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  • Forms and Practices
  • Interaction
  • Self
  • Situation
  • Time
  • Max Saunders
  • access
  • affect
  • age
  • agency
  • audience selection
  • authenticity
  • communities
  • detox/disconnection/unplugging
  • ethics
  • facebook
  • future
  • gender
  • google
  • identity
  • imaginative agency
  • internet
  • metaphor
  • networks
  • participation
  • platforms
  • questionnaires
  • search engines
  • social media
  • twitter


These ten short Observations (each is a two- to five-minute read) pick out the main topics about which our Mass Observation respondents were especially illuminating. They also indicate how the responses connect with other Sections of Ego Media.

On generational differences

This is an enormous topic and in many ways beyond the scope of Ego Media. But given the age range or our cohort, and the frequency with which they comment upon it, it is discussed briefly here. The main point is that most users and nonusers have a strong sense not only that there are generational differences in the way people approach the internet and social media; but that these differences in approach have become one of the defining features of the different generations. For an intriguing sociological analysis of generational differences in digital experience – intriguing not least because it is cast in the form of an essay in auto/biography comparing the practices of three generations – readers are recommended to see Howard Gardner and Katie Davies’s The App Generation.1

W729 provides the crucial contrast between the “born digital” and older generations:

My friend’s daughters use (late teens, early 20’s) use Facebook and Twitter the way I would use the phone. They Tweet and Facebook people constantly – their entire social life seems to be conducted online. I think occasionally they “unfriend” ex-boyfriends and I gather that is quite a serious thing to do. The face to face relationship is really over when you unfriend someone. I think people in their 20’s and 30’s have just grown up with the Internet and it’s a natural thing for them. For my generation, who didn’t even have mobile phones growing up, the Internet and relationships conducted on it are a bit of a mystery.

Or if not mysterious, then suspect in some way. B1771 comments:

The younger generation do not mind sharing details of their personal lives, excessively in some instances, validating themselves in some way but my generation are reluctant to share publicly and are quite guarded when it comes to purchasing on line in case their financial details are stolen.

Generally the comments are critical of what a younger generation are doing online. T5672 unusually resents being viewed as behind the times in this respect (though the comment about the Twitter mindset manages to smuggle in a criticism about youthful suggestibility):

What I do find alienating is being part of an older wave of internet users who have never quite got comfortable with the practices of modern web services like Twitter and Snapchat. I don’t have that have-to-follow mindset that makes Twitter alive; I’m as likely to want to read and respond to something 3 months or 3 years after the fact. I just don’t have a use case for the immediacy of tweeting. I do actually have a Twitter account, and have tried it occasionally, but I keep the account just to reserve a preferred pseudonym.

D4736 gives an illuminating catalog of the different sites he takes to be appropriate for different ages:

There is a definite generation gap between sites. It is well recognised that Facebook is the old-fashioned place for the first generation of media users like myself. My children are far more networked on Bebo, Snapchat and other platforms that I’ve probably never heard of. My daughter is on Facebook, but uses Snapchat a lot. My son is on Facebook but never uses it, he tends to Skype with his friends while playing on-line multi-user games. Our Godson is on Facebook, but I remember him saying around the time he was 17 that he was going onto Twitter so he could have private exchanges away from parents.

This is perhaps what respondents are picking up when they say, as a number did, that they don’t “get” particular sites (usually Twitter!). See for example D156. Though of course they may also be responding to the different genres and styles associated with them. To B5342:

All the social networks have a distinct feel and code of behaviour, though it is becoming more blurred. Twitter felt quite elite and intellectual when I first started using it. The humour was very ironic and clever. Now it seems more like Facebook, with anyone and everyone on it, though generally I would still say it attracts a more high-brow user.

The blurring effect is perhaps due to an effect of scale. With approximately two billion users on Facebook, even members of exactly the same age are not all going to be using the platform in the same way.

On domestic contexts

A strong strand in our MO responses described internet use as something taking place in family contexts. Some wrote about using it in their jobs, but far more of the writing is about the domestic environment. First memories of being online often involve using a parent’s computer. Parents give computers and devices to children. Partners exchange them. Grown-up children give them to elderly parents (often as a way of keeping in touch with grandchildren, especially when living in another country).

Some (especially older couples) wrote about families sharing machines; some about sharing a space using different devices; others about sharing platforms.

A number wrote about being at home and online together (which was sometimes tantamount to what Sherry Turkle describes as being “Alone Together.”)2 For older couples this was in retirement. One wife dreaded her husband’s imminent retirement, fearing it would reduce her access to the single home computer. J4793 describes how: “My husband and I have both fallen into the habit of ‘double screening’ – using our phones while watching TV.” (Also discussed in the Observation on Imaginative Agency.) Respondents worry about the degree of addiction to social media in other family members.

Some participants described using new media to communicate with spouses. But most of the married respondents rather depressingly took the prompt about how the internet had affected “romance” to apply to other people. . . Whether married or not, many commented on how the meeting of partners has been completely transformed.

R4365, for instance, has detailed vicarious experience of dating sites:

I have a couple of friends who are single and I think the internet has changed that. My one friend uses Tinder, Plenty of Fish and Match. It seems there are sites that offer people to meet and connect and sites where people meet to have sex. It also makes people vulnerable to cheaters and people pretending to be someone else. She has to decipher those who are genuine and those who just want sex. Nowadays, I don’t know anyone who actually meets in real life. If I was single I don’t know how I would deal with this. Also, there is a lot of texting and phone calls before they meet, so if there is attraction things can move quite quickly. My friend ensures she meets someone she likes within a few days; if they don’t want to she will move on. It does feel these new sites to stop the process of getting to know someone because you have specified what you want as soon as you sign up. I think because the internet is so quick, can be used anywhere and gives us access to whatever we want and we want it now.

The conclusion she draws from this is as surprising as it is telling: “It’s like our phones are our partners.” That seemed to be the unspoken anxiety behind J4793’s comment about “double screening.” Not only was her partner paying attention to his phone and not her; but when she asked what he was doing, “he always replies ‘nothing’ which makes it even more frustrating.” Frustrating, doubtless, because he feels he’s wasting time. But also because the refusal to say what he has been doing, or more to the point, with whom, is likely to strike a spark of jealousy. But jealousy of what? Of the other people he’s interacting with online? Or of the screen he’s engrossed in? There’s a double entendre in the idea of double screening. The phones are competing with the TV, with attention split between two media. But they are also competing with the partners, the attention split between two kinds of interaction.

Thanks to MO’s protocol of anonymity, several respondents feel able to discuss pornography – rarely as users themselves, or only in their youth. But many comment on its presence online (especially as something that concerns them as parents). One gives a particularly vivid vignette of how life online can impact on a relationship:

I do remember though being in the living room whilst my husband was on the PC. The screen faced me, and I realized he was openly downloading porn. Except in those days the images took ages to down load, literally the picture built up line by line, so by the time you’d got beyond the models face you were probably quite bored!! I was appalled though that he had done it and in front of me but he was aggressively defensive “Everybody does it on the internet!” (D5380)

They do it much more and much quicker nowadays. Presumably the equivalent defense now would be that it was only porn; he wasn’t trying to meet someone on Tinder (as mentioned by R4365 above) or Ashley Madison, the website facilitating adultery which was hacked, causing a scandal, in the year of our directive, 2015 (and which a couple of respondents also referred to).

Privacy, which is discussed in the Observation on “Privacy, Identity, Identities” in relation to strangers, is also an issue within relationships and families. M3190 writes: “Given that all the Apple computers and phones in this house sync automatically with one another it would be suicide for me to bookmark any porn sites.” And more comically, T4715 jokes after completing our final task: “I’m going to delete my browsing history now. If the rest of the family see I’ve been Googling myself they will laugh at my vanity.” Housemates too: B5567 recalls: “Also, after so many years of being in shared accommodation/phones, a personal email account was suddenly a method of getting a message no one else knew about which was quite nice.” It’s always important to understand your technology and the risks it brings with it. Just the the plots of bedroom farces might turn on overheard phone calls, so those of hipster sitcoms might turn on someone leaving their email open, or not realizing their device was synching with someone else’s.

On the gendering of UX

Much of the material from our respondents unsurprisingly reflects conventional gender roles, experience, and expectations in society. Some anecdotes caught the way computer skills and propensities are gendered from schooldays:

We’d had six BBC Microcomputers at school when I was in the 6th Form, and the Maths department tried to encourage the 6th Formers to get interested. The geeky boys who were taking A levels in Maths and Science took to them like ducks to water. I spent an hour struggling to word process an essay on “Wuthering Heights” before declaring it was quicker to write by hand and it would never catch on. (T4715)

Others record the same binary divide – between technologically-assured males and alienated or intimidated females – persisting into the workplace:

My official job title was “computer demonstrator,” but I admit I had not much of a clue when my first nervous secretary sat down for her first experience with a computer. I think I tried to cover every single text function the word processor could do in one day and the poor woman left in a state of utter bewilderment. (D4736)

The accounts of internet and social media user experience (UX) indicate a perceived gender differential there too. One man (D4736 again) even appears to distinguish platforms in gender terms:

My wife has been on Twitter and i[t] seems very schizophrenic to me. Too many voices. At one time she had this thing called a tweetdeck, with conversations in several columns continually scrolling every few seconds as another message beeped in. I have difficulty keeping up with one conversation never mind several. It feels to me like one giant global pub, with a million different conversations going on at once which you can never hope to follow. There is a lot of shouting and only the loudest get to be heard. Not for me. I prefer everything in one place where I can manage it, and that place is Face[b]ook. Even my wife has abandoned the tweetdeck, thank heavens.

The shouting denizens of the global pub may sound more masculine than feminine, but the denigration of excessive talk and multitasking, and the attribution of mental instability all skirt towards misogyny.

Which isn’t to say that some of the female respondents don’t also describe a gendering of internet use. J4793 describes a largely female network of contacts:

I read many blogs (too many to mention) and am involved in huge online communities, all creative or related to blogging and predominantly female, where we connect with each other on Facebook and Instagram, sharing work and information and acting like any off-line community: building each other up, offering support, help, tips, resources, sympathy, etc.

Yet what the last two examples show (and as J4793 is well aware) is that social media have proved a space where women have been able to feel empowered rather than reinscribed into new forms of patriarchy. Not always, of course. Trolls and sexists online do their best to keep powerful or vocal women in what they perceive to be their place. But in terms of the gendering of technology, one of the great social revolutions effected by the internet and social media has been to dismantle assumptions that technology was not for women – though the dismantling is far from complete, as Rebecca Roach shows in her discussion of the import of the lack of gender diversity in the tech industries, and UNESCO’s report on the effects of this. SNS have enabled women to create their own personal and professional support groups, and develop their work and ideas outside the control of traditional patriarchal structures of family and workplace. If in some ways such developments mirror progressive gender equalization in society, they have also doubtless contributed to them, by enhancing women’s sense of agency and potential.

On privacy, identity, identities

By rewarding the broadcasting of intimate information, social media have transformed notions of privacy and intimacy. It isn’t just that it stretches the radius of our social circle. It blurs the boundaries. We share personal data with people we may not have met, or mainly know virtually. Online friendship groups mix up intimate friends and internet acquaintances.

Many of our older respondents displayed what we might think of as “pre-internet” sensibilities regarding privacy; being reluctant to share data with strangers (or even at all, fearful that malign strangers might hack into it); and expressing worry about how much the younger generations are becoming accustomed to sharing in full public view.

Yet even those respondents who are intensive social media users made the comment that was fairly standard across the cohort on the task of googling their own name. The point of this exercise was to get users to explore their own digital footprint: to see what Google knew about them. (For some, the concept of “ego surfing” was so remote as to turn it into an exercise we hadn’t anticipated, when they searched the meaning or etymology of their names instead.) What most said was that they were happy/relieved that little or no personal information about them was visible. To some extent (as suggested in the introductory essay) this may reflect self-selection – people being drawn to MO through a predilection for anonymous participation. Nonetheless, it is striking in the case of intensive users such as bloggers or online retailers. Some of these have compartmentalized their online lives, using aliases for blogging or business, precisely so as to keep private information private. But the point is that even those whose lives are most lived online have retained the sense of privacy that much of the discourse about online data assumes has been compromised by the new media.

A frequent theme arising when people are commenting on the amount of personal information being shared online is not that it is private or intimate but that it is boring or vacuous. “Who cares?” is a retort which cropped up several times. From one point of view an odd question, since the answer is visible in the number of likes and other responses given online. In a sense, the question is really “Why should I care?”

Put like that, it becomes clearer that the irritation at the banality of others is the other side of the coin of feeling that others wouldn’t be interested in your everyday life. As D4736 puts it: “I don’t write a blog, not being convinced people want to know my innermost thoughts or opinions.”

It’s also a question of audience though. I’m interested in what my own child has for supper, or how a game went. I’m less interested in such facts about other people’s children. Partly what’s happening is a sense that the limits have been violated; normally such information would have been kept within closely defined parameters – friends and family. SNS attach that rhetoric of “friends” and “community” to broader groups than was historically the case, and sometimes we struggle to keep up.

This struggle is reflected in a sometimes paradoxical language of privacy, as people tease out the contradictions of their online writing. For example, J4793 says: “I am quite a private person in many ways. It feels like a bit of an oxymoron to say all that while maintaining two personal blogs and the fact I will be sending this file electronically!”

An MO cohort is a particularly instructive sample in this area because they are already committed to a different form of sharing of intimate details. M3190 gives an especially full and revealing comparison:

I approach Mass Observation and the on line world in almost diametrically-opposed ways. I decided, when I volunteered as a Mass Observer, that whatever I was asked about I’d answer fully and honestly, not sparing my blushes, and as far as possible I’ve lived up to that ideal. I trust MO to look after their records and to preserve my anonymity, at least until I’m dead and gone. But when I’m on line I give out next to no “hard” information about myself: whereabouts I live, how old I am, what I do (did) for a living and so on. This seems to have been an instinctive thing, dating back right to my first ever experiences of using the internet. I wonder whether it was because I had, and indeed have, no belief in “cyberspace” as a realm distinct from the “real” world, a sort of technological Eden in which we can all run about safely and securely? Then again, maybe it was just an extension of the same common sense that stops us from walking up to perfect strangers in the street and telling them what we earn, how much office stationery we’ve pilfered in the last year and how often we make love with our wives.

Another (F3641; Female, aged 75) retold a similar joke, taken from The Oldie magazine:

SIR: I haven’t got a computer, but I was told about Facebook and Twitter and am trying to make friends outside Facebook and Twitter while applying the same principles.

Every day, I walk down the street and tell passers-by what I have eaten, how I feel, what I have done the night before and what I will do for the rest of the day. I give them pictures of my wife, my daughter, my dog and me gardening and on holiday, spending time by the pool. I also listen to their conversations, tell them I “like” them and give them my opinion on every subject that interests me... whether it interests them or not.

And it works. I already have four people following me; two police officers, a social worker and a psychiatrist.
Peter White, Holbrook, Derbyshire3

The broad-brush characterization in such a joke of all social media users as insanely extrovert glosses over the sizeable proportion of users who “lurk,” in the unflattering term used of people who visit others’ pages but don’t post (see Lisa Gee’s discussion of this label).

There’s a touch of the Ant and the Grasshopper about the idea: those who produce their contributions resenting those who merely consume them without giving anything back. “Lurking” implies something surreptitious and potentially sinister in the activity. The idea that the lurker can see someone’s online life secretly implies the possibility of a voyeuristic motivation and pleasure. Which is not to say that lurkers can’t be moralistic about themselves, as when R4365 says:

I don’t use or have any interest in using snapchat or Instagram. The reason I am not into these is because I am a private person and I don’t like uploading pictures to the internet. It is a bit of a contradiction as I am nosey about what other people are up to but won’t give anything away myself.

One might see it, instead, as simply a form of “people watching”; though the people watcher would be mistrusted if peeping through a keyhole, and might even be accused of voyeurism, or at least staring, even if seated at a bar in plain view. The more telling analogy is with reading. Nobody gets accused of lurking for reading Madame Bovary. Nobody gets accused of lurking for reading the newspaper, even though the tabloids have little content that couldn’t be found on social media. Journalists now sometimes give email addresses for bylines, or the paper’s website encourages comments. But their lives would be intolerable if all their readers responded. So-called lurkers are simply approaching SNSs as if they were texts to be read, like the paper or a novel (more properly, a graphic novel, complete with pictures). They just have a different relation to the platform from those who post and interact.

That the difference disturbs others (or even the lurkers themselves) reveals how nonparticipation troubles the economy of a social network – its relations of production. It only functions as a social media network when people interact; when people respond with comments, likes, and retweets, not to mention their own posts. If they don’t, it loses distinctiveness; it is just broadcasting via another channel.

(See the Observation on Networked Selves for further discussion of this practice.)

M3190 sees the notion of privacy working along a different axis. Rather than separating self from others, this separates alternative voices from orthodox discourses:

on the subject of the internet I remarked that it served the current need, in developed societies, to somehow carve out individual personal space, away from the constant media and political propaganda barrage, and also to set up “alternative voices” challenging what is (usually quite mistakenly) resented as “elitist” authority. Hence the proliferation of blogs like Mumsnet, fan sites and forums, and the frequently distasteful standard of debate and discourse on media comments boards. It’s not so much that internet technology necessarily leads to blogging and insulting perfect strangers just because they don’t agree with you, it's just that that’s how society has made use of it, given its current obsessions and resentments. And it’s not an entirely bad thing, despite its many follies; I think of it as analogous to the explosion of printing in the seventeenth century, with partisan pamphlets circulating and anonymous libellous handbills glued up on signposts and so on. Over time, the good ideas survive and develop, and the idiocies get forgotten.

It’s another version of “finding your tribe” (as discussed by J4793 in the Observation on Networked Selves). A special interest group, a forum, is communal to its members but private in relation to the rest of cyberspace or other people. The trouble is, like those libelous handbills, outrage occurs when the comment that would pass unchallenged among the like minded is broadcast to a wider public.

Most respondents did not seem unduly concerned about deceitful or criminal activity on social media, though they were well aware of its prevalence and some described taking precautions about the kind of information they posted. One of the most concerned was R5429, whose view that only authentic identities should be used chimed with Mark Zuckerberg’s assertion that “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”:4,5

I am genuine in all my social media accounts. I do not have the necessary skill or memory required to enable creation of multiple personalities. I am sure creating aliases is tantamount to some sort of mental health disorder. I cannot comprehend the appeal of pretending to be someone else. I associate aliases with sinister activities.

But then her degree is in Computer Forensics, so it is scarcely surprising that:

I am aware of lots of instances of the internet being misused for devious means including fraud, money laundering, grooming and paedophilia. I have also worked within a forensics company as a Scientist responsible for undertaking digital examinations to ascertain the use of the internet in criminal investigations.

Interestingly, though, in responding to the question about presenting oneself differently on different media, even she did allow of some variation: “Personally speaking I often find myself to represent myself differently according to the given format.”

The internet thus puts the notions of privacy and identity, and the relations between them, under new kinds of pressure. The neoliberal subject requires a single identity to be unambiguously attached to a single individual for commercial and legal reasons. But protecting that identity from theft and that privacy from invasion or hacking in an online environment seems to many to require a multiplication of identities. Offline, you may be aware that your friend behaves differently to his peer group, his teachers, or his parents. But you also know that all three personae belong to the same person. If someone else were messaging him or observing him online, they might not realize that the three usernames on a WhatsApp group chat, a Facebook page, and Snapchat were connected.

This too is an area where the internet amplifies preexisting trends. Many people (and not just teenagers) behave differently among different groups: friends, colleagues, strangers, etc. But social media encourage people to deploy aliases and experiment with different identities. Some respondents feel they were essentially the same person even when using different names online, different platforms, or even different accounts on the same platform, enabling them to communicate widely while protecting their personal or professional identities. Others (such as B5342, discussed in the Observation on Affect) enjoy the way social media enable them to develop personalities distinct from their offline social selves, and express ideas and feelings they don’t feel they would be able to otherwise. Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror, offered a more cynical view, arguing that social media reward inauthenticity, performances of subjectivity, an amusing crassness.6

D5380 gives a good sense of how identity multiplication can be felt as a trade-off for some of the internet’s benefits:

I think the internet presents a paradox. It provides people with the ultimate “disguise.” You can be whoever you want to be behind the safety of your screen on websites, through gaming etc. You don’t even have to leave your chair to find out the latest information, make purchases, talk to people etc. It encourages people to become insular. And yet, it has equally made globalisation possible and opened up the world for everyone. I can watch things happen in another country, I can speak to someone face to face, I can find out about what’s happening across the world etc. So in some ways we are far more knowledgeable about other people’s lives and have access to a phenomenal amount of information but yet are probably less out going and less likely to interact with real people than the generation before us.

This touches on many of the other key themes identified in these Observations: especially the paradoxical affects of the internet; the phenomenon of networked selves; and the generational differences produced by and expressed in social media.

On networked selves

Social networking services (SNS) were introduced as tools to connect people. As they have developed it has become clear – as our respondents show – that they are connecting people in different ways: faster, in greater numbers, across greater distances, in different media, at different times, and with different results.

For people who use social media significantly, the interactions there have become increasingly important factors in their self-image and well-being. One of the benefits of surveys such as ours is that they give a granular sense of exactly how people are using the networking affordances. Our respondents give detailed accounts of which platforms they use, how many people they interact with, what sorts of communications they enjoy and what sorts they don’t, and so on.

What is more difficult is to define what effects such changes in social practice have on the subjectivities of the users. What difference does it make to my self that I am “connected” to more people than I could have known in pre-internet life? Putting it like that might seem a circular question (it means you are connected to more people), or a falsely essentialist one (it doesn’t mean anything about your essence; it only means you are connected to more people). But it does mean the nature of your communicative acts changes. Alexandra Georgakopoulou discusses the idea of context collapse introduced by danah boyd and Alice Marwick, when users swap the bearings of their well-defined social groups for a virtually limitless and unknown online audience.

Our users report that they notice selves changing in these new networked situations – developing a range of strategies that can be seen as the result of context collapse: becoming less guarded about intimate information; more interested in finding people like them, who share their views and interests; less tolerant of others, and more likely to denigrate or abuse them; more likely to assume false or multiple identities; and so on.

Defining the ways of interacting in new media and how they impact upon subjectivity is the task of social media theory. It is clear that the networking function is the factor that most differentiates SNS from older communications media or indeed older forms of sociability. One influential concept in the theory is that of the “Networked Self,” associated particularly with Zizi Papacharissi.7 The claim of this core term is that the self networked through the new technologies of SNS is different in kind from previous formations of subjectivity. Three major differences are that:

  1. You can communicate with much larger numbers of people at the same time.
  2. They are less likely to be sharing the same space as you. The balance of sociability is shifting from forms of physical togetherness (“hanging out”) to forms of digital togetherness (liking someone’s post or tweeting about what you’re doing)
  3. Because of that, more of the communication is likely to be about “what is happening.” If you’re hanging out with someone you might comment on what you’re doing or observing; but you don’t have to tell them what you're doing or observing: they can see for themselves.

Probably because members using the network are more likely to be physically remote from their contacts, the signs of friendship seem especially important. People generally need the support of a peer group, to be accepted and appreciated by their friends and colleagues. That is how networks worked before SNS. This can take nonverbal forms when you’re together – a smile, a nod, touching an arm, a hug. Platform designers have sought virtual equivalents in likes and emojis. But they are generic in the way a smile from a close friend is not, a form of emotional currency. One result is that quantification is foregrounded. Getting ten likes is twice as good as five likes, but there isn’t an equivalent smile calculus. And because such generic acknowledgments are one of the main currencies of the media, people post not to socialize or deepen friendship alone (though that may be a motive and may happen), but also to maximize the rewards in digital currency. One meaning of the claim that people are “addicted” to social media – on top of any physiological addiction associated with dopamine release – is that people are communicating not for the communication but for its result in quantifiable reward form.

The industry rhetoric surrounding social media, in emphasizing interdependence – people defining their subjectivity or state of mind in terms of their likes, etc. – could be said to be effectively acknowledging this dependence on generic responses. Though it puts a more positive gloss upon it, implying it improves friendship, career success, finding partners, and so on.

But two kinds of revealing comment come across in our responses. First, that the greater degree of networking afforded by social media drains the connections of significance. This is the burden of E5296’s comments that Facebook involves:

keeping up with people in the unreal way we all do these days (I actually think I hate FB, its so FAKE! I think it makes you lose touch with people as all you do is read stuff they write or flick through their pictures while drifting further apart as you’ve had no real interactions with them in months! I think a lot of people think the same about FB but because everyone is so obsessed by it no one gives it up!)

SNSs offer greater connectivity, but these respondents feel breadth is at the expense of depth. But they also recognize the addictive quality which keeps people hooked despite their frustrations.

However, there is a second kind of response which suggests an alternative reading. What some respondents say is often how what suits them about social media platforms is actually how disengaged they can remain; lurking, occasionally contributing if they feel like it, but without the pressures of nonvirtual sociability:

it makes me feel closer to people I admire when I can look at their profile and work out they’ve got a cat, that must be their girlfriend, that is their mum and these are their brothers and sisters. It is easier than being friends in the real world and having to set up meetings, think of things to do. Risk them saying no. (M5113)

In the words of W729: “I probably use these online communities for information and ideas, rather than feeling in touch with people.”

D4736 thought this aspect of detachment was likely to increase: “I anticipate we will become better connected, but less relational.” According to this view, what SNS offer is intimacy at a distance. Not “alone together” but “togetherness apart.” It is precisely the way SNSs enable one not to get too involved that constitutes one of their attractions. (Some users also expressed a preference for email over phone calls, for similar reasons.) In this case it may be possible that some of the anger and frustration expressed at superficiality is expressing anger at oneself, for betraying one’s own exacting ideal of friendship.

Most users thought the self they presented didn’t vary significantly across platforms. (See also the Observation on Privacy, Identity, Identities.) But some had a fine-grained sense of variations, as with D4736 again: “depending on what I want to say, or who I am saying it to, I present myself differently on these formats, and even within a format.”

If your contacts only see a version, or an aspect of you, then conversely, the selves they present to you are equally subject to “curation,” editing, or manipulation. There have always been liars and cheats and con people, but virtual interactions make it easier for them to hide what they want to. People you only know through the internet, or know mainly through it, are more unknown quantities than those you’ve spent time with in regular physical proximity. Or at least, the situation make them feel as if they are. Hence D4376’s comment:

This morning I answered a question from an aviation enthusiast from Thailand who is staying in London about the best place to watch aeroplanes at Heathrow. I may never communicate with this person ever again or we may become the best of friends. He might be a terrorist who shoots down an airliner and I end up in prison by this evening. Who knows?

All relationships are unpredictable, but with internet contacts they feel more unpredictable.

J4793 speaks of “finding your tribe” as something facilitated by social media. People have long been situated in “peer groups” and been affected by “peer pressure,” their identities being shaped to a great extent by such pressures. Traditionally peer groups are contingent, the familial, social, and national contexts into which you have been thrown. The internet allows you to refashion your peer group, to create it in your own image, or in the image of the self you aspire to be. To speak of “finding your tribe” implies a belief that your like-minded soulmates are out there, somewhere, spatially dispersed but united by their shared beliefs and interests. It is certainly possible to find such commonality for almost any conceivable belief, hobby, or affiliation. But the process is arguably more a question of creating your own tribe rather than finding it.

Taken as a whole, the internet is celebrated for diversity and inclusion – there are special interest groups for everyone and everything. For an individual, it is said to diversify one’s network, adding friends in other towns, other countries, of other ethnicities, and so on. Yet if the result is to find only those who are as like you as possible in what matters most to you, then the effect makes for homogeneity rather than heterogeneity, sameness rather than difference, exclusion rather than inclusion. This is the anxiety about filter bubbles and populist propaganda. With the thoughtful and creative respondents sharing their experiences with Mass Observation, it is clear they are finding – and sometimes meeting in actuality – genuine friends all over the world whose differences as well as similarities they prize. But the concern is that the networked self, when conducted on the network’s terms, is always at risk of turning into a hall of mirrors.

On IA – imaginative agency

One important tension in the debates about social media and the internet is between the language of empowerment, creativity, and liberation on the one hand, and the language of exploitation, surveillance, and manipulation on the other. The Arab Spring was a defining moment in showing the power of new media to accelerate, mobilize, and coordinate activism, but many of the same activists were later tracked down by the authorities through their social media accounts as James Harkin explained in his Ego Media lecture.

Several of our Self-Observation Online respondents – especially the ones who blog professionally or work in computing – observed the kind of phenomena discussed in Stijn Peeters’s work on social media platforms, whereby users find creative ways to repurpose the affordances they are offered. Peeters shows how some of today’s core practices on Twitter – the uses of @ and of hashtags – were not part of the original platform design, but improvised by users to increase effectiveness. Respondents described creative adaptations of social media of different kinds. B5567 describes a simpler way of augmenting Twitter, by using it simultaneously with other media:

I think people either “get” twitter or they don’t. It also works really well turning TV things back into an “event” – particularly shows like Eurovision, or the Olympics as you can use the hashtags to see what other people are saying, or those witty things you shout at the TV you can now shout to the world.

In some cases, people have designed ingenious sites or special interest groups which combine different functionalities. The same respondent describes a delightful use of Twitter to create a surprise barter chain:

Recently someone was giving away a skirt on Twitter which I asked for, and they wouldn’t accept payment for because someone else had sent them a pair of shoes they’d admired but couldn’t track down and wouldn’t accept money for either. They told me to pay it forward, so a week or so later when I realised that three people I followed were having a tweet-up I rang the bar and paid for a bottle of prosecco, had to give the bar staff a password because of course I didn’t know their names or what they looked like. I then tweeted them the password. They were delighted, and have since passed it one with random acts of kindness in real life – that’s twitter at its best.

She is aware of how unusual the scenario is, and proud of being part of it, adding that if anyone at work admired the skirt, and she told them “thanks, the invisible people in my phone sent it to me,” they would look at her as if she were mad: “they seem to connect all their networking sites together and are less open to the random I think” (B5567). “Connecting” is of course what networking sites are supposed to do by definition. The point might seem like a non sequitur, but it is presumably that her colleagues use different sites in the same way, without being open to the surprising potentialities of each.

Clare Brant has theorized the internet’s enabling of people to change lives as Imaginative Agency, or IA. These examples show people creating conversations and scenarios that would not have been possible without social media.

One such change has been enabled by support groups for chronic medical conditions. See Ego Media’s work on epilepsy, migraine,8 and HIV.9

Such networks are also represented in our MO responses, as for example by R5429:

I use a social group on Facebook which has been set up for people who suffer from my rare disease. The group has been invaluable, offering support, advice and information when I have asked for help. I am now in a position to provide advice to those people newly diagnosed, and as a result am supporting one person in a similar position to myself who is currently undergoing treatment.

The imaginative agent acts through the technology, using it as an instrument or a prosthesis. But the darker view of agency that has emerged lately, especially since the Snowden revelations, is one of the technology having agency over us, its purported users. It might be agency for surveillance, to watch and police us, or what Shoshana Zuboff has termed “Surveillance Capitalism,” based on the extracting and monetization of data about us without significant consent.10

Given the amount of data generated by online activities – purchases, product interests, fitness app use, social media likes and retweets, posts, GPS location, and so on – it is worrying enough that organizations (both commercial and governmental) are already able to know more about us than we might know ourselves.

More worrying still are the powers of the media to influence and control our behavior. “Influencers” are revered by their “followers” for setting trends. That language appears to grant the agency to the internet celebrities. But influencers can earn large sums of money for each post – around $1 million at the top end of the scale.11

The corporations paying them have found a particularly effective form of advertising, which has long used celebrities and long been accused of undue influence. But social media create an effect of intimacy and community with the celebrities, as if their followers were their “friends.”

The tech companies hosting such media are criticized for exerting other forms of undue influence, via the design of the platforms, which make them as addictive as possible. The affordances of likes, being able to add emojis, comments, etc. are designed to produce intense affects. As Trevor Haynes writes, on a Harvard University blog:

Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that rewarding social stimuli — laughing faces, positive recognition by our peers, messages from loved ones — activate the same dopaminergic reward pathways. Smartphones have provided us with a virtually unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a “like” on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.12

This suggests a view of users as like the pigeons in behaviorist experiments, driven to press reward levers incessantly. J4793 cites Pavlov and invokes the idea of humans becoming slaves to the machine:

My husband and I have both fallen into the habit of “double screening” – using our phones while watching TV. I hate it actually and have recently started turning my phone onto Do Not Disturb mode in the evening otherwise you become a slave to beeps and notifications like a Pavlovian dog.

But there are subtler, more insidious forms of influence, as that exerted by the “filter bubble” effect of search engine algorithms, ranking results in terms of what they know we like, thus isolating us in a cocoon of the like-minded, and filtering out according to our prejudices. This presumably sensitizes us all the more to occasions when we do encounter something we dislike or are prejudiced against, which doubtless goes some way toward accounting for the rise of intolerance and aggression online, as noted by some respondents (such as T4715: “People are already less patient than they used to be”). Such filtering, and the targeting of groups according to their political views, has enabled politicians to arouse prejudices vicariously – in ways which would be illegal if they indulged in hate speech directly themselves. Such manipulation was felt to sway voters in both the Brexit referendum and 2016 US election, in both of which populist appeals were made to xenophobia, racism, and imperialism.

Thus it is not surprising that T5672, one of the most self-aware of the writers, worries that his self is actually being taken over by the algorithms; that rather than using Google, perhaps it’s more of a case of Google using him.

The ambivalence about how the internet affects agency is expressed in D5380’s comment: “there is only one answer to every question these days which is ‘Google it!’” The notion of the internet as oracle, the fount of all knowledge, the seer who can penetrate every mystery, can be exhilarating. The idea that all roads lead back to the same tech corporation is more disturbing.

That anxiety about losing agency, about being controlled by your devices, is heard in some of the responses discussed in the Observation on Time – past, future, wasting. The feeling is that the media take over your life, use up your time, and stop you doing things you’d rather be doing, or feel you should be doing instead. When J4793 says “I like to take back control and ‘unplug,’ sometimes for a whole weekend; I always feel the better for it,” her language anticipates the notorious slogan of the Brexit “Leave” campaign devised by Dominic Cummings: “Take Back Control!” (This response is dated November 10, 2015, before the slogan received widespread coverage.)

The rhetoric of “unplugging,” in a world that is “always on,” is addressed in another Observation. It has reached the point at which people understand that, whatever agency the media might grant, or make you feel they do, it can sometimes empower you to turn the power off.

J4793 also contemplates a future scenario in which machines acquire agency over people:

NB. I’ve only recently found out about “The Internet of Things” and what it means. The whole concept is quite scary; that inanimate household objects will have so much information on you as a person, and your preferences, and will also be very vulnerable to cyber-attack. Imagine your fridge ganging up on you or your house security system not letting you in?

So again, being networked to a thing rather than a person feels threatening, not empowering. There is a hint of paranoia in this particular vision, perhaps, but only in Gore Vidal’s sense that “Anybody who’s not paranoid is not in full possession of the facts.”13 That is, there is something uncanny in the way in which the Internet of Things is beginning to enable machines to act on their own, in the way the boundaries between animate and inanimate appear to dissolve, in the way machines talk back to us.

(See Rebecca Roach on Machine Talk)

And predictors of digital doom keep warning us that AI might soon decide that it not only knows more than we do, but knows better, and may start deciding not to obey our commands, may unplug us. As AI takes the automation of intelligence into ever more human domains, understanding IA becomes ever more pressing.

On time – past, future, wasting

Technology prompts thoughts about time: saving time, wasting time. The utopian hope a hundred years ago (as in the To-Day and To-Morrow series of books predicting the future) was that machines, mass production, robots, etc. would free up time, so that the great problem for the future was not work but how to spend our leisure. Hahaha, as our smartphones would laugh at us. The reality of our networked cyberexistence is the opposite, of being slaves to the screens, whether of call centers, office PCs with their interminable emails, or mobile devices with social media, texts, and images. If the second industrial revolution made us slave to the machine, the third makes us slave to the computer, the internet, and new media.

Technology also prompts thoughts of the future, or time travel (including back to the past), as when respondent B5567 says of her Apple watch:

I can receive calls on my wrist – it’s one of those things that make you feel like you’re living in the future you dreamt of as a child! It’s odd to think of someone reading this in 25 or 50 years time when I’m sure everyone’s chipped at birth thinking how primitive this sounds, like imaging a neanderthal’s first experience of fire.

One of the practical ways it helps recuperate the past is through tracing old acquaintances who have been forgotten – something many respondents had done on Friends Reunited. D5380 had a more unusual and individual version of digital auto-archaeology: “The internet has been invaluable in helping me with my ‘hobby’ of recovering favourite books from my childhood.”

Many of our self-observers were shocked by how much time they spend online. (This was a response also noted by Annette Markham, in her lecture on Curating Future Memories in a Digital Era and follow-up discussions with Ego Media.) Many commented on how easy it is to be drawn into sites and lose track of time. (Cf. D5380 again: “I don’t like the feeling of getting ‘sucked in’ to what random strangers are saying.”) Respondents wrote of wasting time (see D156) – something you would probably be less likely to say of time spent with friends; well, most friends . . . of feeling they should ration the time they (or members of their families) spend on their devices. If there was often resentment that other people were more interested in the devices than their partners or parents or friends, there was also resentment at themselves, as they caught themselves doing the same thing:

This sort of browsing shopping takes up a lot of time and often, I’ll come to my senses and think “Why am I doing this? What do I need to buy? Is this really how I want to spend my time?” (M5113)

M3190 drew an insightful contrast between the temporalities of social media and diary writing:

I see the whole point of social networking sites as putting their users into an immediate present – here’s what I’m up to now! – whereas a diary, of the sort I write, is going to be of interest (assuming it has any intrinsic interest) only to researchers, and possibly a long way into the future, when the events it records are well in the past.

What a wonderfully counterintuitive comment! Diaries are normally thought of as the writing of the purely quotidian. Yet it isn’t only Mass Observers who write their diaries for posterity. Whether it’s sufferers writing their testimony, bearing witness to atrocity; or adventurers recording their escapades in case of death, or for their heirs; or even a young person looking forward to looking back later on; diaries are time capsules, sending the treasures of the day far into the future. As he puts it later: “a diary is a blog deferred.”

Thinking of the internet and the associated pace of technological change caused respondents repeatedly to leap backwards and forwards in time in this way. D156 says touchingly that “If you were to take my nan and bring her to this world of TV, phones, internet she would scream,” because all she had was a radio. (It’s unclear what the affect is of that scream: pleasure or horror?) Yet most were reluctant to respond in detail to the prompt to prophesy the next twenty-five years or so of the internet. What is more common is a form of retrospective prophesy, or a kind of temporal dramatic irony, whereby people remember themselves standing at the beginning of the internet age and looking ahead. D4736 gives a fascinating early memory of computers at school, where his school’s machine suddenly receives an unexpected message from another school. The kids had discovered the intranet, which for D4738 augurs the future of the internet: “We had inadvertently stumbled across what the majority of people would use computers for in the future, some twenty years ahead of time!” The word inadvertently avoids any hubris of seeming to claim that he had actually been prophetic.

But some do attempt thoughtful predictions:

I didn’t realise that the internet was only 25 years old. There is a programme on E4 at the moment called Humans and it’s about human like robots known as synthetics that are made to serve us. They are a human version of an iPhone. I feel that this will be the way forward. I also think that the internet has changed personal identity, because many people have an online persona that is very different to whom they are in real life. It does worry me a bit about the future. Will the internet take over completely and we never leave our houses. It seems the country side is a novelty as it is. (R4365)

That was pretty much E. M. Forster’s prediction is his eerily prophetic 1909 story “The Machine Stops,” in which, long before the invention of the digital computer (in 1943), he imagines people remaining in individual apartments, communicating through screens very like the internet and Skype or FaceTime.14

(See the Observation on IA – Imaginative Agency.)

Human-computer interaction is already with us in a variety of forms: especially as chatbots, or in the domestic form of the personal assistant. The Internet of Things is already with us too, as Siri, Alexa, and their ilk eagerly take over the management of our lives. Given such evident developments in AI and robotics, it is perhaps surprising that more respondents didn’t launch into the next stages of that future. One who did, with aplomb, was M3190:

I think the next wave of internet technology will focus less on people communicating with one another and more on people communicating with machines, and even machines communicating with other machines: the “internet of things.” I’m using communication in a broad sense here, to encompass not just a person telling a machine what to do, but any specified transfer of code or data with a purpose in mind – which could be between one machine and another, with no ongoing human intervention. We’re already seeing some early manifestations, for example music streaming and the apps which allow homeowners to turn on their central heating when they’re on their way home, but the technology will extend to a great many more functions within a decade or so, and so will the degree of automation. I imagine the developers and manufacturers will give the technology some fancy/fatuous name – “Autonomy,” or some such thing – implying that we’re sophisticated enough to trust our appliances to get on with the job of warming our houses, doing our washing at off-peak times and keeping our beers cool without us having to set timers and adjust thermostats. I think also that “wearables” will figure in this internet of things, and that eventually the electronic circuitry will be fitted not just into watches and bracelets, as at present, but into jewellery and even clothing.

Expressing chagrin at looking antediluvian to a newer generation of users, T5672 speculates: “Maybe one day these Snapchat kids will look aghast at their kids using virtual reality or intelligence-augs or some other scary new technology.”

After seventy years of computers, and nearly thirty of the World Wide Web, it is axiomatic for us now that digital technology is utterly transformative, and we are convinced that AI, in combination with other technologies such as gene editing and nanotechnology, will be even more so. But the fact that comes through clearly in several of the earliest memories of the internet is that almost nobody before the 1990s had any idea how the internet would develop (just as, when PCs began to be developed, people had little idea what uses would be found for them). The wonderful story told by [D4736] about a moment on the school intranet that retrospectively presages the future is a case in point. The comic version – of what bad prophets we were back in the early days of the internet – is given by R5429:

I do recall having a conversation with a friend in 2000, when he spoke about his mobile phone being able to host the web. The phone model was referred to as a WAP phone. I fondly recall asking him why you would even need the internet on a phone?!?!

And by T4715:

In the early 1990s I was working in a large hospital and remember a colleague talking about something we would all need to learn about. This thing was called “the information super highway.” I didn’t listen properly because it didn’t make much sense to me, I could see no reason for me using a computer.

On “always on” / unplugged

As suggested in the Observation on Time, as more work migrates online, employees are spending more of their working lives at screens. And of course much of their free time too. That the online world doesn’t keep office hours is liberating in some ways. Banks are never open when you need them, but online banking never closes. Online social life rarely closes either. Teens taking their phones to their bedrooms or beds are reported to sleep poorly. That the internet is no respecter of borders has led to an internationalization of communication far beyond the (slow) international mail or (expensive) international telephone calls of the last century. As J4793 points out in our survey, having “friends” in other hemispheres means there is always someone to talk to: “Having access to your ‘tribe’ also means you have access to support 24/7 because everyone is in different places and time zones so there is always someone online.” In the online community of creative bloggers she describes, this knowledge of round-the-clock online support is a clear benefit.

Yet the other side of the 24/7 internet is that there is no escape. With smartphones and other mobile devices users enter the world of the “always on.” One way of putting this is to say that the meaning of being “offline” has changed. Whereas offline used to be what you were when not sitting at a plugged in and switched on desktop computer, now it’s something that happens when you actually turn your smartphone off, forget to charge it, or lose it. The danger of that is that people begin to feel enslaved by their machines – especially the phones. Several respondents comment on this feeling or express resentment at how phones intrude in social situations:

I don’t even have the text alert thing switched on, and I keep my phone on silent/vibrate. The constant pinging and whistling of phones throughout the day is noise pollution, and in many situations, unprofessional. I hate the fact that if I am out with really good friends they are on call constantly and conditioned to check their phones mid-conversation. I find it rude. We have a strict ban on phones at the table in our house, and they do not come out to restaurants with us. (T4715: Speech and Language Therapist, F, 44)

The constant presence of social media has been cited as a contributing factor to mental health problems in young people. Responding in 2017 to NHS data showing a “68% rise in hospital admissions because of self-harm among girls under 17 in past decade,” The Guardian quoted Sarah Brennan, chief executive of the charity Young Minds, saying:

In particular, the rise of social media means they need to always be available, they may seek reassurance in the form of likes and shares, and they are faced with constant images of “perfect” bodies or “perfect” lives, making it hard not to compare themselves to others.15

It is hardly surprising that people are having to find modes of resistance to the “always on,” and there is increasing talk of the “digital detox,” of disconnecting or unplugging. T4715 comments:

I find it reassuring to read articles by people who have decided to cut down or switch off the internet for a short period of time. They rediscover the joy of not being the slave to their screens. Perhaps, in time, things will shift, and although we can’t uninvent a lot of these things, people might take a step back.

As with all addictions, however, there are withdrawal symptoms. If unplugging is going to restore your equanimity, you need to conquer FOMO: the fear of missing out.

One of the responses published in full here J4793 includes a substantial and sophisticated blog post on the topic as a coda, which is recommended to readers wanting to explore this idea further.

On affect

The feelings of the internet are currently a major cause for concern. As discussed in the introductory essay to this Self-Observation Online project, social media stand accused of racking up intolerance and anger, and playing on the emotions of the gullible.

Attitudes to the internet, and feelings about it, were extremely diverse among our cohort of respondents, as is to be expected. What is more, the internet clearly arouses strong views and feelings. Many described themselves as excited and amazed by the possibilities the technology offers, even addicted to it. Others described themselves as “Luddite” and denigrated the banality or potentially damaging nature of much material online. More surprisingly, perhaps, responses frequently combined both extreme positions, as does R4526:

The internet is about 25 years old now and it has undoubtedly been the phenomenon of the age. Its impact has been quite extraordinary and I think we are only at the beginning. Throughout this century, and indeed beyond, its ramifications will surely increase exponentially. There has never been anything like it in terms of its global impact – even refugees fleeing from civil strife are rarely without their iPhones (or similar 3G or 4G devices). I don’t think that even cars, radio, cinema or TV made such changes in people and society as quickly as the internet has done. Young people especially have become absolutely addicted to social media to an often absurd extent. Many older people too have been similarly affected.
The loss of a phone can now induce in these people a trauma as profound as if they had lost an arm!

His summary could stand as an indication of the extreme alternatives:

I can’t help thinking that most of what constitutes social media is a load of infantile drivel. Many people can’t have a thought without saying it: now it seems they can’t have a thought without posting it online. On balance, I think the internet has amazing possibilities to help and enrich humankind: but this is matched by the potential for chaos and disaster.

Though in one sense it’s a balanced view, and uses the language of “balance,” the feelings expressed don’t appear reconciled. To some extent this reflects a tension between competing discourses about the internet in the media: the utopian vision propounded by the industry and technology advocates on the one hand, and the journalistic reports on or speculations about deleterious effects on the other. But from another point of view the extreme positions have been internalized and express themselves with powerful and powerfully conflicting affects in many of the responses. People are excited by the internet but mistrust their excitement.

That’s partly, perhaps, because of the disconnect between the information and the affect. Many responses seem conflicted here, being scathing about the banality of the everyday material typically posted, but nonetheless finding it irresistible. One person (M3190) who did resist it has an interesting line of argument about not finding his own everyday life interesting enough to broadcast:

I think it’s because I don’t assume that what I’m doing is necessarily of interest even to close friends. Some of my friends might be interested in some of my activities, but not everyone’s going to be interested all of the time, and I can’t imagine that my life could be so interesting that I’d need to tell everybody everything about what I’d been up to even as I was doing it.

But he then notes that he is keeping a diary for MO and is aware of the possible contradiction. He argues that the difference is that social media are primarily concerned with the present, whereas an MO diary is written for the future. (See the Observation on Time for further discussion.)

E5551 gives an illuminating – and sharply self-aware – account of how hostility to the kinds of material found online can easily gravitate towards troll-like behavior. Anger is often met with angry reactions offline too, certainly, but the disinhibiting effects of depersonalized virtual interactions can accelerate the process:

It’s worth mentioning that the estate where I live has its own Facebook community page which is amusing and unbearable in equal measure. It’s useful to find out what’s going on in our community but most of it is pointless, inane waffle. These communities also sometimes promote a nasty “passive/aggressive” streak in some people. These “keyboard warriors” or “trolls” spout their smug vitriol from the safety of their computers. The internet has given everyone a voice and a chance to express their poorly formed opinions, but I don’t want to hear all these clamouring voices, they’re depressing and annoying and often nasty.
I recently posted the following rant on Facebook about my feelings about internet communities and the exposure we now get to the bile and stupidity and attention seeking of the general public.
Whenever I make the mistake of reading the “comments” section of on-line news stories and some other websites I am reminded that the internet is like one of those rocky islands populated entirely by squawking birds. The loudest internet voices inhabit a shitty, slimy rock where everyone yells louder than their neighbour to be heard whilst spraying their crap over themselves and anyone who happens to be passing. Before anyone points out the flaw in this post I accept that I include myself in the shrieking banality.

Social media produce strong emotion. Some manifestations are discussed in other Ego Media projects, just as Rob Gallagher’s work on ASMR culture16 and on the affects produced by voice. Online anger has been much discussed, especially in the context of the populist movements across the world in the last few years. C4988 comments: “I have no interest in using social networking sites, I sometimes feel that they are used to castigate people who may have either a different view or for some reason seem to have upset people’s views and so need to be punished.” Online gratifications also feature in the more journalistic coverage; especially when they are deemed to have become addictive. B5342 gives a good sense both of the psychological rewards of participation, but also of a degree of self-criticism and guilt that accompanies such pleasures:

I am part of a forum called GuruGossip. It has 50,000 active users and many more readers, and people talk about YouTubers. It has a very controversial reputation, but it is not that bad at all. It is all quite politically correct and a much safer place than a lot of the internet. Really, it is about holding these new age celebrities to account for the often shady ways they are making millions of pounds from. But mostly I love reading the forum because it is so funny. There is a lot of memes and in-jokes. It is just like chatting with a group of very close friends. It is that bonding feeling of bitching with other women. It feels nice when people agree with what I post, as though my opinion has been validated. It may not be healthy to seek virtual approval, though it is not really any different to what people use Facebook for. I don’t even care about YouTubers any more or even keep up with what they do, but GuruGossip is so hilarious I read it every day.

This user is one of many who see the internet as empowering and liberating, saying that without it: “I honestly don’t think I would be alive today and I am not exaggerating.” Describing herself as “ugly,” she is alienated by the apparent perfection of so many online self-presentations. She feels being a blogger has allowed her to express herself fully:

I think people think I am very passive and a bit daft, and they would be shocked if they knew who I am in my blog and forum posts. But that is possibly the realest me there is. I love subverting and satirising and ridiculing. Word play and irony. I have very strong emotions and I like it when other people do too. Bland opinions are so boring. No one I know has the inner world that I do, but online I find a place for it. It is true that, “online, you are never weird.” Whatever sort of person you are, you can find others just like you. That is so rare in real life.

She feels her family and acquaintances would be unable to accept the person she is online. We focus on such multiple personas in another Observation on Privacy, Identity, Identities.

The Observations on IA – Imaginative Agency and on Networked Selves have touched on the way social media sites are designed to lure us with repeated rewards of gratification. The psychology of likes and emojis is doubtless a contributing factor in another, more powerful way in which social media arouse strong affects. This is to do with the way in which a “connection” in the form of a communication channel between one person and another develops into a sense of an emotional connection between them. T4715 notes of the forums she uses:

There are one or two other members who post some very sensible and uplifting things, and I feel a connection to them. But I don’t know them at all. I think this is a problem of the internet – these people are not friends but it can easily feel as if they are.

Like psychoanalysts and catfishers, users of dating sites have found that a screen can function as a site on which subjects project strong conflicts and desires. The filtering out of so much of the texture of the real gives a freer play to such feelings than they might have in actual encounters. Eros and Thanatos meet fewer resistances online.

Sherry Turkle, in her Ego Media lecture, argued that in order to combat internet addiction, we should “design for our vulnerabilities.” The problem is that mobile phone designers have already done just that – only designed to exploit the vulnerabilities, rather than protect us against them. And they have done it for compelling economic reasons which are unlikely to be reversed willingly by the corporations growing ever richer from our addiction.

Affect and conflict are heightened in much of the discourse surrounding the internet and social media. D5380 writes: “Oh dear. When I read this back I sound like a complete Luddite. I love the internet really!” The imagery respondents use to describe the new media (discussed in the Observation on the Metaphors We Link By) is equally charged. The internet is described as opening a door to the whole world, but then that door is also the lid of Pandora’s Box.

Euphoria or anger are of course not the only emotions in question. Arguably social media act as an amplifier of all human feeling – which is perhaps why it seemed necessary to evolve a new language encoding emotions so as to avoid dangerous ambiguities and excesses (see Clare Brant’s analysis of emojis). So we should not forget the miserable cynics, even when they are wittily self-knowing. Here’s E5551, giving a shrewd and sane analysis of how all that connecting and emoting can sometimes produce the opposite affect:

I use Skype and FaceTime to communicate with friends and family around the world. It’s a great way to keep in touch. Facebook has also allowed me to see friends who moved to other countries and see how their lives have developed. This window on the lives of others wasn’t always so open or so wide. The problem is that the window is bloody huge and inescapable. The internet is a plethora of windows and mirrors, all over the place, how very disorientating.
The internet has cheapened communication; it has made everything easier so we place less value on what it can provide. “Friendship” online is not the same as true friendship, sex online is not the same as real sex. Once something becomes plentiful and saturates your life it loses its value. BUT I rely on it and use it all the time. It has enhanced my life but made me wearier of the world around me.

“The internet will continue to delight and irritate in the same way as other people do,” he continues: “It’s a mirror of society and some people just love to look at themselves. It’s a narcissists [sic] dream and this narcissist wouldn’t be without it.”

That pleasure of looking (also discussed in the Privacy Observation) is another powerful driver of social media traffic – whether looking at the self’s score on the like-ometer, or looking at others. M3190 describes the success of “Jennicam,” the site on which the pioneer lifecaster Jennifer Ringley broadcast her everyday activities from 1996 to 2003.

He also gives a humorous account of using Facebook to spy on the family of a neighbor he was feuding with – a perversely creative use of the affordances of the kind discussed in the Observation On IA – Imaginative Agency. He claims he’s just using it in the way village gossips would have relished discovering potentially compromising information. But the connections with people’s anxiety about surveillance make it more troubling than that, surveillance being another area of internet usage which incites strong feelings and fears.

On metaphors we link by

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s pioneering work, Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 1980), opened up the field of metaphor studies within everyday language. It introduced the concept of conceptual metaphor to cognitive linguistics, whereby one concept is understood by means of another.

The internet and social media, like computers, are fertile territories for such an approach, because they are so abstract and intangible, their operations mostly being performed invisibly, so that they need metaphors (like “fertile territories”) to enable readers to grasp their natures. We talk (metaphorically) of a computer having a “virus”; of “surfing” the web; indeed, we talk of the “web” or the “net” themselves; of “posting” a text; or of “tweeting.”

C. K. Ogden (the editor of the To-Day and To-Morrow series), who specialized in language and psychology, believed in the value of wearing masks.

C K Ogden  wearing a white mask that covers his face, a trilby hat and an overcoat. He stands by an open wooden door, in a room, lined with books , behind 2 round tables covered in piles of books.
Figure 1. C. K. Ogden in a mask. Unidentified press clipping.

He thought they helped listeners concentrate on the meaning of what was being said, rather than being distracted by someone’s appearance or facial expressions. You might think it would just be distracting, trying to have a conversation with a masked person. But that would probably be the initial reaction, and anyway, the sense of alienation is part of the point. It is that sense of estranging of the act of communication that makes the listener pay attention. Whatever one thinks of such a theory applied to normal conversation, it is suggestive about internet conversations. When we text, blog, or post, our faces can’t be seen (though a photo might be visible). Nor can our voices be heard (which distinguishes such forms from phone conversations). This bracketing off of the normal semantic cues that accompany talk and contribute to the meaning – a frown, a tone of voice, a twinkle in the eye – can make the words more ambiguous and open up a space for greater imaginative engagement.

This character of such online interactions has implications for aspects covered in other Observations here. The screening off of particular characteristics can get the reader fantasizing about ideal characteristics. The potential enhancing of affect is one reason social media can be such a seductive tool, why it can disinhibit and enrage trolls. The potential to conceal aspects of one’s identity, as if wearing a mask, can both guard privacy and multiply identities. Some of these cues, and the social contexts equally masked in the virtual world, are sometimes remediated by the platforms, providing friendship groups, professional networks, videochat, and vlogs. Yet the receiver’s relationship to the sender is nonetheless mediated, and screened to some extent, by the technology. If I don’t have a webcam switched on, you can’t see me wince. That screening off of the other can take the subject out of the flow of a conversation, giving more space to the fantasmatic. This is one possible facilitator of Imaginative Agency online.

It is in the metaphors people use about the internet, and more particularly in the need they appear to have to use metaphors for it, that this activity can be seen most starkly. Self-Observation Online’s responses abound in anthropomorphic metaphor. The internet’s linking of people with technology makes it inevitable that accounts of it will describe the technology in human terms. For D156, for example, a search algorithm becomes the obliging and eligible “Mr Google.” When D4736 says: “The entire world is there in that tiny screen,” the world becomes the metaphor for understanding what the computer attached to the screen can do.

When J4793 writes of “finding your tribe” online, the metaphor tries to find a social reality for an assortment of contacts whose social context is not visible. She uses another metaphor, describing the internet as “like a playground for the curious mind.” We talk less of cyberspace nowadays, but that term too bespeaks a need to imagine the virtual as somehow like the space we inhabit, or the interstellar space we fantasize about inhabiting.

As the technologies of the internet and social media have become more sophisticated, we become less aware of those technologies behind them. The memories of clunky modems, prehistoric chatrooms, and limited internet access (which could be supplemented by tales of broken links and crashed servers, though these didn’t figure in the responses) remind us how much more difficult the internet seemed, in the last century, not just to make work, but to conceptualize.

As T5672 explains, before today’s slick search engines were developed, it was very hard to find what was on the web if you didn’t already know where to look for it. In the process he finds a good metaphor for hyperlinks, saying that “Finding your way around the mid-90s internet was a matter of finding links, jumping from one island of links to the next, like a frog across lillies [sic] on a pond.”

In such ways our lives provide conceptual metaphors for our technologies. But with computers and the internet something else is happening. The great Edwardian sexologist Havelock Ellis wrote an intriguing late essay in 1933 called “The Machine and the Future.”17 Ellis argues that we find in our bodies whatever we invent in our technology. In other words, that we need to invent the lever to understand how the skeleton works; or we need to invent the pump before we are able to describe the heart as one. Friedrich Kittler makes a comparable point about perception and consciousness: “we knew nothing about our senses until media provided models and metaphors.”18 Ellis was writing just after the To-Day and To-Morrow book series ended and ten years before the arrival of the digital computer that would prove the real future of the machine. As the section on the To-Day and To-Morrow book Automaton, or The Future of the Mechanical Man (1928), by H. Stafford Hatfield, explains, people didn’t yet have the machine that would help them understand the brain. Hatfield, like many in the period, realized some form of artificial brain-like machine was needed for robotics and other forms of complex automation. He was familiar with mechanical analog computers, so could conceive of a mechanical brain. He had developed something that was described as a “chemical robot” (though whether it involved chemical processes to control mechanical, or vice versa, is unclear). What he did not see was that the coming brain-like machine would be electronic instead.

That invention of the electronic computer then gave people a new metaphor with which to understand the brain. That’s not to say we do understand the brain yet, nor that computers have finished developing. On the contrary, what has been happening is a curious running in parallel of informatics and neuroscience. The promise of convergence is never far away, but always just out of reach: computers will help us understand the brain; neuroscience will help us build artificial intelligence. But it is surely more than coincidence, and rather, the kind of metaphorical imagination of machines Ellis identifies, that has meant that the great era of neuroscience has coincided with the digital revolution. Perhaps in the future it will be possible to look back and say that it was only once humans had invented computers they were able to really understand the workings of the brain.

One way you can see the conceptual metaphor working is with the EU’s Human Brain Project’s Brain Simulation Project.19

The aim of the experiment is to simulate the neural pathways of brains in a computer, the brains of mice and men. The project is modest in the claims it makes for such simulations, namely that they will help predict the courses of diseases or strokes and enable research to continue without harming living animals. But implicit in the project is the aspiration that modeling the brain will help us understand it. Doubtless it will, in the sense that experimenting with it will enable scientists to work out which areas perform which functions and how damage might be repaired and so on. But from another point of view, imagine that the project to construct the computer simulation of a complete mouse brain is successful. When switched on, the computer mouse brain will have mouse thoughts, just like the live mouse brain. But what will that tell us about mousethink? It will tell us that we have got the structure right and that the brain does indeed work like an electronic circuit. But understanding the nature of consciousness will still be a long way off. You’d just have two similar systems working next to each other, doing the same thing. If someone who had no idea what a radio was or how it worked found one, if they built an identical set, and it worked in the same way, it’s not clear that would explain to them what radio waves were.

What’s instructive though is the way the experiment validates the argument about conceptual metaphors. We now so rely on the metaphor of the computer as our model for the brain that we can’t but think that a computer model of a brain would dispel any remaining mysteries about what the brain does.

The rhetorical implications of this parallel development of computer science and brain science is to unsettle the conceptual metaphor theory. Metaphor theory more generally assumes that a metaphor helps you understand an abstract thing (the tenor) by means of a more concrete thing (the vehicle). My love (abstract thing) is like a red red rose (concrete thing). But to say Deep Mind is like a brain, when computer scientists don’t understand exactly how machine learning enables a computer to recognize cats on the internet without being told what they are, and when brain scientists haven’t yet modeled a mouse’s brain let alone a cat’s, is to compare one abstract thing with another. When you compare a brain with a computer, or vice versa, that is, the metaphor is bidirectional: it’s unclear which is tenor and which vehicle; which explains something about which. Rebecca Roach’s Ego Media work on Talking Interfaces is highly relevant here – not least for its attention to questions of opacity and unrepresentability.

These metaphorical interactions between brains and computers corresponds to something in the real world too. It isn’t just that computers are becoming more brain-like, as they are designed to be able to perform more and more functions thought to be exclusively human abilities – to play chess, or Go, to perform medical diagnoses, to translate, to drive cars, and so on. It is also that bioengineers are developing ways to connect brain and computer directly: to implant sensors that can access our thoughts, to find ways of enabling thought processes to operate machines. That sense of the convergence of brain and computer has perhaps been prepared for by metaphoric convergence; or perhaps it is what fosters that metaphoric convergence.

Either way, we increasingly use the language of human cerebration for computers: granting them “memory” and saying they are “writing” things to it; saying they “recognize” patterns; calling our phones “smart.”

Conversely, we use the language of computers in a metaphorical way to describe our mental operations when we uses phrases such as “accessing” memories, or their being “erased,” “switching off,” having “down time,” the brain not computing, or when we comment on “disconnects.”

If we need to personify technology, we also need to technologize persons. So it comes naturally (through the second nature of metaphor) to T4715 to say this:

For a long period our computer broke. It got a virus. My husband was suffering from paranoia at the time and believed this had occurred because someone had it in for him – all completely untrue, but until he was fixed we didn’t get the computer fixed.

What such linguistic convergences indicate is that if the computer is the machine we are using to help us understand our brain, then the internet is the invention we are implicitly – metaphorically – using to understand ourselves.


  1. Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World (New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 2014).
  2. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
  3. Peter White, “My Own Social Media,” The Oldie, October 2015,
  4. Susan Ratcliffe, Oxford Essential Quotations, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  5. David Kirkpatrick, The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011).
  6. Charlie Brooker, Brooker Talks Appearances and Social Media, interview by Andrew Neil, October 20, 2016,
  7. Alison McKinlay, Leone Ridsdale, and Rebecca Roach, “Interactions with Health-Related Information Online in People with Migraine and Epilepsy,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  8. Zizi Papacharissi, A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (London; New York: Routledge, 2010).
  9. Charlotte Wu, “Against Negative Interpretation: HIV/AIDS Narratives in Post-Apartheid South Africa” (PhD diss., King’s College London, 2019), British Library,
  10. “How Much Does Kylie Jenner Earn on Instagram?,” CBBC, July 26, 2019,
  11. Trevor Haynes, “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time,” Harvard University, Science in the News, May 1, 2018,
  12. Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2019).
  13. Michael Mewshaw, Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). 30.
  14. E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” in The Eternal Moment and Other Stories (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1928), 1–61.
  15. Rob Gallagher, “Exploring ‘ASMR’ Culture,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,
  16. Dennis Campbell, “Stress and Social Media Fuel Mental Health Crisis among Girls,” The Guardian, September 23, 2017,
  17. Havelock Ellis, Today and Tomorrow 3, no. 3 (Spring 1933): 261–66.
  18. Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media (Cambridge: Polity, 2009). 34.
  19. Rob Gallagher, “Exploring ‘ASMR’ Culture,” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.,


  • Brooker, Charlie. Brooker Talks Appearances and Social Media. Interview by Andrew Neil, October 20, 2016.
  • Campbell, Dennis. “Stress and Social Media Fuel Mental Health Crisis among Girls.” The Guardian, September 23, 2017.
  • Ellis, Havelock. Today and Tomorrow 3, no. 3 (Spring 1933): 261–66.
  • Forster, E. M. “The Machine Stops.” In The Eternal Moment and Other Stories, 1–61. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1928.
  • Gallagher, Rob. “Exploring ‘ASMR’ Culture.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Gardner, Howard, and Katie Davis. The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 2014.
  • Haynes, Trevor. “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time.” Harvard University. Science in the News, May 1, 2018.
  • Kirkpatrick, David. The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011.
  • Kittler, Friedrich. Optical Media. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.
  • McKinlay, Alison, Leone Ridsdale, and Rebecca Roach. “Interactions with Health-Related Information Online in People with Migraine and Epilepsy.” King’s College London: Research and Innovation, n.d.
  • Mewshaw, Michael. Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
  • Papacharissi, Zizi. A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. London; New York: Routledge, 2010.
  • Ratcliffe, Susan. Oxford Essential Quotations. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
  • White, Peter. “My Own Social Media.” The Oldie, October 2015.
  • Wu, Charlotte. “Against Negative Interpretation: HIV/AIDS Narratives in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” PhD diss., King’s College London, 2019. British Library.
  • Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs, 2019.
  • CBBC. “How Much Does Kylie Jenner Earn on Instagram?,” July 26, 2019.