dollar-sign-in-your-eye-300x184“If you’re not paying for it, you become the product.”

This is a longtime adage often applied to the current state of the digital world where so much appears to be free, but this is only because the price tags are hidden from view. Whether it be Google Search, G-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or the very WordPress blog you are reading, the service is free, so where’s the catch? One of the catches is obvious and has been the source of so much news lately: privacy.

While privacy is of great interest to psychology, it’s not the main interest of this post (in any case, you’ll get much better coverage of this in The Guardian than you will get from me). What concerns me is the nature of social networking in relation to the human motivation to relate within the context of the internet embedded in a capitalist society. That’s a mouthful, so let’s take it apart:

1. The nature of social networking: 

Social networking, as it stands today, is the culmination of the social shaping of technology (Baym 2010) in which technology and human society form an interrelated feedback dynamic. In short, humans produce technology, technology is exposed to more humans, and then technology morphs to in response to human needs. Facebook and Twitter, two of the most popular forms of today’s social networks are the latest culminations of this process. The key here is that the the development of the Internet, which allowed for information to travel easily from point A to point B, has developed via social networking into a locus of human relating that enables person A to communicate with Person B in a variety of ways amongst all the other human points within their network (that is, person C, D, E, F, G, etc). 


2. in relation to the human motivation to relate: 

In a previous post I described what I saw to be the “real” motivation behind social networking which I understand to be the fundamental human desire to see and be seen by others as a full person — it is called “mutual recognition” and is seen to be the central psychological task of the human being by many psychological theorists. It goes right back to the development of self and the way we were seen (or not) by our primary caretakers, usually our parents or carers. This need to remain in the mind of the other (and have the other person remain in our minds) is repeated throughout life and is central and essential to the way we form and keep relationships. My forthcoming book The Psychodynamics of Social Networking looks at this issue in depth.


3. within the context of the internet embedded in a capitalist society:

Today’s Internet emerged in a capitalist society which is fuelled by self interest. In an earlier post I spoke about how Capitalism allows for a really interesting and productive “spark” that allows for all sorts of possibilities to flourish. Capitalism, like any other system, has its positives and negatives. While “spark” may be one of its positives, it’s nature of monetising and objectifying individuals in the name of profit is certainly one of its negatives. As for the positive or negative consequences of way in which the combination of social networking, hardwired human psychological motivation, and capitalism unite to create a digital economy of recognition, we will just have to wait and see.


We have become brands unto ourselves

The result of social networking, human psychology, and capitalism all sharing the same bed has produced (though social shaping) a socially networked world in which we are unconsciously drawn to branding ourselves. In a previous post I discussed how social networks are geared towards the most outward facing aspects of our psyches (I expand on this in my book). Hence, whether it is through our Facebook status updates, our tweets, our “selfies,” or the photos and videos we choose to share on Instagram or Vine, these are all representation of our outward facing selves at the expense of our more private selves. We may not mean to, but more and more we are interested in sharing ourselves before we are content to be ourselves, or as Jaron Lanier (2011) says:

You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.

Think about it. How much do you share? How often have you had the thought “That’s tweetable!” or “I’ll put that on Facebook!”. Answer for yourself honestly this: are you less able to stay in the moment, because you’re so concerned about sharing the moment? Last time you went to a gig, did you watch it through a smartphone?


Now take a second and think.Why all the sharing? I’ll tell you, it’s because you are a trader in the digital economy of recognition.

My ego has just been paid

In two earlier posts Social Media the Ego and the Self  and Twitter and your Ego: retweets, mentions, and Klout Scores I discussed the nature of ego satisfaction or “strokes” those moments when your ego gets a little high from being recognised. This can be demonstrated in a variety of ways including:

  • Retweets or mentions on Twitter
  • Likes on your Facebook status update, blog, or comment
  • Shares or likes of your curated posts across any social network (,, Instagram, Vine, Facebook)

In fact, your ego gets paid on almost any kind of recognition that you receive in the online world. And just like in the real world, sometimes negative recognition is better than no recognition at all (trolls, haters, etc.). So what’s going on here? It’s an economy of recognition.

Our outward-facing selves, as enabled by the social network, deals in strokes of recognition and these strokes of recognition motivate us. We are all dealers in this economy together.

Let’s take, for example, that nice photograph of your cat you uploaded onto Facebook or Instagram:


What do you want from it? You want people to like it, to share it, to comment on it. You make the tiny investment of putting it online: this investment is your end of the personal digital economy. Now you see if your investment pays off. Does the photo spread? Do you get lots of likes? Does it invite comments? If so, hey hey, you’re recognised! Doesn’t it feel good? If not, hey ho, you’re invisible. Not so good.

This is the digital economy of personal memes.

In many ways it’s harmless, but in other important ways it’s not, because it leans towards your outward manifestation of your self at the expense of your inward one. This is already too much of a #longread so I won’t go into that here: for now, it’s just interesting to see how the economy works.

The addition of a profit motive:

However, because this personal economy occurs within a profit driven world where the interfaces through which we interact are emerging from the self-interested world of capital gain in the wider actual economy  where shareholders must be satisfied, further capitalistic motivations are factored in. So, instead of the financially valueless photograph of the cat you posted on Instagram or Facebook, those digital marketers out there want to be part of the currency you are spending. So they find a myriad of ways to get you interested in their products and services so, by way of your personal economy you can do a lot of the trading and exchanging for them.

It’s not black and white:

If I want a good plumber (or a good shrink for that matter) I will ask my friends. Word of mouth, after all, is the best advertisement ever. So there’s no good reason why sharing our likes and dislikes of commodities online between friends isn’t a good thing. In fact, though our social networks often get us wrong (how many times has Facebook suggested something you might be interested in which is right off the map), when they get us right, they reduce the amount of advertising rubbish we encounter.

However, as a a blogger who is primarily interested in the psychological ramifications of technology and social networking, I see the problem as much bigger. It is down to the very nature of our being dealers of the capital of our virtual selves practically outside our very own consciousness. 

More and more we are sharing before we are being.

In doing this we are letting a small part of ourselves down. We are more than our cute cats and witty tweets. This is clear. And trust me, I know: I’ll all over the witty tweets myself (the cats I could take or leave). But . . .

. . . the less conscious we are of our private selves in the service of our public personas over social networks, the more vulnerable we will be to the larger economy of recognition in which we become objects and commodities. We develop an external shell that more and more hollows out the middle inward looking part of ourselves, that need recognition too — in fact, it needs it now more than ever.


More from me in my book, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self.

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Baym, K. (2010). Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity.

Lanier, J. (2011). You are not a Gadget.  London: Penguin.

If you are interested in books and other resources on psychology and technology, I have created a category for that on my Amazon resource page. Please forward any suggestions on to me and if appropriate, I will include them.

This blog has been re-blogged by Psychotherapy Excellence. Psychotherapy Excellence is the UK’s national CPD and training information portal for Psychotherapists, Psychotherapeutic Counsellors, trainees and training and accrediting organisations. Watch our videos, read our articles, list an event and log CPD and supervision online

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