Observations from Psychotherapy on How Using Social Software Influences How We Structure Our Worlds

Through a surge of new acquaintances who quickly dispersed to their separate locations across the continent (colleagues from a brief summer job in New York), I’ve been pulled back, hard, into the Facebook. I want desperately to keep in contact with these wonderful people, and this is the way I know how. (Letters? Too slow– and who writes letters? Phone calls? Too personal– and what if the sentiment wears off? And what if I’m there for one of social softwares’ less noble uses, such as observing/ spying on my new friends and trying to learn about their other identities/ who they are in their real lives?). Anyway, one thing leads to another (as they say), and now I’m one hell of a participant-observer.

Social software keeps coming up in my clinical work. It appears in two major ways: 1) as an extension of my client’s social life, i.e., an ex-boyfriend made a change on his profile intended to publicly humiliate her, and 2) as a manifestation of neurosis or self-perception. What I mean by those rather vague expressions may be illustrated by a client who is perpetually dissatisfied with what his social software profile expresses. It is either too honest and revelatory of his faults, or conceals too much, making the imagined audience (people with whom he might end up becoming romantically or sexually involved) suspicious. He is displeased with his digital body, as he is with his “real life” expressions of identity and his physical presence. Nothing outward seems pleasing.

I was disappointed at first when I concluded that there’s nothing new under the sun– that more or less, the internet recapitulates what’s out here. Sure, there’s no need to express class/ race/ age/ gender/ whatever on the internet, and you can choose not to state those things, purposefully deceive or get around giving a straightforward answer about your categories, or perhaps somewhere out there create an identity that doesn’t rely on these categories at all (yes, this is why I’m interested in the furries); BUT for the most part people get as close as they can to making a digital representation of what they are out here, consciously or no. I realize, though, that the representation itself is quite interesting and can be a great metaphor for how one views oneself/ wants to be viewed by others. The second person I mentioned above gave me a great image for his way of being neurotic when he described changing his profile a few times a day. What an incredible resource for a psychotherapist.

There is one real change I’ve noticed that follows the widespread use of social software. A serious social-software user has a different sort of lifestyle than a person who does not participate. This makes knowing about social software not just a fun bonus or a resource for a therapist, but an essential piece of knowledge if she is working with the youth (anyone in the youth culture) and is to understand his world. I’m a little confused about the phenomenon I’m about to describe, as I think a lot of people who have noticed this phenomenon are, as indicated by articles I’ve read about how damn narcissistic the youth are these days. Social software promotes living a public, externalized life. Facebook is the worst at this– I still hate the newsfeed, which is a stream of gossip and an implicit privacy invasion (for more elaboration on how the newsfeed invades privacy see danah boyd, here: http://www.danah.org/papers/FacebookAndPrivacy.html). What goes on the internet– one one’s profile, blog, etc.– is subject to an audience. We get used to acting for an audience and displaying ourselves. Profile pages are advertisements for ourselves, even when we’re not using the network for dating or getting to know students at the college we want to attend (how people used the Facebook back in the day before everyone was allowed on, so I’ve heard).

Is this a cultural change or an opportunity for narcissists/ a promotion of the pathology known as narcissism? I was bothered earlier this year by a friend who had this whole relationship online– his partner lived in the same town, and yet it still seemed that most of their relationship happened on Facebook. I knew their every move through heart/ broken heart symbols, wall posts, and the like. Facebook became the primary way he communicated what was up with them, meaning that something would be announced on the internet, and the next day people would ask him how he was doing. I thought there was an implicit contract where a piece of information spread through “real life” social channels and then one’s profile was made to match– the representation follows the actual. For him, the representation was the actual. This odd shallowness is social software narcissism. Clearly, it still creeps me out a little, and I like to think I’m beyond it (see my earlier post called “pending,” referring to the then-pending deletion of my facebook profile).

On the other hand, the semi-anonymous audience of one’s peers may be the great contribution of social software. MySpace presents you with a bunch of kids your age who you know in “real life” to various degrees, and definitely does not include your mom. What better place to experiment with a developing identity? What safer place to out yourself, as whatever you can’t be in high school? How awesome is it that so many people can be impressed by my taste in books and film, and that people I barely know can write congratulatory notes on my “wall” when I get my M.A.? I feel like I’m tapped directly into the zeitgeist, updated to the minute. I wonder, though, whether this is a good way to engage with others, as a gigantic mirror. Back to the old question of whether the internet marks an evolution of how humans live and communicate, or whether it just gives us a way to indulge ourselves that we couldn’t before.

1 thought on “Observations from Psychotherapy on How Using Social Software Influences How We Structure Our Worlds

  1. Jenn B

    Hi Amy! I’m a Duquesne alum who’s also interested in online identity/relationships. (It was my dissertation topic in fact – ugh, dissertations)! Anyway, two things: about the friend whose facebook experience seemed to lead, rather than follow his offline experience, you might enjoy Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation – Leswin recommended it to me when I was writing the diss, and I still think about his idea of the hyperreal all the time! Second, I would love to pick your brain about social networking from the therapist’s perspective! Give me an email if you like! I really enjoyed reading your post here – keep it up!



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