Velleda C. Ceccoli, PhD – Being Virtual: Social Media and the Relational Self

Is our culture of texting, tweeting, friending, Facebooking, Instagramming, Linked-iness and LOL speak threatening interpersonal connection and communication? You know, the old fashioned kind? Is our techno-connectivity eroding interactive experiences involving face to face contact and conversations, and changing the quality of our relationships with others? Is social media creating a new kind of intimacy?

"Musa" by Gerhard Richter

As a psychoanalyst who believes that human beings are wired to be in relationship, and that it is relationships which advance (or truncate) psychological and physical development, that it is emotional connection which advances growth and maturity through shared intimacy, these are very real and potentially disturbing questions.

Our current culture of virtual inter-connectivity and instant information has already changed the way many people read books (as in the paper kind), as well as our ability to focus on a presentation which is unassisted by media applications. Now that we can get the Technicolor, surround sound, media assisted version of anything, that is what we want- and why not? Email beats snail mail, texts beat phone calls, videos beat photos, etc. For some, this extends to an ongoing stream of information that condenses meaning based on the clicking of a like button. Technology, and in particular social media is shaping the way that we communicate, interact and think of others and very likely ourselves. None of us can deny that the way we communicate and relate to others has been reconfigured and continues to pattern itself according to the technological possibilities offered to us by our various devices and how we use them.

Social media has blurred many boundaries on its way to increased connectivity. The personal and the public have fused themselves in tweets, real friendships and virtual ones have joined through Facebook, and online personae – avatars as they are called – act as symbolic selves for their creators, perhaps merging true and idealized selves. Reciprocal and direct communication has conflated into an ongoing gabfest, and language itself has been abridged to accommodate it. And all of this occurs in the NOW, without pauses and as a constant flow. So that time itself is blurred. Realtime (no gap in between real and time) is nonstop, it streams. According to Nick Carr this also blurs the boundaries of space, dimension and depth: moving us from the three dimensional world to two dimensional screen spaces and “intimate portable worlds that increasingly enclose us”.

Yikes! It may sound like a sci-fi movie but no. It is us now- well maybe not all of us.

For many of today’s generation, an “unstreamed” life is no life at all.  Sad but true. So perhaps we already have one answer to how all this social media impacts on the fate of the relational self. It seems to be central to how this generation navigates relationships. Each device a remote control to be used as one wishes. It is all in the use of our devices say I. For those that need to be streaming in order to feel connected and be part of a community, in order to establish an identity and have a life, such a life is not real until it is documented and aired, until it is reported and received. With streaming all interpersonal communications are broadcasted ongoingly to an active network of “friends”. Broadcasting may in fact become a way of living for some people. A way of validating their actions and existence, as well as a means of staying connected. Then again, all previous generations have struggled to obtain validation about the same things, and a connection to others has always been instrumental in gaining recognition, even if it was acquired without the help of todays’ technological gadgets. We continue to be relational beings, and as such we need to connect with others to get to know ourselves, to see ourselves through the eyes of another, or in this case, through their streamed commentary! We need other people, individually and collectively. Social media has the ability to connect us instantly, virtually, to the one and to the many, and the current generation has cut its teeth on it.

While it is possible that some mistake streaming and broadcasting for living, it is also possible to think of social media as a potential play space in which to test out one’s identity, a sort of “transitional space” in psychoanalytic parlance, that can afford people the opportunity of experimenting with relationships –  virtual and real. This does not necessarily have to disrupt one’s ability to interact and be, in fact it may provide a chance to begin to be. Think of the now much talked about cable tv show Girls” – many of those characters would be lost without their gadgets, and in fact, they all stream and experiment with who they are through their devices, yet they retain their relationality, their need for relationship and intimacy, even when they are at a loss as to how to go about relating. They may create virtual dopplegangers for themselves, but their needs are the same as the needs of previous generations expressed anew: for love, for recognition, for connection and community. They are but attempting to navigate through their needs and wants using the technology available to them. Its all in the use of our devices say I.

Perhaps we have arrived at a moment in our history where communication has begun to dictate the terms of how we should communicate. The use of technology and the instant stream of information it allows us has changed our alphabet and shortened our words and sentences, so that we have LOL speak, and so that some have dropped the “niceties” of inquiring after the weather, thanking one another, beginning emails and texts with Dear, etc. Some people argue that given the amounts of information out there, our tolerance for the communication we receive and choose to have has decreased, and that as a result we risk numbing our facility for tenderness and generosity. Perhaps this is one of the differences inherent with text and pictures on a screen (the portable intimacy that Carr talks about) instead of sitting in front of a flesh and blood human – but I think it likely that someone who does not use Dear or Thank You or Good Morning in an email or text might have the same  interpersonal difficulties in person. Maybe all of our technology and social media has just made it more difficult to be connected by providing too many ways and options of being connected. Some might say that it is a matter of filters and implementing the right ones, sifting the information received so that it is more specific, less overwhelming. Filters. BoundariesObjects. Object usage. Again, to my mind it is all a matter of how we use our objects (read devices).

So perhaps what I am saying boils down to this:  I think the use of technology and social media re-wires our brains so that we can adapt to environmental demands. The brain structure and neuro-circuitry of one generation is likely different than those of the next because of these evolutionary adaptations. Of course this has an impact on the way we experience and perceive our environment and the people in it, as well as the way we interact. But no, I do not think that we are losing our capacity to relate to each other. Our brains are wired relationally, and while they are evolving in different and varied ways, that need for other(s) remains central to the enterprise of being human and to our survival. How we go about connecting is changing, but our need to connect and relate remains.

Velleda C. Ceccoli, PhD

First published on Dr. Ceccoli’s blog, Out of My Mind, on June 4, 2012. 

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