twitterSocial networking appears to be doing its job. This rather obscure blog remained obscure until I joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, and tweeted the link to my first entry on “The Psychology of Twitter.” The tweet was immediately picked up by several individuals who track such things, re-tweeted here and there, and the traffic to this blog increased as never before. Such is the power of the ease of dissemination and replication on Twitter. It throws into sharp experiential relief the fascinating yet rather overwhelming illustrations of social networking in the book Connected.

There was particular interest from psychotherapists, counsellors, and psychologists who seem to be struggling with similar issues raised by public social networking as myself. That is, from a profession where we (the psychologists) generally remain much more unknown than our clients, what risk does this “public making” have for us as practitioners? Some might say that we owe it to our profession to stay out of the maelstrom of public expression and overload, while others think it would be irresponsible for us not to participate in the public world of social networking that is so central to so many people’s lives — not to mention our own clients. My own opinion is that individuals in our field need to make their own decisions about this, and perhaps to take a position on it too — but to do it thoughtfully and in a considered way. The duty of care, and responsibility of the psychotherapist now extends far outside the consulting room.

My own experience of tweeting the blog link was one of exposure which was as exhilarating as it was anxiety producing. Being a Twitter neophyte, it took me by surprise how quickly and how widely the tweet spread. I saw it go onto one list with tens of thousands of followers. The individual’s “private” engagement between keyboard and screen (a solitary feeling one) becomes terrifically public very quickly — the sense of privacy in font of one’s office computer is an illusion. The sword here, I now realise, is most assuredly double-edged. There was the fear of having been exposed so widely so quickly (Did I run my spell-check? Am I talking rubbish?) but I can now see, having been exposed, what it may feel like not to be exposed — to have nobody care. To be seen and accepted and seen and rejected are fundamental experiences of human being: how do social networks contribute to these feelings of rejection and acceptance? On the one hand the risks are great. One can be rejected (or perceived to be rejected) by thousands in a matter of seconds; however, just as quickly, one can be accepted. Open for further investigation too is what exactly may be being accepted or rejected? That is, is it really me, or persona, or “false self” (a la Winnicott), pure narcissism? Surely a combination of all.

The desire for “virtual recognition” is linked into real feeling-experiences. Think of your more intimate grouping of “friends” on Facebook. Consider the mini-endorphin high when someone clicks “like” on an update or comment — and consider how invisible you may feel when it goes unnoticed. Similar for Twitter as a comment scrolls away unnoticed, or taken up and shared unexpectedly. The way this acceptance or not is experienced on both the relational level (Am I accepted? Am I rejected? Am I popular or not?) and on the psychological level with regard to what are called “intermittent variable rewards.” These are the things that keep gamblers addicted. Pull the arm of the fruit machine and sometimes you win, most of the time you lose, but you can never guess when you might hit the jackpot. Same rules apply here, which give Twitter, Facebook, and even email a rather addictive quality. More on this in Oliver Burkeman’s column.

Jessica Benjamin, in her fabulous work on intersubjectivity, alerts us to the absolute pleasure of not only being recognised, but also of recognising the other. While the exemplar for this is of course the baby’s relationship to the primary caretaker, this goes on through life: “ . . . a positive source of pleasure, the pleasure of connecting with the outside, and not just a brake on narcissism or aggression. Beyond the sensible ego’s bowing to reality is the joy in the other’s . . . recognition of shared reality . . . (The Bonds of Love pp 40 and 41). Benjamin is not talking about social networking here (particularly since this book was published in 1988), but the idea of connecting is absolutely central here. Humans need to connect, it is a primary motivation, and whatever makes that need to connect possible (technology or otherwise), will be utilised in particularly human psychological ways.

Twitter and Facebook in some ways do not offer anything new with regard to the psychological nature of relating — however, they nonetheless fundamentally change the nature of relating. In a sense I would relate this to the invention, in early societies, of the marketplace. Before marketplaces, people still interrelated in classically human ways, but the marketplace offered something new, as did later, the village, the city-state, and then the megalopolis. The vision in the 1980s was LA in Blade Runner. This kind of meeting place now happens online and the horizontal, lateral, and three-dimensional aspects of human relating continue to expand. These relational innovations will most certainly operate in neutral, positive, and negative ways. While one may be excited by the “recognition” they receive on Twitter or Facebook, it is of course evanescent as it disappears down the twitterfeed or Facebook newsfeed; the embarrassments and rejections too quickly disappear amongst the growing degree of “space junk” flying about at such speed in the virtual world. However, the function of the way we relate — the way our unconscious and object relational worlds in a sense, never forget and unceasingly look either to repeat the same stuff (repetition compulsion) or hope for a different response from the world (while fearing it) will continue to be influenced by this kind of relating — and that’s what continues to grab my interest.

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