We all know that social media has a pull on the ego, but how does this pull actually work and what are its consequences? I refer to social media’s invitation to us to make our lives public as the “will to share” and whole variety of concerning consequences. Every day now we run into news stories about people doing crazy things in the name of acquiring likes or shares. Time reports the the number of deaths by selfie are rising due to the risks individuals are taking in order to capture them. Incidences of “stranger shaming” are also rising while others take to YouTube in order to outdo each other for pranks that terrify ordinary people. Each of these behaviours indicates a draw of the ego to perform across social media in ways that break previous social conventions, put people at risk, and undermine the consent and rights of others’ privacy.
The perennial question naturally arises, “Is social media causing this to happen, or are we just able to see more of it because of social media.” While both are clearly applicable, I argue that social media does, to some degree, enable and invite expressions of ego that are personally and socially worrisome.
What’s The Ego For?
The poor ego is so misunderstood. This is probably because it was never really supposed to have such a technical term. Freud used simple language to describe this aspect of mental functioning and used the German word “Ich” or in English, simply “I” – his English translators did him a disservice by making the word sound more technical than necessary.
In any case, our “I” is just that, it’s how we recognise ourselves, where we locate our subjectivity. Importantly, the ego’s main job is to mediate between our internal worlds (the world in our minds) and the external world (what Freud called “the reality principle”) so we can achieve what we need and want, while at the same time being socially responsible beings. He describes the ego as being like a person on horseback, “who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse.”
For Freud, this horse represented sexuality – and our egos helped us to keep sexuality in check. Today, however, we understand a large part of this horse as being the need for attachment and relationship. And when we reduce these concepts down further, we come up with concepts like recognition and validation. Before social media, we had to acquire validation through our actions and behaviours to gain it from those around us. Social media has seriously lowered the bar and enabled us to get it through simple behaviours like snapping, uploading, and posting.
The development of the smartphone in synergy with social media apps have revolutionised the way we get validation.
So in our model the ego is the person on horseback, and the horse is violently seeking validation and recognition. In a normal ego system, the ego is parked at the edge of the self, monitoring internal needs, and making decision about how to gain these needs in the real world. This may look like an individual who wishes to achieve some sort of recognition. Their ego, represented as it is on the image to the right, occupies a place between this person’s inner world and external world. Ideally, it looks inward at their own resources (humour, intellect, warmth, creativity, etc.) and then expresses this function of self in the external world. A good example of this may be someone who has musical talent, expresses this in the world, and gets validation and recognition for this expression of self.
Because social media is like a giant virtual external environment, it calls upon the outward leaning parts of the ego much more so than the inward looking ones. In fact, I would argue that:
social media in synergy with the portable technologies like smartphones that enable it, demand the outward leaning parts of the ego at the expense of the inward looking features.
What we end up with is a rather unbalanced model in which the ego doesn’t simply lean out, but is so fed by outward manifestations of validation, that it inflates as well, becoming much like the diagram to the right:
This leaning out and inflation of the ego has a series of consequences. The first is that, to use Freud’s metaphor, the will of the horse is enabled to express itself more easily. When the rider is on the horse, she can feel its power, and may be quite cautious with the reins. However, if that horse is being operated by remote control, the power of the horse feels less dangerous and the person is likely to take greater risks while riding it. Secondly, the inner-looking aspect of the ego, which is so important for maintaining awareness of one’s internal psychological and emotional needs may get neglected, enabling only the public “performing” parts of the self to get this reduced form of “recognition” which has deleterious psychological consequences.
The Loss of Empathy
The most concerning consequence of the outward leaning and inflated ego is that one needs the inward leaning part in order to access feelings of empathy. As I have discussed on my own blog and in Wired magazine, the prevalence of Internet trolling is the result of online disinhibition, increased access to others, the lack of complexity when communicating with others online, and the ways in which online others can seem to lose their humanity in our eyes, making it much easier to be nasty to them. After all, when you don’t have to encounter another’s direct emotions in relation to your behaviour (for example, someone crying or punching you for being mean to them) it makes it much easier to, in a sense, let that horse run amok.
While trolling is at the extreme end of things, all of the psychological components that go into it are active in smaller degrees in the will to share. What happens is what I have previously called the “tinderisation” effect. The tinderisation effect doesn’t just occur in relation to the famous app or the multitude of apps that are similar to it. What tinderisation does is increase our exposure to so many others while at the same time reducing those others to mere profiles on our phones and in our minds. This undermines our ability to see these others as full subjects in their own right (i.e. people) and rather objects of use to us. Objects that can be picked up or dropped at will. What results is a loss of the sense of the other as a person, and we tend to treat them more like objects as shown in the digram below:
The Will to Share is Ubiquitous:
As I have argued throughout my research, there is nothing psychologically or emotionally new about technology or social media. All that they do is provide a particular set of conditions that enable certain psychological traits to express themselves. In my book I make a metaphor to fast food. Fast food plugs into our ancient desires to consume fat, protein, sugar, and salt. However, the provision of fast food, at so cheap a price and requiring such a small amount of effort to consume, has deleterious consequences. Every once in a while it is a treat, but consumed as your main source of food, it is not nutritious and it will make you sick. The same is true for the kind of validation that we achieve on social media. It may make a nice treat, but it’s not the most nutritious way to acquire the attention, recognition and validation that you need.
We become most aware of will to share when it operates in the more pernicious ways. For example, when someone is “stranger shaming” they are prioritising the share over the feelings of the person that they are shaming. When being nasty over Twitter, the will to share is to expose someone else or to take them down. When pranking an innocent bystander on YouTube, the will to share prioritises views over the feelings of the person being pranked.
However, we need to also be aware of the more subtle ways in which the will to share can have negative consequences on our lives:
- When, instead of enjoying a sunset, you are photographing it for Facebook.
- When, at a live gig, you watch the whole thing through your smartphone.
- When, enjoying time with loved ones or friends, you interrupt that moment of grace to photograph it.
- When, you may appreciate a moment of quiet contemplation, you log on and tweet or post something instead.
All of these moments can be enjoyed by that internal leaning part of your ego. To quietly witness your own experience it, or to witness it with someone close to you without having to record it for posterity. The richness of any experienced is diminished when it is bypassed directly through a will to share. Enjoy the rich experience, sometimes, on your own terms.
Please Share! In moderation.
As a final word. Please don’t get me wrong. I like to share as much as the next guy, and have even been known to produce a selfie or two. Please, film the odd sunset, take a selfie now and then, and share with us the beautiful scene you stumbled across on holiday. However:
Be forever mindful of your will to share, because if it becomes your primary motivation, it will do so at the expense of your inner satisfaction.
Having said all that. Please share this post ;).
More from me in my book, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self.
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