It is becoming time for the psychological professions to seriously get their heads around the consequences of the rapidly changing nature of our virtual world. Studies are beginning to emerge thick and fast about the way in which social networking sites like Facebook are changing the way in which we interrelate. However, these studies tend to be nomothetic rather than ideographic. In plain English, these studies tend to talk about mass numbers of people (how many hours they spend online, how many “friends” they have, the changing demographics of FB users, etc) — rather than the personal experience of individuals. The nomothetic (big numbers game) studies are important, and ought to be incorporated into our growing understanding of the effects of Facebook on individuals — but not at the expense of the ideographic — that is, people’s personal experiences.
Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, recently had this to say(1):
“I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “I mean we really have to think about these things as a society.”
There is a difference between Facebook and Google, of course. On Facebook, we voluntarily post information and photos about ourselves; Google, however, seeks such information and posts it automatically — once it is up, it does not come down. However, these two features are interrelated. First of all, many individuals on Facebook do not know how to properly sort their privacy settings to prevent Google from allowing the general public to search out information about them. Secondly, Facebook changes its privacy settings frequently, leaving users bewildered. Thirdly, information and photos that we voluntarily put up on Facebook and share with our friends are easily taken and used for other purposes (1):
“What many people do not realise is that as soon as you put something up online you lose possession and control of that information immediately,” said Rik Ferguson, a cyber security expert at Trend Micro. “Anyone can download, store and distribute that information, it’s out of your hands.”
Lastly, many are under the misperception that if you choose not to have a Facebook profile, you are protected from such infringements on your privacy. Sadly this is not true. Anybody can take a photo of you, tag you, and make this photo available without your consent. In fact, if you don’t have a Facebook profile, you may never even be aware that this is the case! While at some stage, there may be some legislation to deal with this, at the moment it is a free-for-all — and whatever goes up there, may not ever come down. So of course you can see why developments in this rapidly growing online world are crucially important to all of us.
“Nomothetic” information is important, it allows us to see on a grand scale what is happening across the board. However, what about the stories of individuals who are engaging in Facebook, MMO’s (Massive Multiplayer Online Games), Blogs, Virtual Worlds (such as Second Life) and the multitude of other online ways of interrelating? More and more individuals come into psychotherapy sessions relating stories of something that has occurred online. A shameful moment that some years ago would have drifted out of people’s alcohol clouded minds can now be immortalised in a Facebook photo. Not only does previously temporary shame become a permanent one, but may, in fact, come to haunt someone years later when the aggrieved photo is somehow seen by a potential employer (see link below for an example of this).
A new benchmark in relationships has become whether or not you tick “in a relationship” on your FB profile! In fact, many relationships have ended rather quickly after such an announcement for a variety of reasons! Furthermore, in the old days, when relationships ended, it was possible to avoid your ex for sometime in order to mourn the loss of that relationship and then move on. These days, it is next to impossible. You are likely to, directly or indirectly, encounter news of your partner through your interaction with others on Facebook. The only solution is to shut down your profile for some time — but this has consequences too — you lose access to your support group (at least virtually).
It is in no way all bad news. The psychology of Facebook is more complex than that. Facebook enables relationships to renew with old friends. It provides a space for reunited relationships that otherwise could not have happened; it provides a space to develop deeper relationships with those who have previously only been acquaintances; it provides a new way to meet people through friends you already have. This blog today is not about scare-mongering — it is simply a call to arms to say that the psychology of Facebook, the psychology of Google, the psychology of the virtual world bears some serious thinking about.
I am currently doing some writing on this subject and will be speaking about the relevance on Facebook to psychotherapists and counsellors at a conference this coming September. Further, I have done some media work discussing the implications of Facebook for young people. Keep your eyes open to this blog for further additions to my thoughts on psychology and Facebook, Google, and the virtual world.
Would you like to discuss this further? If so, do it here on the Social Media Research Facebook Page.