Category Archives: Social Software

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: 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.


my statement on/ to the facebook, with heavy influence from danah boyd:

Social software applications (read: friendster, myspace, facebook, in which a user articulates an identity and visualizes existing social connections and networks new ones) have been of interest for a long time. However, I’ve realized the error of my ways—while I still have some waning affection for apps in which identity articulation is of secondary interest (especially 43Things, a goal-setting, support group style social software), these identity-primary apps now bother the hell out of me. So I’m deleting all my accounts. I’ve set the date for Jan. 23, 2007, unless I’m taken down beforehand.

It’s the self-production that really bothers me, even more than the replacement of “friends” with “friendsters” in the social economy (see danah boyd, and comfortable, safe social space with cyberspace. Indeed, that is more of a response to a need than a production or a displacement—there is no “place” per se where kids, especially the geeks, can be together freely and safely. Instead, they hang out in the network.

I did see this coming ( Eventually this style of self-identification becomes mundane, adolescent. I am no longer in a position where I wish to be identified by my list of favorite books or bands. My identity is no longer fluid enough that I get pleasure from rearranging it publicly or posting notes to create a sought-after appearance. Maybe it’s because I’ve found a vocation, or because I’m pretty sure I’m in love to stay, or I’m reaching critical mass of humans I can keep close. Here I am. For better or for worse.

There’s also the matter of facebook’s privacy invasion. The perpetual, streamlined gossip that pops up every time I log in as the facebook news feed puts an uncomfortable twist on an ordinary social scene. It’s not like normal gossip that must be sought out or might even go unnoticed, but gossip presented in such a way that I feel like I’ve got everyone’s phone line tapped, like my contacts exist as information more than they are anything else. Why should I want to keep an eye on everyone’s business? I would suggest that it’s the same reason that moves me to turn myself into a virtual advertisement (btw, I don’t condemn this universally—myspace is great if you’re a band looking for gigs, and I predict it will eventually become more blatantly commercial, an online business directory). My “friends” are as objectified as I am to myself.

Facebook provided a great service—it was wonderful to find again those of you with whom I’ve been out of touch for some time and have the equivalent of a handshake and a brief chat. You may still find me at, on 43 Things & co. (for now!), by the email listed above or , or you may give me a damn phone call.

Social Software.

This little essay is intended to describe my growing interest in social software. I’ve been spending more and more time on 43 Things and affiliates, Friendster (which is waning, as its niche is overtaken by MySpace), and more obscure sites like my high school and college alumni networks. I also went to a panel discussion a little while ago called “Facebook: A Social Phenomenon” as part of CU Boulder’s annual public Conference on World Affairs, and I’m starting to follow the social software blogs. I’ve been posting semi-regularly on the 43 Things “43 Ideas” page (itself a great piece of social software) on how 43 Things can best be developed and adapted, always with the question in mind of how to build the ideal social software.

I want to focus on the flipside of the question as it’s normally approached. I want to take social software to its conclusion, when the whole world is connected by means of an online social network, and see what happens. Not really how people are using social software, but how their worlds will be different when it’s a fact–how social software uses you; how you become different when seen through social software. The whole internet could be described as a giant social network: a forum where one/many communicate with one/many. The difference with these specific social software applications is that the users are the information. It’s a catalogue of humans; it’s library science meets political science. It’s you, made explicit.

Perhaps it’s the persona development, the looks-good-on-paper, that appeals to me. Certainly it’s a reflection of exclusively quantitative being. Don Giovanni, a great liver of a kind of quantitative life, would have the ultimate MySpace profile (1,003 in Spain, and growing!). As would any of the equally quantitative GTD/ super-achiever/ life coaching guys. There’s a nutball on 43T who’s done thousands of things, he’s utterly quantitative. On his list are things others, even just slightly internal people, would keep to themselves, but he’s only concerned with building a big collection of everything. His insides are all out. When he dies, the electronic record will be huge (what will die with him?).

These networks can be protectors against a certain kind of forgetfulness. If my mood swings low and I momentarily discard all my goals, projects, and half-finished anything, they’re all bookmarked there on my various profiles. I can return to the characteristics I’ve carefully laid out, put in the realm of permanence (out there! where they are made real by way of witness!), so I can return and remember what I was trying to become or imagining I was. I am propped in place, and the “real” identity can be out there. Is this good? Whatever. The new goods/inevitabilities are two, listed below.

Social software replaces humans with humanity; everyone is searchable and taggable. Social software allows two things for the community of humans: mobility (tends toward freedom?) and efficiency (tends toward immortality?). Your location no longer matters, because there’s a human there who fits the qualities you’re searching for, everyone is a friend, and you can keep in touch with anyone no matter how much you all bounce around. They’re all secured in your friend pool–bookmarked resources, never lost, upkeep made much more efficient. Efficiency is brought about through tagging. You can find and label, things are easier to remember, there can then be more individual terms because they are grouped. Efficiency allows many things to become fewer things, and everything is more manageable. Human beings will become so manageable that we’ll all be a few degrees of separation from everybody else. And, information will evolve faster and better because total collaboration will be possible. Everyone in the world along the same obscure wavelength will be linked. I imagine nations will fall apart, or become ornamental.

You run into the problem that I’ve been badgering 43T about in some of my entries, which is this: when does the quantity of information become representative of the person? Does it acquire quality? Can a person be represented accurately by social software? The answer: of course not, if for no other reason than that the self illustrated by the self isn’t the self at all (just like the parents you’ve internalized and have to wrestle with psychologically aren’t really your parents as people, a fundamental truth that will help you heal). As a panelist at the Facebook discussion pointed out, the testimonials (or equivalents) provided on some social software networks maintain a modicum of honesty. Still, all the representation in the world isn’t the thing itself. [Addition: The test is whether these profiles could restore a full retrograde amnesiac to himself– if these things provide a fully backed-up identity. But alas, you are not just the sum of your experiences, and there’s no dispensing with your soul.]

I suspect my interest in social software will fade as I become less egocentric and get more into funky psychology. It’s a situation not unlike that of this guy in an Irvin Yalom story (In Search of the Dreamer, from Love’s Executioner & Other Tales of Psychotherapy) who was really into being an accountant and collecting antique political buttons, until the surface stopped being so interesting and he thought more about his dreams and his soul than what he had on display. It’s strange that these are distinct, possible modes of being. The panel kept circling around whether social software expands or isolates a social network: does someone leave humanity and live in this realm, or is his normal realm augmented and better organized (the former the obvious evil, the latter the questionable evil)? They seemed to me to blend nicely into one, bigger, weirder way of getting along. Ultimately, it’s a way of communication in a context, not a replacement (not a second life!!). Just something that can make you bigger and better, your reach longer, your reactions faster; but you can’t become your improved hard drive, nor invest in it more than it’s worth. You’re a little less human because you’re a little better–more able, of course more mobile and efficient– but you won’t be if you leave humanity altogether.

I suppose this all adds up to this rule for social software: make sure that it stays a tool, and not an end. Don’t worry about collecting the most, or donning the most/best tags—eventually this will collapse the system, anyway, as connections will lose all meaning (witness the trend on MySpace). Another way of saying what I said in the previous paragraph: Social software is somewhere between a perfect map, a mirror of what is, and a way to expand and network, to build, to speed up, to track, with all the power on its side. It’s not much use as a map, other than it’s neat and sort of fun to see things all mapped out, and it helps with not forgetting stuff. It’s a useful tool, but if you go too far, you lose reality and just create a second virtual one. Which is sort of dumb because it’s superfluous, if you imagine that everyone in the world will participate in it. Organization becomes congestive repetition.