous social media services with no profiles at all.

Connections - Chapter 3 of The Psychology of Social Media


After creating a profile, the next step we take on social media is making connectionns. Hence Chapter 3 of The Psychology of Social Media is about how we connect with people online – friends, family, and everyone else.

It begins with a case study on the ‘ice bucket challenge’ which showed the power of connecting with others on social media to create positive effects.

However, this chapter shows that the psychology of connecting with people online is considerably more complex. For example, research shows that Facebook and Snapchat have different social benefits for their users, in terms of maintaining either close bonds or loose acquaintances. It also explores Dunbar’s numbers with regard to adding more friends and followers may not improve access to emotional support.

Considering the groups within our connections brings us to context collapse: because we have different social contexts mixed within our social media connections, and no certainty about who is paying attention at any one time, we struggle to imagine who our audiences actually are. This lack of insight into social media connections, and potential frictions within them, leads to a discussion of the social network characteristics of cyberbullying.

Finally, Chapter 3 reflects on how we might refrain from spreading ‘fear of missing out’ – FOMO – amongst those most susceptible to it in our connections.

This chapter is available as a free download!



Every social media service gives us the power to write updates – tweets, notes, blog posts – public texts where we are free to express ourselves in anyway we like. And so Chapter 4 of The Psychology of Social Media begins with the Twitter Joke Trial – a classic case of online disinhibition, where people say things online they might not say in the ‘real world’.

A sense of invisibility when posting is noted, which led to a discussion of the Facebook News Feed outcry, and a re-examination of the privacy paradox. Users’ frustration over losing control of their updates’ publicity, yet continuing to post personal information publicly, is interpreted with regard to the ‘Facebook iceberg’.

Algorithmic timelines threaten us with obsolescence unless we post popular updates, and as a result our attention is focussed on the visible tip of social media activity. Furthermore, while social media prefers current content, it nevertheless has a permanent quality: even when updates are out-of-date, they are still indefinitely searchable.

Hence, Chapter 4 concludes by examining how we deal with the temporality of our updates. While we don’t want them to fade from view over time, having a lifetime archive publicly available forever can be an unpleasant experience: the past collapsed onto the present.



For many of us, sharing photos and videos online is the main appeal of social media. Hence, Chapter 5 of The Psychology of Social Media focusses on why we like to do this, and what we gain from doing so.

Beginning with the Snappening incident, where Snapchat photos and videos, far from disappearing once viewed, were leaked on the internet. This is interpreted in relation to the concept of presence, or the illusion whereby a mediated experience does not feel mediated. Hence understanding shared media as a kind of psychological travel, this chapter next reports on Instagram users sharing location data with their holiday photographs.

Additionally, this chapter considers how users of two live video streaming services attempted to authentically develop their identities by providing their audiences with unedited access to their lives. However, this shown to be a precarious practice, as Meerkat was abruptly discontinued when Periscope was bought by Twitter.

Other hazards of building social capital on social media discussed include sharing self-portrait photographs – or selfies – and the onerous amount of labour involved, which seems prohibitive, even for the highly attractive.

Finally, Chapter 5 examines the collective labour of the Harlem Shake videos, and the commercial aspects of these kind of memes that most of us know nothing about.



While social media is largely concerned with publicity, nearly every service also includes the ability to communicate in private – messaging . As such, Chapter 6 of The Psychology of Social Media is about direct messages or private messages.

It begins with the failed attempt to send a lewd Twitter direct message that became known as the ‘Weinergate’ controversy. This is discussed in relation to the hyperpersonal model of communication, which explains how social media users try to exploit features like being able to edit messages to achieve communication goals that they cannot in face-to-face conversation.

But messages also include timestamps, which are shown to be crucial in understanding Facebook Pokes. Additionally, users’ motivations are explored in this chapter, noting how social media relationships are maintained by disclosing personal information within private messages. While sharing such information publicly does not seem to have the same effect, this chapter also examines indirect messages or subtweets, and the varied impressions that they create of their senders.

Furthermore, the appeal of social media is compared to social messaging services, where it is shown that users prefer the former for informational reasons, and the latter for social satisfaction. However, occasionally social messaging services are used for informational purposes, and the moral dilemmas created by rumour-spreading on WhatsApp during a security emergency is discussed.



What are the values of social media? The last chapter of The Psychology of Social Media begins by repeating the book’s psychological definition of social media. In other words, the idea that these online services encourage us to digitise previously private personal information.

Fundamentally, Chapter 7 is concerned with two meanings of the word ‘values’ and how this relates to understanding social media. Values can mean numbers and digits, but it can also mean morals and ethics. I argue that to understand the psychology of social media, it is essential to realise that social media’s principles are essentially quantitative.

To illustrate this point, discussion moves to a historic tragedy on the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, and how the idea of commodifying our selves helps understand social media. This brings us to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the psychometric personality research behind it.

However, this kind of research assumes that social media accurately reflects human behaviour. I question this by exploring censorship, fake accounts and black markets for upvotes and comments. This also highlights how little users understand about how social media services operate.

While it might seem a long way off at present, I hope that in the future we will develop not only better methods of managing social media, but better understanding of our selves as a result. We need to clarify our own values, and for social media to better help us to do so.


What readers have said

Praise for The Psychology of Social Media

the author demonstrates mastery and delivers a product of what is clearly extensive and exhaustive reflection and translation into a hard-hitting and widely informative must-read.

Review of ‘The Psychology of Social Media’ by Shawn Day

…your book is accessible and valuable and at the same time rigorous academically – it is a very important contribution to your field and beyond.

Review of ‘The Psychology of Social Media’ by Karen Key

Check Out This Video Interview

Author of The Psychology of Social Media, Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon is interviewed by Dr David Van Nuys of Shrink Rap Radio

Shrink Rap Radio interview: The Dark Side of Social Media

I was really honoured to participate in the legendary David Van Nuys’ Shrinkrap Radio podcast. This was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve had in a long time – very detailed and considered questions about my book, The Psychology of Social Media.

Read more about the book

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Thank you for your interest please enter your details for your free chapter download!

To kick-off the first Psychology Free Chapter Friday, we’re offering a look at Ciarán Mc Mahon’s new book, The Psychology of Social Mediafrom our Psychology of Everything series.

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. From FOMO to fraping, and from subtweeting to selfies, this book 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.

Don’t forget, this title is also available as a free inspection copy for instructors!

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About the Author

Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon is a historian and philosopher of psychology. His research interests lie at the intersection of psychology and technology, including cybersecurity and social media. He is an occasional lecturer at the School of Psychology, University College Dublin and a regular tweeter at @cjamcmahon.