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Reflect, don't project

by Chris Camplin on 23 February 2009

One good thing about the media’s Twitter mania is that some provocative people are starting to comment on the behaviour behind social media tools. Cue psychologist Oliver James in the Times:

“Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity […] To ‘follow’ someone is to have a fantasy of who this person you’re following is, and you use it as a map reference or signpost to guide your own life because you are lost. I would guess that the typical profile of a ‘follower’ is someone who is young and who feels marginalised, empty and pointless. They don’t have an inner life.”

Within the polemic, there’s some truth. Many Tweeters have a strong identity, but in a crowded and competitive digital world, constant reinforcement and broadcasting of that identity has become default mode; it happened with texting long before microblogging. Many more than the ‘young’ and ‘marginalised’ feel that if they’re not visibly sharing and speaking, they don’t exist. In the same piece, Alain de Botton also notes that the mundanity of Tweets only reflects our age-old offline behaviour, by emulating the intimate, meandering small talk we indulge in with our closest family and friends. Basically, we want to feel that the big public world of social media is our living room (or even, as de Botton claims, our womb).

So underpinning most of social media’s chatter and creation is a deep craving for security. People will continue to talk as if their identities depended on it, but those who learn to listen will be richest in the attention economy. For both brands and individuals, listening well, rather than constantly opining, will prove to be the real art of social media. This doesn’t imply passivity; any actor tells you that active listening is an incredibly powerful tool, and that mirroring, acknowledging and asking for more will draw people closer to you. Making others feel heard, and reinforcing their identities – not imposing your own – garners the trust and, paradoxically, the attention that we all crave.

What was it that dude Shakespeare said? “Hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature”, or some such guff…

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  • http://www.danielgoodall.com Dan

    Great stuff, Molly.
    The other side to this is the question of whether such social media behaviour is healthy or not.
    Personally, I find it hard to concentrate on the world around me if I spend to much time in the Virtual world.
    ‘spose, like anything, you can be have too much of a good thing.

  • http://1000heads.com Molly

    Thanks Dan. I think there are lots of natural, healthy things going on in social media… but of course also we usually chase the less healthy things with even more vigour, because they comfort the gaping holes in our souls. Or something like that.

  • http://www.knackeredhack.com knackeredhack

    I really liked this perspective. If used effectively, these tools have incredible power. But there is a spectrum of usage, much of which may be harmful.
    For children, where this debate was most recently reignited, there are a complex set of dangers that do need to be explored. These are a continuation from issues surrounding TV. Bruno Frey has shown that TV weakens the will of active people. I suspect too much social media does the same although, unlike TV, it can also mobilize us to do stuff.

  • http://1000heads.com Molly Flatt

    Tim, really interesting thanks. I suspect that the danger also lies not in changing us – making active people passive, for example – but in heightening or indulging certain personality types i.e. people who already find it difficult to build more self-restrained or less reactive opinions and ways of expression. And the children angle is very interesting – how will this change the generation now being born, who have no memory of a world pre-2.0…

  • http://davidbarrie.typepad.com David Barrie

    It’s telling that the intelligensia find it difficult to conceive of
    people liking to share stuff with one another and enjoying outer and far
    outer circle relationships with semi-strangers. It’s also telling that
    their psychological reading of the scenario is so shallow. Maybe
    twittering is just about people wanting to exchange and give things to
    others, rather than an expression of being f*c*ed in the head. Perhaps
    the problem is that social media and micro-blogging just too effectively
    undermines the big-heads who earn a living from being the exclusive
    object of attention, propped up by their peers. It’s nice to see their
    cage rattled.