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“If you’re not paying for it, you become the product” / The Chinwag Psych London event this Thursday 15th May

by on May 12, 2014 in Apps, Events, Events & Awards, FaceBook, Google, iPhone, Lead Article, LinkedIn, London & South East, Metrics, Mobile Marketing, Pinterest, Social Media, Twitter

By Dr. Aaron Ballick, Psychotherapist, consultant, and author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking.

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 or Twitter, 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.

Whilst privacy is an issue, what concerns me is the nature of social networking and the motivation behind it. It’s something I’ll be talking @ChinwagPsych about at The Chinwag Psych London event on 15th May.

I believe that the “real” motivation behind social networking is the fundamental human desire to see and be seen by others as a full person — it is called “mutual recognition” and 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.

Today’s Internet emerged in a capitalist society which is fuelled by self interest. 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.

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. 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 we are increasingly interested in sharing ourselves before we are content to be ourselves. 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!” In fact, are you less able to stay in the moment, because you’re so concerned about sharing the moment? The Last time you went to a gig, did you watch it through a smartphone?

Now take a second and think.

Why all the sharing? It’s because you are a trader in the digital economy of recognition. And your ego has just been paid. Ego satisfaction or “strokes” are 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

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, you’re recognised! Doesn’t it feel good? If not, you’re invisible. Not so good.

In many ways it’s harmless, but in other important ways it’s not and, because this personal economy occurs within a profit driven world, 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.

However, it’s not completely black and white.

If I want a good plumber I’ll 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.

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

We are sharing more and more before we are being and in doing this we are letting a small part of ourselves down. We are more than our cute cats and witty tweets.

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 needs recognition too — in fact, it needs it now more than ever.


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