Social media and socio analysis - BETA


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Social media and socio analysis - BETA

  1. 1. BETA  version  Social  media  and  socio-­‐analysis  David  Patman    Abstract    This  paper  discusses  the  proliferation  of  online  social  media  (Facebook,  YouTube,  Wikipedia,  etc),  its  implications  for  group  relations,  and  for  the  psychoanalytic  study  of  group  and  organisational  life.    Internet  social  theorist  Clay  Shirky  argues  that  the  emergence  of  online  social  media  has  drastically   reduced   the   barriers   to   participation   in   group   endeavours,   enabling   the   achievement   of   sophisticated,   collective   action   outside   of  formal  organisations  and  institutions.    From  a  socio-­‐analytic  perspective,  however,  organisations  also  fulfil  a  second  function:  that  of  containing  the  anxiety  of  members.    Drawing  on  socio-­‐analytic   theory   and   case   examples,   the   paper   will   argue   that   the   threat   posed   to   the   existence   of   organisational   and   institutional  structures  is  also  a  challenge  to  the  effectiveness  of  their  embedded  social  defences  against  anxiety.  As  a  result,  there  is  likely  to  be  conscious  and/or  unconscious  resistance  to  the  introduction  of  social  media  and  other  Web  2.0  tools  within  organisations  and  other  social  systems  which  are  based  on  traditional  hierarchical  models.      The   paper   also   explores   the   work   of   media   theorist   Marshall   McLuhan   about   connections   between   communications   technology   and   society.    McLuhan  suggests  that  cultures  in  which  authority,  institutions,  knowledge  and  experience  have  become  fragmented  and  distributed  through  the  dominance  of  the  printed  word,  tend  to  become  re-­‐integrated  as  instantaneous  electronic  communication  proliferates.  For  example,  private  experience  becomes  re-­‐publicized,  while  the  hierarchical  social  systems  which  support  the  concept  of  both  social  and  emotional  privacy  are  ‘re-­‐tribalized’  in  an  emerging  ‘global  village’.    The  paper  concludes  that  socio-­‐analytic  principles  offer  a  highly  relevant  conceptual  framework  for  the  investigation  of  new  kinds  of  groups  and  communities  which  are  emerging  at  ever  more  rapid  pace  in  an  increasingly  connected  world.    However,  it  also  cautions  that  the  discipline  of  socio-­‐analysis,   which   has   its   origins   in   the   study   of   traditional   organisational   forms,   will   itself   need   regeneration   through   continued  engagement  with  and  learning  from  the  experience  of  online  social  media.      1.  Suitable  for  work?    This   paper   discusses   the   proliferation   of   online   social   media   applications,   its   implications   for   organisations,   and   for  the  psychoanalytic  study  of  organisational  life.    By  ‘social  media’  I  mean  applications  which  allow  people  to  share  information   and   interact   with   each   other   via   electronic   networks   such   as   the   internet.     Popular   social   media  applications   run   by   corporations   include   Facebook,   Twitter,   YouTube,   Flickr   and   Myspace,   but   there   are   also  individually   created   blogs   and   discussion   forums,   plus   email   and   instant   messaging   in   this,   where   these   enable  group   communication.     I   would   also   include   collaborative   knowledge   creating   applications   such   as   Wikipedia,  virtual   worlds  such  as  Second  Life,   multi-­‐player  online  games  such  as  World  of  Warcraft,  and  private  software  used  by  organisations,  such  as  Yammer.      Social   media   applications   like   these   have   of   course   become   very   popular   in   recent   years,   with   more   than   550  million  people  on  Facebook,  65  million  tweets  posted  on  Twitter  each  day,  and  2  billion  video  views  each  day  on  YouTube1.     Social   media   advocates   have   been   quick   to   promote   the   benefits   of   social   media   to   organisations,   both  as  a  method  for  marketing  and  as  a  means  to  improve  productivity.    Social  media  marketing  has  quickly  taken  off,  with   firms   developing   their   own   Facebook   and   Twitter   accounts,   YouTube   campaigns,   and   crowd-­‐sourcing  programs.      In  marketing,  social  media  is  typically  regarded  as  a  tool  for  reaching  particular  audiences,  gathering  demographic  information,   and   engaging   targeted   consumers   in   ‘conversations’   which   will   hopefully   promote   brand   awareness  and  consumer  loyalty.  That  is,  social  media  is  regarded  and  used  in  the  same  way  as  the  same  as  any  other  medium  –   as   a   means   to   get   information   about   a   product   from   the   producer   to   consumers   who   are   most   likely   to   buy.    However,  despite  its  growing  popularity,  there  has  been  no  clear  demonstration  of  the  success  of  social  media  over                                                                                                                                      1     1  
  2. 2. BETA  version  other   forms   of   marketing,   and   indeed   some   commentators   see   social   media   campaigns   as   somewhat   tokenistic,   or  even  potentially  damaging  to  a  brand.    There  is  some  evidence  that  firms  who  employ  social  media  marketing  by,  for   example,   placing   banner   ads   on   Facebook   pages,   or   creating   Twitter   accounts   to   follow   consumers,   are  perceived   to   be   unwelcome   intrusions   into   private   social   space   in   a   similar   way   to   telemarketing   calls   or   electronic  spam.     There   is   also   an   anxiety   that   personal   details   shared   with   large   social   media   hosts   such   as   Facebook   and  Google  will  be  sold  for  marketing  purposes.    While  the  jury  is  still  out  on  the  value  of  social  media  as  a  marketing  tool,  social  media  has  struggled  as  a  technique  for   increasing   productivity.     Primarily,   social   media   is   perceived   as   useful   for   enabling   communication   and  collaboration  between  teams  within  an  organisation,  but  also  with  organisational  stakeholders  who  may  be  outside  the  boundaries  of  the  organisation,  such  as  clients.    Yet  implementation  of  social  media  as  a  productivity  tool  has  also   been   problematic,   with   adoption   either   remaining   low   or   being   taken   up   in   ways   which   are   perceived   as  contrary  to  the  wellbeing  of  the  organization.    For  example,  a  Gartner  report  released  earlier  this  year  noted  that  social  media  disrupts  the  long-­‐standing   rules   of  business  in  many  ways  and  proposes  seven  critical  questions  that  businesses  should  consider  before  developing  a  social  media  strategy.    Reducing  complex  problems  to  seven  critical  questions  is  perhaps  typical  of  the  mainstream  management  consultant  approach,  but  the  accompanying  press  release  is  interesting:     Social   media   offers   tempting   opportunities   to   interact   with   employees,   business   partners,   customers,   prospects   and   a   whole   host   of   anonymous   participants   on   the   social   Web,"   said   Carol   Rozwell,   vice   president   and   distinguished   analyst   at   Gartner.   "However,   those   who   participate   in   social   media   need   guidance  from  their  employer  about  the  rules,  responsibilities,  norms  and  behaviours  expected  of  them,   and  these  topics  are  commonly  covered  in  the  social  media  policy2.    This   dilemma,   of   wanting   to   reap   the   benefits   of   social   media,   but   simultaneously   seeking   to   minimise   any  collateral  damage  resulting  from  ‘inappropriate’  use  by  employees,  is  particularly  acute  in  government.      Social   media,   and   ‘e-­‐Government’   services   more   generally,   offers   the   possibility   of   providing   greater   access   to  government   services   and   involving   citizens   more   closely   in   the   formulation   of   policy.     The   Obama   administration  enthusiastically  embraced  the  possibility  for  greater  citizen  involvement  in  public  policy  development  through  the  establishment   of   online   forums   for   consultation   about   health   care   and   other   social   issues.     The   Australian  government,   more   cautiously,   has   signalled   its   intention   to   embrace   the   democratizing   potential   of   Web   2.0  technologies   through   the   development   of   a   policy   Gov   2.0.     My   organisation,   a   federal   government  communications  regulator,  is  seeking  to  be  a  leader  in  the  use  of  social  media  tools  to  promote  public  consultation  in  Australia,  emulating  the  FCCs  Reboot  initiative  in  the  US.    Nevertheless   it   is   fair   to   say   that   the   success   of   such   initiatives   has   so   far   been,   at   best,   qualified,   with   limited  interaction   from   citizens.   An   early   attempt   at   online   consultation   by   the   Australian   Department   of   Broadband,  Communications   and   the   Digital   Economy   concerning   the   future   directions   of   digital   media   used   an   online  discussion  forum.    However,  this  first  opening  up  to  citizens  was  swamped  by  angry  responses  to  the  governments  proposed  internet  filtering  laws,  but  very  little  else  of  relevance  or  value  to  the  topic.    A  paper  by  Cliff  Lampe  et  al  discusses  what  the  authors  describe  as  inherent  barriers  to  the  use  of  social  media  for  public  policy  informatics,  based   on   a   case   study   of   a   Michigan   government   service   providers   use   of   social   media   for   consultation   with   its  constituents.    The  providers  management  was  hoping  to  use  an  online  discussion  forum  as  a  replacement  for  the  surveys  used  in  previous  years  to  conduct  a  needs  assessment  of  constituents  who  may  be  eligible  for  educational  assistance.  A  sophisticated   communication   strategy   and   online   application   was   developed   but   the   provider   found   that  interaction   was   very   low   -­‐   so   low   that   it   did   not   meet   the   requirements   of   the   central   agency   funding   the   provider.    As  a  result,  the  provider  opted  to  return  to  the  written  survey  method.                                                                                                                                      2     2  
  3. 3. BETA  version    The  study  offered  a  number  of  explanations  for  the  failure  of  the  project,  including  that:     • Audiences  were  not  the  right  match  for  social  media.   • The  organization  had  a  hard  time,  outside  of  a  small  group  of  champions,  in  thinking  about  new  audiences.   • The  organization,  outside  of  the  project  champions,  had  low  motivation  to  participate.   • The  software  was  too  hard  to  use  for  users  not  familiar  with  social  media.   • The  timeframe  mattered.   • The  task  may  not  have  been  a  good  fit  for  social  media.      The  last  point  is  perhaps  the  key.    As  Lampe  et  al  argue,     The  tools  of  social  media  depend  on  interactivity  and  user  contribution.  While  crowd-­‐sourcing  feedback  on   community   development   priorities   could   work   in   that   framework,   it   could   be   that   the   specific   goals   of   generating  data  for  a  needs  assessment  were  too  specific  for  a  social  media  project.  Goals  like  increasing   interaction,   fostering   new   connections,   and   encouraging   stakeholder   contribution   are   all   goals   aligned   with  the  features  of  social  media.  However,  the  nature  of  social  media  is  grassroots  interaction  between   users,   with   the   organization   only   acting   as   another   type   of   user   in   these   cases.   Simply   broadcasting   messages   [as   the   case   study   application   did],   not   responding   to   contributions   of   stakeholders,   over-­‐ prescribing  topics  and  overly  specific  goals  may  all  hinder  the  success  of  social  media  projects  in  the  public   sector.      So,   despite   its   massive   popularity   and   increasing   permeation   of   our   lives,   there   appears   to   be   something   about  social   media   which   does   not   fit   easily   within   an   organizational   context,   as   least   in   the   sense   of   traditional  organizations.     What   is   it   about   social   media   –   and   indeed   about   organizations   –   that   generates   this  incompatibility?    Organizing  without  organizations    In  Clay  Shirky’s  book  Here  Comes  Everybody:  The  Power  of  Organizing  Without  Organizations,  he  argues  that  the  emergence  of  social  media  has  drastically  reduced  the  barriers  to  participation  in  group  endeavours,  enabling  the  achievement  of  sophisticated,  collective  action  without  the  need  for  formal  organisations  and  institutions.    Shirkys   book   charts   the   rapid   growth   of   the   use   of   social   media,   its   social   impact,   and   explores   reasons   for   its  popularity.    Although  Shirky  does  not  explicitly  reference  any  psychological  theory  of  motivation,  like  Bion  (whom  he  references)  he  regards  humans  as  group  animals,  with  an  innate  inclination  toward  group  interaction  and  work,  limited  only  by  physical/technical  restraints  on  communication  and  association  between  individuals.      Drawing  on  economist  Ronald  Coases  concept  of  transaction  costs  described  in  his  1936  article  The  Nature  of  the  Firm,  Shirky  argues  that  hierarchical  organisations  emerged  as  the  most  efficient  method  for  the  coordination  of  large-­‐scale  collective  action,  given  the  costs  of  communication  and  coordination  between  large  numbers  of  people.    The  rise  of  the  internet  and  social  media  applications,  he  asserts,  has  reduced  such  costs  to  the  point  at  which,  in  some   cases,   organisations   and   institutions   are   no   longer   the   most   efficient   means   for   achieving   collective   work.    Instead,   social   media   applications   allow   near-­‐instant   low-­‐cost   communication   and   information-­‐sharing   which  facilitate  large-­‐scale  group  action  without  the  need  for  formal  organizational  structure.    Shirky  cites  a  number  of  examples  in  which  social  media  have  played  a  central  role  in  organising  collective  action:  retrieving  a  stolen  mobile  phone,  co-­‐ordinating  flash  mob  protests,  providing  forum  for  special  interest  groups  to  connect   with   each   other,   development   of   information   resources   through   Wikipedia,   among   others.     There   are  many   other   recent   examples:   building   political   awareness   and   coordinating   protest   action   in   Egypt   and   Libya,     3  
  4. 4. BETA  version  keeping   in   touch   with   rescuers   in   the   New   Zealand   and   Japanese   earthquakes,   exposing   political   hypocrisy   and  corruption   via   WikiLeaks.     This   group   action   would   not   have   been   possible   prior   to   the   development   and  proliferation  of  social  media.    In  terms  of  traditional  organizations,  as  Shirky  points  out,  the  potential  value  of  social  media  is  its  ability  to  bridge  communication   barriers   between   geographically,   culturally   and   hierarchically   distant   people.   However,   the   very  thing  that  provides  the  creative  potential  of  social  media,  its  openness,  is  also  what  is  perceived  by  management  as  most  risky  for  organisations.    The  risk  of  employees  communicating  directly  with  a  CEO,  or  key  stakeholders,  or  the  public,  is  felt  to  be  potentially  disastrous,  and  as  the  Gartner  recommendations  suggest,  the  defensive  response  is  to  establish  rules  for  how  social  media  may  be  used.    A  response  that,  in  effect,  drastically  limits  the  scope  of  communication  offered  by  social  media  to  that  which  is  controlled  by  the  company.    Taking  Shirky’s  view  to  the  extreme,  any  task  that  was  previously  fulfilled  by  an  organization  should,  in  theory,  be  able  to  be  more  efficiently  achieved  by  social  media  -­‐  although  is  difficult  to  see  how  certain  tasks  which  require  collective  action,  for  example,  smelting  copper  or  performing  heart  surgery,  could  be  completed  using  social  media  alone.  Shirky’s  answer  might  be  that  the  right  social  media  application  has  not  yet  been  invented.    Shirky  is  not  an  advocate   for   un-­‐organization,   however,   he   simply   regards   traditional   organizational   structures   as   sub-­‐optimal   in  societies  which  include  coordination  of  tasks  through  social  media  as  an  alternative.    However,  while  organizational  forms  have  certainly  evolved,  with  less  hierarchical  structures,  more  discrete  work  packages   managed   as   projects,   arguably   greater   labour   force   flexibility,   it   currently   appears   that   the   traditional  bureaucratic  form  will  be  with  us  a  while  longer.    If  anything,  it  is  in  the  broader  industries  and  institutions  where  change  appears  to  be  most  visible.    For  example,  communications  industries  such  the  print  media,  book  publishing,  TV  and  radio  broadcasting,  cinema,  music  production  and  distribution  business  –  which  are  in  direct  competition  with   social   media   are   seriously   threatened.     But   the   role   and   activities   of   public   institutions   responsible   for  education,  health,  defence,  the  law,  government  and  social  welfare  also  seem  to  be  in  crisis,  or  at  least  in  flux.    In   fact,   social   media   appears   to   have   generated   a   new   set   of   social   problems   for   society   in   general,   as   well   as  organizations.     The   agency   for   which   I   work   -­‐   the   Australian   Communications   and   Media   Authority   -­‐   has  responsibility   for   dealing   with   some   of   these   perceived   risks,   including   what   is   known   as   ‘cybersafety’:   the  protection   of   children   from   offensive   or   disturbing   content   on   the   internet,   from   online   stalkers   who   may   be  attempting  to  contact  them  via  social  media,  and  from  online  bullying  from  classmates  through  social  media.    The  issue   of   ‘sexting’   –   in   which   children   or   young   people   voluntarily   or   unwittingly   expose   themselves   in   sexualised  images  or  text  sent  via  SMS  to  an  unknown  and  potentially  large  audience  –  also  falls  into  this  category.    Earlier  this  year,   a   young   woman   cadet   at   the   Australian   Defence   Force   Academy   reported   that   video   images   of   her   having  consensual   sex   with   another   cadet   had   been   transmitted   via   Skype   to   a   number   of   male   cadets   without   her  knowledge.    Despite  years  of  bastardisation  and  abuse  of  young  men  and  women  in  the  Defence  forces,  for  some  reason   it   has   been   this   event   which   has   alarmed   the   government   into   taking   the   unprecedented   step   of   publicly  rebuking  Army  chiefs  and  initiating  a  series  of  public  inquiries.    It   seems   that   the   issue   of   what   is,   and   should   be,   public   and   what   is,   and   should   be,   private   lies   at   the   heart   of  questions   and   anxieties   about   social   media.   Social   media   has   the   potential   to   publicise   what   is   normally   held  private,   something   that   is   experienced   as   dangerous,   not   least   by   organizations.     The   psycho-­‐analytic   study   of  organizations  offers  a  useful  way  to  understand  why  traditional  organizational  forms  persist,  even  as  broader  social  changes  appear,  as  Shirky  argues,  to  make  them  increasingly  irrelevant.    3.  Social  media  and  socio-­‐analysis    The   psycho-­‐analytic   study   of   organizations,   which   I   refer   to   as   ‘socio-­‐analysis’,   reveals   that   organizations   (and  institutions)   fulfil   not   one   but   three   tasks:   firstly,   the   task   which   can   be   consciously   agreed   by   members   and  stakeholders,  and  which  may  be  characterised  as  the  purpose  or  mission  –  what  Gordon  Lawrence  has  referred  to  as   the   ‘normative   primary   task’.     There   may   be   some   differences   between   members   about   what   this   task   is,   or     4  
  5. 5. BETA  version  should   be   –   the   ‘existential   primary   task’   in   Lawrence’s   terms   -­‐   and   this   can   lead   to   difficulties   within   the  organization,   particularly   if   it   is   different   to   the   normative   primary   task.     Nevertheless,   both   kinds   of   task   are  available  for  conscious  awareness  and  reflection.    It  is  the  third  task  -­‐  the  ‘phenomenal  primary  task’  -­‐  that  can  explain  the  persistence  of  what  would  appear  to  be  irrelevant  organizational  forms.    Lawrence  characterises  this  task  as  being  outside  of  the  conscious  awareness  of  the   members   of   an   organization   and   only   visible   only   through   what   can   be   inferred   from   their   behaviour.     The  phenomenal  primary  task  is  concerned  with  containing  the  anxiety  associated  with  the  first  two,  and  can  manifest  though   organizational   culture,   informal   work   practices,   shared   values   and   assumptions,   leadership   styles   as   well   as  in   the   formal   procedures,   processes,   technologies   and   structures   of   the   organization3.     In   this   sense,   the  organization  can  be  regarded  as  a  ‘socio-­‐technical  system’  and  changes  to  these  organisational  ‘technologies’  can  therefore   impact   on   the   organization’s   capacity   to   achieve   its   phenomenal   primary   task.     That   is,   the   kind   of  changes   to   an   organization’s   means   of   communication   and   organizational   processes   which   are   entailed   by   the  introduction  of  social  media,  are  likely  to  disturb  its  ability  to  contain  anxiety  and  are  therefore  likely  to  be  resisted  at  all  levels.    Phenomena   such   as   these   have   been   well   documented   in   the   socio-­‐analytic   literature   about   organizational   change  and   its   effects   on   social   defences,   from   both   a   psychodynamic   (Jaques   and   Menzies)   and   socio-­‐technical  perspective   (Trist   and   Bamforth).     Interventions   have   taken   place   mainly   at   the   organizational   and   group   level,   and  have  focused  on  working  with  the  unconscious  dynamics  at  work  within  the  particular  organizational  system.    Such  interventions  have  not  necessarily  engaged  with  changes  in  the  broader  social  context,  and  the  relationship  of  the  organization  to  the  society  in  which  it  exists.    An  exception  is  the  work  of  Miller  and  Rice  on  ‘open  systems’  theory,  which   is   concerned   with   management   of   the   relationship   between   an   organization   and   its   environment   in   the  service  of  the  organization’s  primary  task.    It  is  the  function  of  management  to  monitor  changes  in  the  environment  and   to   adjust   boundary   processes   in   order   to   accommodate   them   so   as   to   ensure   the   continuing   relevance   and  survival  of  the  organization.    The  proliferation  of  social  media  arguably  represents  a  major  change  in  the  external  environment   of   most   organizations,   and   indeed   in   the   internal   environment   as   organizations   seek   to   implement  social  media  tools  to  increase  productivity.    How   then   has   socio-­‐analysis   engaged   with   the   emergence   of   social   media   and   its   impact   on   organizations,   and  society  in  general?    Theoretical  engagement  has  taken  two  forms,  broadly  speaking:     1. Engagement  from  a  classical  psychoanalytic  perspective,  e.g.  regarding  the  experience  of  social  media  as   located  purely  in  the  individual   2. Engagement  from  a  group  relations  perspective,  e.g.  regarding  the  experience  of  social  media  as  located  in   the  group,  particularly  the  large  group    3.1  The  internet  regression  The   classically   psychoanalytic   view   of   the   experience   of   social   media   is   encapsulated   by   Norman   Holland   in   his  article   ‘The   Internet   Regression’,   first   published   via   Robert   Young’s   online   Free   Associations   forum   in   19954.    Holland  analysed  the  behaviour  of  users  of  the  newly  popular  online  bulletin  boards  and  theorised  that  the  internet  offers  a  place  in  which  primitive  drives  of  aggression,  sex  and  can  be  expressed  in  relative  safety,  without  the  ‘real  world’   consequences.     He   cites   as   examples   the   prevalence   of   aggressive   ‘flaming’   and   the   tendency   for   sexual  innuendo   and   flirting   which   seems   to   occur   on   blogs   with   greater   frequency   than   in   real   life.     He   also   suggests   that  the   ‘openness’   and   generosity   which   has   characterised   some   online   endeavours   (such   as   the   creation   of   ‘open’  software   and   freeware)   represents   a   form   of   regression   to   an   idealized   state.     Holland   welcomes   this   regressive  property   of   the   internet   for   its   potential   to   encourage   creative   play   and   experimentation   with   identity,   echoing  Sherry  Turkle’s  arguments  in  her  book  The  Second  Self,  about  the  relationship  between  humans  and  computers.                                                                                                                                        3  Jaques  and  Menzies  have  described  these  collectively  as  ‘social  defence  systems’  4  http://www.human-­‐­‐associations/holland.html     5  
  6. 6. BETA  version  However,   like   Turkle,   Holland   also   sees   a   negative   side   to   this   relationship   manifesting   in   addiction   and  dependence,  as  the  boundary  between  person  and  machine  becomes  blurred:  ‘In  short,  when  communicating  on  the  Internet,  we  set  up  a  relationship  with  other  people  in  which  the  people  get  less  human  and  the  machine  gets  more   human.’     This   occurs   partly   because   the   internet   (at   that   time)   enabled   only   simple   text-­‐based  communications   whose   very   lack   of   verbal   or   visual   cues,   according   to   Holland,   provided   perfect   sites   for  transference.   Holland’s   final   paragraph   is   notable   for   its   accurate,   if  somewhat   cynical,   prediction   about   the   future  internet:     Those   who   dont   see   it   that   way,   however,   can   take   comfort.   The   Internet   regression   is   also   temporary.   Todays  Internetting  will  change,  maybe  even  by  the  time  you  read  this.  A  huge  influx  of  unskilled  users  is   coming   onto   the   Internet,   people   who   lack   the   cheery   openness   that   a   hacker   like   Alex   expresses.   The   technology  too  will  change.  Real  Soon  Now  (as  the  computer  magazines  say),  we  will  be  able  to  replace   todays  "plain  text"  with  digitized  voices.  Real  Soon  Now,  we  will  be  able  to  have  pictures  of  speaker  and   hearer.  Real  Soon  Now,  computer  technology  will  restore  to  the  Internet  the  physical  cues  of  face  to  face   talk.  Too  bad,  say  I.  The  Internet  Regression  has  been-­‐still  is-­‐fun.    However   Holland’s   use   of   individual   drive   theory   can   only   encompass   the   nature   of   the   relationship   between  person   and   machine,   whether   this   is   pathological   or   not.     While   this   made   sense   for   Turkle’s   pre-­‐internet   theory   of  human-­‐computer   relationships,   Holland   ends   up   neglecting   the   very   thing   that   is   most   distinctive   about   the  internet:  its  ‘socio-­‐ability’,  its  capacity  to  provide  connections.    Turkle   has   been   a   central   thinker   in   the   psychoanalytically   informed   view   of   the   internet.     Her   second   book   Life   On  the   Screen:   Identity   in   the   Age   of   the   Internet,   published   in   1995,   suggests   that   participation   in   ‘virtual   worlds’   such  as  multi-­‐user  online  games  and  Second  Life  can  be  psychologically  therapeutic  through  their  encouragement  of  play  and  experimentation  with  alternative  virtual  identities.    Turkle  also  explores  the  effects  of  ‘social  robots’:  machines  or  programs  which  are  capable  of  interacting  with  humans  in  life-­‐like  ways.    This   discussion   is   further   developed   in   Turkle’s   third   book,   2010’s   Alone   Together:   Why   we   expect   more   from  technology  and  less  from  each  other,  in  which  she  argues  that  social  machines,  such  as  electronic  pets  and  robots  which   care   for   the   elderly,   are   increasingly   becoming   substitutes   for   authentic   social   experience   with   ‘real’   people.    Use   of   social   media   applications   is   also   characterised   in   this   way,   with   SMS   texting,   Twitter   and   Facebook   regarded  as   tools   which   promise   intimacy,   but   in   reality   serve   to   keep   people   separated.     She   repeatedly   emphasises   the  ‘tethered’  nature  of  people’s  relationship  with  the  internet,  which  is  ‘always  on’,  implying  an  insidious  dependence  on  electronic  communication  such  as  SMS  texting  and  Facebook,  particularly  by  young  people.    Like   Holland,   however,   Turkle   places   the   individual,   and   the   degree   to   which   they   are   able   to   achieve  psychologically   healthy   states   (such   as   authenticity   and   ‘real’   intimacy),   at   the   centre   of   her   analysis.     She   does   not  conceptualise  the  internet  as  a  social  phenomenon,  but  instead  concentrates  on  what  appears  to  be  an  increasingly  pathological   relationship   between   individual   people   and   their   internet-­‐enabled   devices,   whether   this   be  smartphone,  or  computer  –  a  theme  which  may  be  traced  back  to  her  first  book,  1984’s  The  Second  Self.  3.2  The  internet  as  (very)  large  group  An  alternative  psychoanalytic  perspective  on  the  internet  which  has  emerged  more  recently  is  group-­‐oriented.    In  contrast   to   Holland,   Haim   Weinberg   has   argued   that   the   experience   of   the   internet   is   akin   to   that   of   the   large  group.    Like  Holland,  Weinberg  has  also  based  his  theory  on  a  study  of  the  behaviour  of  members  of  a  discussion  forum.    This  is  strange  given  that,  unlike  Holland,  Weinberg  is  writing  in  an  environment  in  which  the  internet  has  become   accessible   to   a   wider   public   and   allows   much   more   media-­‐rich   interactions   through   applications   such   as  Facebook  and  Twitter.    Nevertheless,  it  is  interesting  to  note  that  Weinberg  arrives  at  very  different  interpretations  of  internet  phenomena  than  Holland  or  Turkle.    Weinberg’s  view  is  that  the  vast  number  of  users  and  connections  which  comprise  the  internet  generate  a  sense  of  incomprehensible  vastness  that  generates  anxiety  in  any  online  ‘group’.    This  is  dealt  with  in  various  ways  which  will   be   familiar   to   members   of   a   large   study   group.     Weinberg   also   observes   that,   unlike   in   a   large   study   group,     6  
  7. 7. BETA  version  there   is   a   tendency   to   idealise   the   leader  –   where   the   leader   is   conceptualised   as   the   group   moderator   or   provider  of  technical  support.    Yet   is   it   valid   to   conceptualise   an   online   discussion   forum   as   a   ‘large’   group  in   the   sense   envisaged   by   Turquet?     No  one   is   connected   to   the   whole   internet,   and   indeed   Shirky   argues   that   the   internet   actually   consists   of   many   ‘small  groups’,  which  are  linked  by  individual  users  who  may  be  members  of  many  groups.    But  are  these  small  groups  really  groups  in  the  sense  intended  by,  for  example,  Bion?    Entities   such   as   Facebook   and   MySpace   are   known   as   social   networks   within   which   friends   (in   social   network  parlance)  link  to  each  other.    Groups  of  like-­‐minded  users  -­‐  not  necessarily  friends  -­‐  can,  and  frequently  do,  self-­‐organise  within  such  networks.    Contributors  to  Wikipedia  and  other  collaborative  forums  are  often  referred  to  as  members  of  communities.    Users  of  Twitter  choose  to  follow  other  users,  while  users  accrue  connections  on  the  professional   networking   site   LinkedIn.     Platforms   such   as   YouTube,   Flickr   and   blogging   sites   enable   users   to  creatively  share  ideas  and  resources  in  the  form  of  text,  image,  audio  and  video  files.    The   terminology   and,   to   some   extent,   the   concepts   -­‐   groups,   communities,   friends,   followers,   sharing,   networks,  connections,  collaboration  -­‐  are  familiar  to  socio-­‐analysts.    Yet,  do  they  really  mean  the  same  thing?    For  example,  members  of  a  Facebook  group  may  never  have  met  in  person,  and  the  group  size  can  be  variable  and  extremely  large.  A  rapidly  emerging  trend  is  the  participation  in  social  media  groups  via  mobile  technologies,  such  as  smart  phones   and   broadband-­‐enabled   laptops.     So   a   user   might   be   in   a   different   geographic   location   each   time   they  participate  in  a  group.    Or  indeed,  might  be  literally  on  the  move  as  they  do  so.    Similarly,   the   question   of   time   for   interaction   between   users   of   online   social   networks   is   quite   different   to   in-­‐person  interaction.    Certainly  it  is  possible  to  have  a  real-­‐time  online  conversation  with  people  using  chat-­‐room  functionality,   but   the   bulk   of   interaction   about   particular   topics   takes   place   over   days,   weeks   and   even   longer,  often  across  different  international  time  zones.    The  duration  of  groups  themselves  is  also  rather  fluid  -­‐  it  is  hard  to  know  when  they  have  started  and  when  they  have  finished.    For  example,  does  the  group  start  once  it  has  been  announced  by  its  creators,  or  once  members  link  to  it,  or  when  the  first  comment  is  made?    Does  the  group  finish  when   has   the   last   comment   has   been   made?     If   so,   how   do   members   know   when   the   last   comment   has   been  made?    In  the  case  where  group  members  retain  their  links  to  the  group  even  if  there  has  been  no  recent  activity  does  the  group  still  exist?    If   group   time   is   an   elusive   concept,   it   is   not   always   clear   what   the   task   of   a   particular   social   entity   is   –   or,   in   Bion’s  phrase,  what  work  it  is  meeting  to  do.    The  work  of  the  Wikipedia  community,  for  instance,  is  fairly  clear  -­‐  to  build  an  online  repository  of  knowledge  -­‐  but  what  is  the  task  of  Twitter?    Nevertheless,  as  Shirky  demonstrates,  social  networks  do  work  which  has  an  impact  in  the  physical  world:  they  are  not  just  virtual  basic  assumption  groups,  to  paraphrase  Bion.    For  example,  in  Melbourne,  the  Save  The  Tote  group  did  indeed  help  to  save  The  Tote  and  did  achieve   changes   to   the   licensing   laws   through   the   coordination   of   protests   and   provision   of   a   site   for  communication  with  supporters  and  the  media.    So,  is  it  really  meaningful  -­‐  or  indeed  useful  -­‐  to  apply  socio-­‐analytic  principles  in  an  experiential  sense  when  the  traditional   boundaries   of   time,   task   and   territory   are   so   fluid?     How,   for   example,   can   one   consult   to   an   online  group?  3.3  Virtual  socio-­‐analysis?  Robert   Young   described   a   very   early   attempt   to   conduct   a   ‘group   relations’   type   event   on   the   internet,  commencing  in  1994  and  known  as  NETDYNAMICS.    His  reported  experience  of  the  event,  and  events  that  occurred  around  it,  are  interesting  from  both  an  individual  and  large  group  perspective.    Young  reported  that  members  felt  the  attempt  to  reproduce  a  study  group  online  was  a  failure.    He  said:     I  experienced  it  as  a  closed  group  with  its  own  rhetoric,  referring  to  interactions  and  issues  which  I  could   not  get  into.  All  the  other  groups  to  which  I  belonged  (fifty-­‐four  of  them)  were  based  on  issues  or  tasks,   e.g.,  psychoanalysis  or  psychotherapy  or  the  administration  of  forums  or  the  use  of  software.  This  one  had     7  
  8. 8. BETA  version   only  itself  as  an  object  of  study.  I  found  myself  in  the  unusual  position  of  ‘lurker’,  the  term  for  someone   who  reads  the  postings  but  never  sends  any  or  many  to  the  forum.  In  fact,  most  people  on  most  forums  do   not   join   in   very   often,   and   many   do   not   do   so   at   all.   They   lurk   and   are   suspected   of   voyeurism.   My   response  to  a  large  group,  e.g.,  the  large  group  at  a  group  relations  conference,  is  usually  not  to  keep  my   head   down   but   -­‐   as   if   threatened   by   drowning   -­‐   to   seek   to   encompass   the   whole   by   intervening,   a   version   of  swimming  like  mad.  In  this  case,  I  just  couldn’t.  I  couldn’t  even  individuate  the  different  voices  on  the   forum.5    After  some  debate  about  the  success  or  otherwise  of  the  forum,  it  membership  were  shocked  to  discover  that  its  founder  and  ‘leader’  had  taken  his  own  life.    Following  his  death,  details  of  a  lonely  and  alienated  life  emerged  via  the   forum,   along   with   hitherto   unrevealed   information   about   recent   job   loss   and   relationship   breakdown.     It  seemed  that  the  founder  had  chosen  to  edit  parts  of  his  life,  leaving  members  with  the  feeling  that  they  had  not  ‘known’   him,   even   though   he   had   been   an   active   contributor   to   the   forum.     According   to   Young,   forum   discussions  appeared  to  reorganize  around  themes  of  mourning  and  guilt  for  not  having  known  or  being  able  to  prevent  the  death  of  the  founder.    Although  Young  did  not  make  this  interpretation,  it  appears  as  though  the  tragic  death  of  the  NETDYNAMICS  founder  may  have  allowed  forum  members  to  finally  discover  a  task  which  enabled  them  to  connect  with  each  other;  eg.  around  their  own  experiences  of,  and  feelings  about,  suicide.    I   participated   in   a   recent   attempt   to   conduct   an   online   socio-­‐analytic   activity   using   social   media   which   used   a  somewhat  similar  discussion  forum  platform  to  NETDYNAMICS.    The  event  was  titled  a  ‘Virtual  Large  Study  Group’  (VLSG)   with   the   task   being   to   study   the   behaviour   of   the   group.     It   took   place   over   a   number   of   weeks   using   a  discussion  board  format  in  which  participants  could  post  text  (and  other  media),  and  respond  to  the  text  of  others.    The  posts  appeared  in  sequential  order  in  a  linear  fashion.    There  were  three  consultants  and  no  information  about  the  number  or  names  of  participants  was  given  to  members.    All  posts  were  removed  from  view  at  the  close  of  the  event.     I   cannot   recall   the   task   of   the   VLSG,   but   I   think   it   would   be   fair   to   say   that   the   aim   was   to   study   the  behaviour  of  a  large  group  using  social  media,  rather  than  attempting  to  study  social  media  using  a  large  group.    My  experience  of  the  VLSG  was,  unsurprisingly  perhaps,  quite  different  to  any  large  study  group  I  have  participated  in.    However,  this  was  not  just  because  most  of  the  communication  was  conducted  via  quite  lengthy  text  posts,  or  because   there   was   little   ‘real   time’   dialogue   between   members.     The   major   difference   was   not   the   absence   of  boundaries,   but   that   the   time   and   ‘territory’   boundaries   did   not   seem   appropriate   to   the   task.     I   am   thinking   about  ‘territory’   boundaries   simultaneously   as   both   the   physical   location   from   which   I   participated   in   the   VLSG   (which  varied)   and   the  architecture   of  the  application  being  used.     At   no   point   did   I   feel   like   a   member   of   a   group,   large   or  small,   and   the   sense   of   ‘connectedness’   I   normally   associate   with   group   membership.     It   was   as   if   I   was   floating  between  a  number  of  disconnected  statements,  rather  than  becoming  immersed  in  a  conversation.    The  experience  of  being  in  the  VLSG  was  dispersed  across  and  mixed  in  with  other  activities  in  my  life:  making  dinner,  preparing  for  bed,  having  breakfast,  travelling  to  and  from  work.    Occasionally,  I  used  my  smartphone  to  interact  with  the  VLSG,  meaning  that  I  was  physically  present  with  people  other  than  members  of  the  VLSG.    It  seemed  to  me  that,  as  with  Young’s  experience  of  NETDYNAMICS,  the  attempt  to  conduct  a  large  study  group  using  social  media  did  not  really  work  as  intended:  the  consultants  were  unable  to  hold  boundaries  in  the  way  that  is  possible  when  members  are  gathered  together  in  the  same  room.    At  times  I  had  the  impression  that  we  were  all  trying  to  behave  as  if  we  were  present  in  a  large  study  group,  making  the  kinds  of  observations  and  interpretations  that  are  familiar  to  large  study  group  participants,  although  this  didn’t  fit  the  reality  of  my  experience.    It  was  as  though  there  was  an  assumption  being  made  that  the  ‘virtual  world’  is  simply  a  reflection  of  the  ‘real  world’,  and  that  thinking  and  behaviour  employed  in  the  latter  can  be  directly  transplanted  into  the  latter;  for  example,  that  text   posts   were   somehow   the   equivalent   of   speech,   that   contributing   to   an   online   discussion   forum   using   a  smartphone  is  equivalent  to  sitting  a  room  with  participants.    As  I  will  discuss  later  in  the  paper,  part  of  the  issue  may  be  the  ready  acceptance  of  the  common  assumption  that  a  ‘virtual  world’  exists  separately  from  a  ‘real  world’.                                                                                                                                        5  http://human-­‐       8  
  9. 9. BETA  version  A  similar  experience  of  meeting  colleagues  in  Second  Life  to  plan  for  Members  Day  of  the  2011  ISPSO  Symposium  was  also  illuminating  in  this  regard.    Unlike  the  VLSG,  all  members  were  participating  at  the  same  time,  although  in  different   international   time   zones,   using   avatars   as   proxies.     The   meeting   took   place   in   a   room   on   the   virtual  campus  of  Fielding  Graduate  University,  with  members  communicating  by  both  voice  and  text-­‐based  chat.    While  the  majority  of  participants  had  experience  of  socio-­‐analytic  thinking,  many  possessed  only  limited  experience  of  Second   Life,   especially   in   relation   to   interacting   with   others.   The   experience   itself   felt   chaotic   initially,   as  participants   discovered   the   various   features   of   the   Second   Life   environment,   and   how   to   control   avatars.     It   was  difficult  to  think,  and  to  connect  with  participants  whom  one  had  not  previously  met  in  physics  life.    Nevertheless,  development   occurred   over   the   course   of   two   meetings,   with   participants   learning   how   to   communicate   and  interact,  and  the  experience  felt  alive  and  playful  in  a  way  that  the  VLSG  had  not.    In  my  view,  this  was  possible  firstly   because   of   the   presence   of   an   experienced   and   enthusiastic   Second   Life   guide,   whose   knowledge  participants   were   able   to   draw   on   as   a   resource   -­‐   a   kind   of   socio-­‐technical   support   as   it   were.     Secondly,  participants  were  emboldened  to  let  go  of  pre-­‐conceptions  about  how  a  socio-­‐analytic  encounter  should  unfold.    I   would   argue   that   any   attempt   to   directly   translate   some   of   the   classic   assumptions   of   group   relations   and  psychodynamic  systems  theory  to  online  (or  virtual)  groups  risks  misunderstanding  the  unique  properties  of  these  new   social   media.     I   am   suggesting   here   that   while   socio-­‐analytic   principles   continue   to   offer   a   important  conceptual  framework  for  the  investigation  of  social  relations,  socio-­‐analytic  methodologies,  based  as  they  are  on  traditional   organisational   forms,   may   themselves   require   regeneration   to   remain   relevant   in   a   ‘digital   society’.    Into  what  forms,  then,  might  regenerated  socio-­‐analytic  methods  evolve  in  a  way  that  is  aware  of  the  properties,  and   also   the   effects,   of   social   media   and   the   electronic   networks   on   which   they   are   hosted?     To   explore   this  question  I  discuss  the  unique  analytical  framework  developed  by  media  theorist  Marshall  McLuhan.    4.  Understanding  social  media    Marshall  McLuhan’s  work  on  media  has  often  been  credited  with  predicting  the  proliferation  and  social  impact  of  the   internet.     Indeed,   he   was   made   ‘patron   saint’   of   hip   IT   magazine   Wired.     Yet   his   major   work   Understanding  Media,  published  in  1964,  more  than  30  years  before  use  of  the  internet  started  to  become  widespread,  focused  primarily   on   the   effects   of   then   then-­‐dominant   electronic   medium:   television.     Although   some   of   the   terms   he  coined,  such  as  ‘the  medium  is  the  message’  and  the  ‘global  village’,  are  still  referenced  today,  it  would  be  fair  to  say  that  his  work  is  not  widely  understood,  even  within  the  field  of  media  and  communications  theory.    McLuhan  sought   to   create   awareness   of   the   effects   of   media   on   society,   particularly   new   media,   and   his   social   theories   have  been   criticized   as   overly   materialistic,   with   some   critics   interpreting   his   work   as   implying   that   social   change   is  ultimately  driven  by  changes  in  communications  technology.    His  ideas  about  the  relationship  between  the  physical  senses,  the   central  nervous  system  and  technology  have  also  been  criticized  as  having  no  scientific  basis  in  biology  or  neurology.    Despite  these  criticisms,  it  seems  difficult  to  argue  with  McLuhan’s  key  point,  which  he  summarizes  as:     The  printing  press,  the  computer,  and  television  are  not  .  .  .  simply  machines  which  convey  information.   They  are  metaphors  through  which  we  conceptualize  reality  in  one  way  or  another.  They  will  classify  the   world   for   us,   sequence   it,   frame   it,   enlarge   it,   reduce   it,   argue   a   case   for   what   it   is   like.   Through   these   media  metaphors,  we  do  not  see  the  world  as  it  is.  We  see  it  as  our  coding  systems  are.  Such  is  the  power   of  the  form  of  information.    Three  of  his  key  concepts  resonate  strongly  with  the  socio-­‐analytic  perspective  and,  I  believe,  help  to  point  the  way  to   new   socio-­‐analytic   methods   that   would   be   in   tune   with   a   society   in   which   electronic   networks   such   as   the  internet  are  increasingly  dominant:     1. Media  extend  consciousness  in  time  and  space   2. The  form  of  media  influence  psychic  and  social  organization  ‘the  medium  is  the  message’   3. Social  dynamics  in  the  electronic  era  assume  the  form  of  a  global  village       9  
  10. 10. BETA  version  4.1  Media  as  ‘extensions  of  man’  Communications   media,   for   Marshall   McLuhan,   are   not   simply   mechanisms   for   transmitting   information.   In  addition,  he  contends,  all  media  serve  to  extend  and  amplify  one  or  more  of  the  physical  senses.    Just  as  the  wheel  extends   the   capacity   of   the   foot   to   travel,   the   medium   of   writing   extends   the   sense   of   sight.     Similarly,   just   as  clothes   or   the   walls   of   a   house   extend   the   sense   of   touch,   the   medium   of   speech   extends   the   sense   of   hearing  across   space   and   time.     According   to   McLuhan,   the   stimulation   of   a   particular   sense   dims   the   experience   of   the  others.    He  provides  a  number  of  examples  of  how  dulling  a  particular  sense  can  heighten  awareness  of  the  others,  such  as  how  lowering  the  lighting  in  a  restaurant  and  providing  a  quiet  atmosphere,  dims  the  visual  and  auditory  senses   thereby   heightening   the   senses   of   taste,   smell   and   touch.   The   prominence   of   particular   kinds   of   media  technology   in   a   society,   McLuhan   argues,   will   correlate   with   what   he   calls   its   sensory   balance.     Thus,   there   will   be  certain  societies,  or  cultures,  which  he  describes  as  having  a  visual  emphasis,  others  which  may  have  an  audio-­‐tactile   emphasis   (unfortunately   he   doesnt   specifically   refer   to   cultures   which   could   be   considered   olfactory   or  gustatory).    The  differences  between  visual  and  audio-­‐tactile  cultures,  in  McLuhans  view,  stem  from  the  specific  properties  of  the  dominant  sense  or  senses.    The  difference  between  hearing  and  seeing,  according  to  McLuhan,  is  that  the  ear  is  essentially   non-­‐directional,   and   promotes   feelings   of   immersion   and   intimacy.   The   eye,   by   contrast,   relies   on   a  directional   gaze,   tending   to   distance   the   viewer   from   subject   and   promoting   a   sense   of   separation   of   what   is   in  view   from   what   isnt.   By   way   of   example,   McLuhan   points   to   sense   of   closeness   than   can   be   achieved   via   the   radio  and  the  telephone,  as  contemporary  examples  of  the  feeling  of  ‘intimacy’  he  describes6.    The  ear  perceives  sound  independently   of   the   direction   from   which   it   emanates,   as   opposed   to   the   eyes   which   only   perceive   in   one  direction  at  a  time.        The  immersive  nature  of  sound,  McLuhan  argues,  tends  to  favour  specific  kinds  of  social  experiences  and  relations.    The  first  and  foremost  of  these  is  the  tribe,  in  which  social  meaning  is  provided  by  storytellers,  bards  and  musicians:  the   ‘Tribal   Voice’,   as   McLuhan   terms   it.     In   an   aural   culture,   social   groupings   take   particular   forms   that   permit  verbal   interaction.     The   speech   of   the   tribal   elders   is   the   source   of   authority,   and   history   is   passed   on   through  oral/aural   tradition.     McLuhan   also   regards   the   tribal   form   as   having   a   tactile   quality,   expressed   through   the   media  of  dance,  music  making  and  carving.    The  sense  of  touch,  like  the  sense  of  hearing,  is  also  immersive.    Tribal  life,  for  McLuhan,   is   therefore   close-­‐knit   and   immersive,   with   the   emphasis   on   group   experience   rather   than   on   the  individual.    Individuality  is  conceptualised  as  role  -­‐  that  is,  only  in  relation  to  the  group.    Groups  are  small,  perhaps  organised   in   villages,   and  internally   focused,   with   bodily   functions   performed   in   public,  as   it   were,   although   the  distinction  between  private  and  public  has  little  meaning.    Visual  cultures,  on  the  other  hand,  are  marked  by  the  distinction  between  subject  and  object  -­‐  the  point  of  view,  in   McLuhans   shorthand.     Characteristic   features   are   specialisation,   hierarchy   and   an   emphasis   on   the   individual.    Authority   is   exercised   from   the   centre   to   margin   via   mechanical   media   -­‐   roads,   sea-­‐borne   trade   routes,   and  railways.   The   organising   principle   of   visual   culture   is   hierarchical   and   linear   one   thing   following   another,   the  organising   principle   of   oral-­‐tactile   culture   is   the   mesh   or   mosaic:   everything   at   once.     For   McLuhan,   the   crucial  technologies   which   enable   visual   culture   were   the   invention   of   the   phonetic   alphabet,   followed   by   the  development  of  the  printing  press.    According   to   McLuhan,   the   phonetic   alphabet,   through   its   ability   to   translate   sound   into   sight,   represents   a  seismic  shift  in  the  way  the  world  is  experienced.    Unlike  pictographic  writing  in  which  visual  symbols  correspond  to  set   meanings,   the   phonetic   alphabet   represents   specific   sounds   through   otherwise   meaningless   characters.     It  therefore   allows   the   sound   of   speech   to   be   transmitted   and   reproduced   across   space   and   time   on   tablets   and  parchment.  For  the  first  time  it  was  feasible  for  the  voice  of  the  tribal  leader  or  king  to  be  heard  far  from  their  seat  of   power,   and   roads   were   constructed   to   enable   messengers   to   transmit   orders   and   proclamations.   Thus,   the  advent  of  phonetic  language  allowed  the  authority  of  the  spoken  word  to  be  exercised  as  a  distance,  setting  the  scene  for  the  establishment  of  empires.                                                                                                                                        6  This  may  explain  the  attraction  of  late-­‐night  talk-­‐back  radio  to  lonely  listeners.     10