After much indecision and one failed attempt, I have finally got myself a Twitter account. My reasons for avoiding Twitter up to this point were myriad. Mostly, I could not see the point. I am satisfied with my level of social networking at the moment via Facebook (and FB itself has enough pitfalls as far as I am concerned!), and I couldn’t really care about sharing snippets of my own life over Twitter, nor did I care to see these snippets from anyone else. Furthermore, as a psychotherapist, there are implications for my practice. The psychotherapy relationship is a rarefied one, and I continue to carry concern about the possible “contamination” of the therapy relationship due to having a Twitter-feed; see disclaimer at bottom of page.

The real turning point for me was my decision to begin research for a book about psychoanalysis and contemporary culture that I am starting to write. In order to do this well, it makes sense that I involve myself more intensively with online worlds, to experience it first hand. Having an alias Twitter profile wouldn’t be enough because I would not be invested in the experience as myself. So my Twitter profile is a real one, though I have made the decision to keep my private life in my social sphere (and share it with friends I actually ‘know’ on Facebook), and try out my public professional life on Twitter. I wish to stress that my confidential psychotherapy work remains as confidential as ever.

A running debate in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy often revolves around whether social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter fundamentally change the playing field with regard to our psychological and emotional lives or not. Are they just an extension of what we would normally get up to anyway, or do they indeed fundamentally alter the way we see ourselves and the way that we relate to others? Most current research is in the area of experimental psychology, which is particularly interested in finding and demonstrating changes that can be seen in individuals and groups as a result of their use of such networks. A good example of a psychological perspective on these events is Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows; how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. While the experimental psychology aspect is particularly interesting, I am more interested in the psychodynamics of social networks and the people that use them – that is, what happens to people emotionally, psychologically and phenomenologically; in other words, what’s it like? What happens? How does it affect people? A more psychodynamic perspective can be found in Sherry Turkle’s work Alone Together; why we expect more from technology and less from each other.

Combining research from both perspectives will be pretty fundamental to the process of pulling together a more cohesive theory.

While my investigations into the psychodynamics of Twitter are really just beginning, many things are emerging quickly. The clearest is that fundamentally social networks like Twitter and Facebook are relational in nature. By this I mean that for the most part, each of these social networking sites are about creating and building relationships with others. As in real life, some are concerned with quantity, and others are concerned with quality. Being about relationship, social networking invites the same pleasures and dangers as “real life” relating does – however, the rules and customs are different. Furthermore, we need to consider what we now understand as “real life” as for those people somewhat younger than me, “real life” is very much the social network!

The themes that I will be considering will be informed by my psychoanalytic theoretical background, hence I will be interested in the narcissistic nature of these networks, but also the consequences of exposure (the axis of exhibitionism and voyeurism) – notably I am really interested in understanding how individuals perceive themselves and others both inside and outside these networks. How someone presents themselves publically, and how much accord there is between this presentation, and what is going on “on the inside”. Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott long ago came up with the distinction between “the false self” and “the true self” as a way of distinguishing between what might be called authentic living, and a defensive mask we create when very young (baby young) to get the acceptance we need. C.G. Jung also made a distinction between the (authentic) self, and the persona, which is a mask we wear in certain social conditions.

Many may be quick to say that social networking is about the false self or the persona. I think this is too reductive. The social network is as amenable to false and true self enactments as is everyday life: I think you will find both here. However, the degree of exposure (potential for both shame and narcissistic aggrandisement) is higher, and this is a concern. There is also the ease in which words can be shared from a keyboard without the feedback of facial expressions and body language – and without such regulation of these sorts of communications (and context, as in Twitter) social networking sites offer another potential danger. I know from my radio work how frequently boyfriends and girlfriends dump each other by text message or on FB chat. They do this because it’s easier than seeing the pain in someone’s eyes by doing this face to face. But if you want to honour the quality of what a relationship was, isn’t it important to see the implications of its ending rather than going for the quick-style approach of dumping by text?

Keep an eye on the blog for more thoughts about the psychology of social networking – these thoughts are developing.

Important Disclaimer:

I mentioned in my first paragraph that I am aware that having a Twitter feed may have an effect on current, former and future clients of mine. Part of my research has been looking at the changing nature of the internet and its consequences for the therapeutic relationship. The therapeutic relationship is conceived as a private one – one in which the client knows little about the therapist so as not to “contaminate” the client’s opportunity to really experience as much as they can in therapy (in technical terms, to keep the personality of the therapist out of the relationship so the client can work with their various transferences and other psychological tasks).

In recent years, the development of relational psychotherapy has acknowledged that there really never was a situation in which the therapist was actually neutral – they give themselves in a myriad of ways, from how their consultation room looks, how they dress, where they work, the interventions they may, facial expressions, body language etc. The relational perspective, then, has come to acknowledge this, and see how the person of the therapist themselves interacts and affects the therapeutic relationship. In fact, what happens between the two individual personalities in the therapy encounter becomes a serious matter of interest.
This being said, there are many clients who would prefer to know as little about their therapist as possible. This is perfectly reasonable and should be respected. For these reasons I think clients should seriously think through whether or not they really would like to follow my Twitter feed: as a caution, I would advise “no” but the choice is yours, but at the very least bears thinking about.

Would you like to discuss this further? If so, please do so on the Social Media Research Facebook Page.