aaron balick

aaron balick

Right, okay, well, my name is Aaron Balick. I am a psychotherapist and author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking. Based in London but originally from the East Coast, from Delaware.

And let's see, my connection to tech I think is probably unusual. When I go to tech conferences, I notice my unusualness there. [Laughs.] Basically, what happened is I'm a jobbing psychotherapist, which means I spend most of my days not using technology, speaking face-to-face to people in a room. And several years ago -- I won't go into the details of the story, but it is in my book -- a client of mine in a moment of distress Googled me, and because this client was reaching out for a safe person that they knew and they were in distress in the middle of the night, I wasn't gonna be at the phone. They weren't able to come around and see me. And when they Googled me, they found out a whole lot more about me than they previously knew and this turned out to be very distressing for them and because we were in therapy together, we were able to work out the nature of the distress provoked by their Google search.

This happened in about 2005, and I really struggled to understand -- if you're familiar with psychotherapy, you know that the psychotherapist tries to metaphorically "stay out of the room," in a sense -- not to get in the way of the process. They know a lot more about the patient than the patient knows about the therapist. But the rules have changed and that's not really the case anymore, so there wasn't much support around to work out how to manage the situation. Anyway, long story I'm making short, we resolved that issue between us in the consultation room, and then it occurred to me that these situations are happening between people all the time without the benefit of psychotherapy sessions to work out the details.

Correct.

[Laughs.] So I put my mind to understanding what's going on in culture, not in psychotherapy. So the book isn't so much about how to do psychotherapy around technology, but what are the psychological consequences of the technological world that we live in.

For people who are not familiar, what is a psychotherapist?

Well, I suppose in the United States, we probably go by psychologist more, or a psychoanalyst. A psychoanalyst is a particular kind of psychotherapy. I'm a depth psychotherapist, which means I will work with people regularly once or twice a week over a long period of time to uncover the less conscious material. So, we're talking the kind of psychotherapy that [Sigmund] Freud started, though it's changed a lot since then. As opposed to what a lot more people are familiar with these days, which would be cognitive behavioral therapy, which is really talking about what's going on on the conscious level, what your thoughts are about things. We go a step further in trying to work out what you might not necessarily be thinking but what might be happening unconsciously.

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What is your perception of the videogame industry and its audience?

Well, like I said to you before the interview, I'm kind of an outsider. When I was playing videogames, and this'll age me quite a bit, but I remember spending my first paycheck on a Nintendo, actually. A Nintendo box for my TV, playing Super Mario Bros. So that was like a different -- you played videogames with yourself, really, and that was it. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] And no one knew.

And no one knew. You could find like-minded people who could get very excited about where all the secret things were to find, and, actually, I had an Atari and there were even secret places to find in the Atari games. Now it's very, very different because people are in there also interacting with others who are, as I understand it, in major cultures that develop within each of the games. So, I would say that there's a relational investment in games today that probably didn't used to exist. Meaning, it's linked to the desire to relate to others and be recognized and known by others rather than just completing an interesting task within a game.

I'm kind of obligated to ask about Gamergate and how your research may intersect with it, as it pertains to mob mentality online, or the echo chamber effect on social media. I'm also curious, as an outsider, what do you make of it?

I think, what I make of it first, is I was pretty shocked by the depth of insult and threat that happened. When you really get into -- first you read about it, and, again, if you're not a gamer, you're kind of reading about it in the press rather than being in it, and then you think, "Okay, well, this is just a storm in a teacup." And then you hear what's happening and you hear people's lives being really taken down and living in hiding and all this kinda stuff, which I think is pretty shocking, but unfortunately not necessarily surprising, I think because of the human potential to project and scapegoat.

I think where it dovetails with my research is when you start talking about more anonymous social networks. So, let's say, people who are on Twitter whose handles aren't necessarily associated with their names as opposed to people who are on Facebook and you pretty much know who they are. As soon as you kind of take away real identity, you take away a lot of safety mechanisms that come with being in a society. Which, primarily, is about comeback but also the emotional consequence of hurting somebody else's feelings, which you don't experience so heavily when you're doing that online, and particularly when you're doing it through a pseudonym or handle. So, I'm sure you've heard of the online disinhibition effect, which everybody sort of talks about.

Yeah.

That's just one component of that.

I've heard it said that anonymity is a factor, and how some of that sort of behavior is like road rage. Where it's not just the anonymity of it alone, it's also the lack of consequence. But then I sort of sit and wonder about the very broad question of how that sort of behavior gets socialized online?

When you say "socialized," what do you mean exactly?

That there's a community that's able to be built and it doesn't strike anyone as not a nice thing or a thing they shouldn't be doing.

Sure. Yeah. Okay, so, let's go back to basics for a second, yeah? Let's look at any digital phenomenon that allows people to communicate across it. Like, the widest thing. And basically, the way that I understand that through psychology is that being online simply offers an extension of yourself into an online environment. So, I would see that as a psychological or a relational extension. So, you will know people who in their offline lives are surrounded by social networks that are either generally supportive or generally highly critical and nasty. So there are people who are surrounded by people who don't support them, who take them down, who constantly nitpick. That sort of thing. There are people who, when they get a job, their friends are envious about it. They talk about them behind their back. You know, just not a very healthy friendship network. You might have someone else who has quite a healthy, positive friendship network. Most people will fall somewhere in the middle, mostly supportive, but with some people who aren't or the other way around.

Yeah.

You take that into its extension on Facebook. If you're someone who has a generally supportive network around you, it's kind of what it's going to look like on Facebook. It's just an extension of that. If you bring your not-so-supportive network and put it online, it's gonna look less supportive because it's an extension of that.

Yeah.

You add onto that, different kinds of cultures. You go into one nightclub and there's gonna be a fight every night. And you go into another nightclub, and everybody's dancing. You go into something like Ask.fm -- I don't know if they use that much in the States, but it was a big deal. An anonymous place for young people to ask each other questions.

Right. Right.

It just had a culture of nastiness, so it's like going into the bar where there's gonna be a bar fight.

It's obviously a thing, where a lot of different platforms have different cultures. This is intentionally broad, but why does this happen if it all ostensibly is "the Internet?"

I mean, it gets kind of complicated.

Yeah.

[Laughs.] The Internet, you can just imagine as being a massive public space. So, like any public space like a city you're gonna have dark streets and bright streets. You're gonna have the dark web and the not-so dark web. And then people create cultures around themselves there. So, you know, you could be on Twitter and be following and being followed by people where it's all pretty much information sharing and pretty okay and no big deal and every once in awhile people get each other's backs up and they work through it or you could just find it a consistent torrent of awfulness. And that's because that's where you are in the Internet. Yeah? The people help create that culture, but it also comes down to how that particular technology mediates what you're doing.

So, Facebook, in a sense is a little bit safer because for the most part you're gonna know the people that are around you and they're gonna know who you are so, so there is some kind of personal comeback and consequence. The less that's possible, the more it's easier to transgress social norms and get nasty and also the easier it is to see others more as objects than as subjects, so you won't even necessarily consider that you're hurting someone else's feelings because you're gonna be in your own space about it. Particularly if other people are ganging up.

Why do we feel entitled to strangers' time or acknowledgment or attention on social media? Like, why is a non-response actually offensive?

We have developed what you might call a "culture of immediacy." In this sense we send missives such as emails or text messages and expect that people are accessing them all the time. While nobody actually explicitly changed the rules, this falsely sets up the expectation that if people aren’t responding straight away there is a meaning behind that. Particularly when tensions are running high, an individual may become anxious when they send a message that isn’t returned immediately. This happens all the time by way of email and text -- but it can be even more aggravated on something like Twitter where there word maximum actually further limits complexity and people can be taken out of context or misunderstood. Under these circumstances, emotions can run high, causing high anxiety. The expectation of entitlement to others’ lives and the expectation that they will get back to you with some kind of immediacy are actually false expectations and can hence lead to anxiety, disappointment, and a misreading of the others’ intentions.

Why is it difficult to treat things they think are stupid or wrong as simply benign on the Internet? I wonder about that, and is it that actually a lot of people do feel that way but the oxygen is taken up by people who feel a little bit more loudly about it?

[Laughs.] Well, I mean, I know from some of the research that I have encountered that that does tend to be true, that people who are trolling literally take up more space on the Internet than people who aren't. So you could almost say that there might be a kind of a disposition of someone who wants to be loud and stir things up and cause harm.

So, even if there are fewer of them, which I think is the case, they're really good at their jobs in a sense, which is stirring up a lot of shit and making themselves very, very visible in that.

Yeah. I mean, it doesn't have to only be trolls. I don't know if your circles of the Internet have this, but in videogames there are self-appointed guardians of a medium or they're trying to mete out justice.

Yes.

Or they really don't like what one person is doing and they want everyone to know that. Is it just that, that there are probably lots of people who consider those sorts of things they're speaking out to be harmless, but they're just not saying anything, and so we only hear the people who are saying things?

Well, I mean, it's an interesting thing because you say "on your end of the Internet," and you'd be surprised what kind of rancor psychoanalysts can get up to with each other when they cross certain boundaries. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

If somebody's a little bit too Jungian and not Freudian enough, I mean, the whole history of psychoanalysis is breakdowns and fights and schisms. So, I would say, you know, kind of paradoxically, again, stating my ignorance about the gaming world, I would imagine that fundamentally the same thing is going on. And what's going on in those cases is people become very closely identified with whatever flag it is that they're waving. So, how things should be done. So, when you strip that down it's not just, "You're doing it the wrong way" or "You're cheating" or "You shouldn't say that," but it's experienced as a personal attack.

So, when people feel personally attacked, whether it's about gaming or what football team they support, they can get very violently defensive about it. And when you start to get violently defensive, you this thing that we call in psychoanalysis called "splitting," where you don't see the good in the other anymore. Everything becomes very, very black and white and then, in a sense, you get psychological permission to attack hard and to scapegoat.

Is it just the digital disconnect that makes it easier to go harder? I often look at it and it seems like people forget there's a person on the other end.

Yes. Yes. Well, I think the digital platform enables the objectification of other people. So, if you're dealing with someone who -- I'm trying to think of a silly handle. Browntrashcan. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

This is obviously what I'm looking at because I'm not creative enough to come up with anything else.

No, I couldn't tell so I thought you were being really creative there.

[Laughs.] If Browntrashcan says something that offends you, you're just looking at a handle of "Browntrashcan." You don't have a name, you don't have eyes looking back, you don't know what their age is, you don't know where they're coming from. It's really easy to say really nasty things to them.

Is there a breaking point, you think, in our looking to take offense at things where none was offended? It feels like people are looking for either extreme vitriol or extreme blandness, and nothing in between.

I don’t know about a breaking point. I think it is simply a matter of there being a "low bar." That is, it’s much easier through the online platforms that we have today to express outrage and to offend. There are fewer barriers to such expressions, and the normal social inhibitions that would control such things -- like concurrent social opprobrium or looks of disgust from others -- are absent, so rage is able to be expressed much more easily.

I'm sure you've seen these pieces that pop up about how Twitter is dying and that is dying or that other platform on the Internet is dying. But there was a thing a couple weeks ago that phrased it really well from The Atlantic: "utterances are treated as unequivocal political statements by people outside the conversation."
It seems like there's a leap happening from what you said of people objectifying other people, but also, like, everything they're saying where they kind of -- they call it context smoosh or whatever.

Yes.

But it's like they also forget the fact that they weren't being spoken to or they're just choosing to read into things that are not there and giving themselves permission from there. I often wonder, like, have we always been doing this? Is this happening at a more accelerated rate because of the Internet? Is this one of those not normal but now typical things?

Well, I would argue that the psychology is exactly the same, it's just how it's expressed and how it's enabled to be expressed. So, you mentioned road rage before. So, road rage is the same psychology of rage and frustration, but encapsulated in metal and glass with anonymous people around you that can kind of enable you to get it out of your system in a way that you think is relatively safe. It's not always safe, because someone in that other car might come out with a gun or something.

You might have strong feelings of rage or attraction for someone that you keep relatively well under wraps, and then three martinis later, either the kiss or the punch comes.

[Laughs.]

So the psychology is the same, but the alcohol enables the inhibitions to drop. So, depending on what platform you're operating on, if someone isn't fully a subject to you, if they're also then taken out of context, and on top of that you're identified in a particular political position, then all these things add up to make it much more easy to sit in front of your computer without that person in front of you and demolish them and get other people to demolish them. So, it's still an emotional contagion, it's still about projection, it's still about evacuating anger. It's all the stuff that we've had for centuries. It's just that we've created ways to deploy it much more easily.

And so when you have an ecosystem where you're able to deploy it much more easily, are we somewhat quicker now, to make judgment calls about other people now on the Internet?

I think it --

I know it's a hard thing to measure, but I'm always wondering that.

Yes. I think it is a really hard thing to measure. I don't know how deep it goes, yeah? Because you say "judgment call," I don't know if it's maybe a surface judgment call or if it goes particularly deep because the catch here is -- and it's not really good news -- but in a sense the more primitive the defense you have, the better it kind of feels.

If you can really just be angry at someone and think that somebody is wrong and show them how wrong they are, that actually feels good.

So, if there's a tweet that you can use as evidence that they're wrong, even though you're doing that by taking it out of context, there's a way in which you can use that as an excuse to feel good by getting a bunch of crap off your chest which actually has very little to do with that other person or what's going on. It has much more to do with you expressing a series of emotions that you have that have been as yet unprocessed.

Yeah, that sounds about right.

Yeah. And that's how we protect ourselves, isn't it? When it happens to us, we think, "Oh, it's not really about me. It must be them." It's what we say about bullies: "Oh, they're just envious." But it's hard not to be hurt if you're on the other side of that in any case.

Social media is a form of asynchronous communication where -- I understand that people don't have much more to go off of to glean a sense of what I'm like or what you're like or what whoever's like, but it's being gleaned from flares sent into the digital ether sometimes several hours or sometimes days or weeks apart. And when you think you know someone from those sorts of very spread out things, what mistakes might someone be making in reaching their conclusion and reacting?

Yeah, this is a matter of complexity. In any real life, offline situation, face-to-face conversation, you have the highest level of complexity, and that goes from unconscious person to person communication to body language to eye contact to the history of how long you've known them to touch, tone of voice, all of it. And if you know someone and it moves online there is, I believe, a capacity to take that forward. So if they're being bantery online and you know them historically, then you know it's banter because you know them well enough to put it in that context. The more you remove from the high-context inter-subjective interaction, the more you have to fill in the details and the less likely you are to fill them in correctly. [Laughs.]

Yeah.

So, in the example that you give, let's say, people who haven't known each other previously, they only know each other through text, and these texts are coming asynchronously and infrequently, then it's a recipe for passion or disaster. Or usually both.

[Laughs.]

Yeah.

[Laughs.] They're not usually far away, but they can be.

Yeah, or it's passion first and then it's disaster. Usually not the other way around. [Laughs.] But the reason why it's passion is because you do this thing -- we call it transference. You fill in the blanks with all of your fantasies and ideals and because there's not enough evidence to dissuade you, it builds and builds and builds and then suddenly this complete, different part comes in and you're thinking, "Well, this isn't who I thought that was." And rather than being able to incorporate that into a complex other person, oftentimes it turns into its reversal, which is a feeling of letdown, sometimes hatred, sometimes attack. There's not a central core of real -- I don't want to say it's unreal relating, because I think it is real relating, it's just more difficult to manage difference when you're communicating like that than it is to manage sameness.

So long as you're on the right path together, it's fine. But when it starts to come apart, if there's not enough complexity to hold it together, it can come apart very quickly.

This is maybe quasi-related, but why do people sometimes feel threatened when someone with a large number of followers, for example, just them saying something inconsequential -- what is it that makes someone think a number and somebody saying something is a threat to them?

Are you saying that the statement would be about them?

No. Not even about them. That's what I see a lot: Someone will take offense with something someone else is saying.

Yeah, I think it's probably going to be pretty idiosyncratic in a way. Each individual who's doing that will probably have a whole series of complex reasons. But to not weasel out of the question completely? [Laughs.] A psychological generalization one might make is that there are individuals who have difficulty with authority.

And it just so happens that in the Twitterverse, authority comes by way of followers and retweets and reputation Klout scores. It's a bit of a false authority. Not necessarily, but let's say it can be. But if you're kind of wired to bring down authority in the first place, then that's just a big invitation to do so just for the sake of it.

Yeah.

However, if that person is saying something that you're very closely identified with, and you take offense at it, it's also easier to attack authority on a much more level playing field like Twitter than it would be in real life. So, say you're at a conference and somebody's up on the panel and they say something that would offend you equally as much, are you gonna tweet something offensive with a hashtag or are you gonna stand up and say that thing out loud to someone who's in front of a thousand people who's up on a panel?

You're probably gonna tweet something.

Yeah.

That's interesting, the notion of authority. What are other ways you see authority being perceived online?

Well, similarly to the sort of things you were talking about before, online enables all sorts of different nodal points of power to be quite manipulative. So, you think about how politicians might use something like Twitter. All they really have to do is pull out an out-of-context quote from their opponent and tweet it in the right kind of way. Then what you're doing is you're also utilizing the thing I was telling you about before: People like to get angry at things they think is wrong. "Oh look, here's a great opportunity for us all to get really angry at something that's wrong," but in a case where somebody is completely misrepresented.

So that would be another psychodynamic element that something like Twitter would enable.

Is this just a continuation of Salem Witch Trials or crowd mentalities of, "Let's all gang up on something we think is a problem!" Or does it seem distinct in anyway or separate on the Internet that these things manifest?

I think essentially, yeah, you have a Salem Witch Trial. And essentially you also have gladiatorial events.

[Laughs.]

So in a way you could say it's more benign because there is no physical harm. Or at least very rarely is there physical harm. But I'd say contrary to that is the more and more we identify with our online selves, the more vulnerable we are, too, because even at that Twitter handle or your gaming handle or whatever it is, it's a part of you. And people start taking it down, it hurts.

It might not kill you. You might not be burned at the stake. But psychologically it can be pretty damning. And also, because of your digital dossier, it's gonna be there forever and people can find it. So if someone bullies you in school when you're a kid, that might still hurt when you think about it, but you can't go scroll down to that experience of it.

Someday we may be able to!

I think that kids today are able to, and the other kids know it. So in some ways we're much more vulnerable, psychologically, anyway.

What has changed about the way people protest, now that they can do so online?

This is a complex question, and not so much in my area of expertise, but there are some indications to look at. Online protest has been called "slacktivism" -- so called because it’s easy to sign a digital petition or share outrage online without doing much more. In this case, the slacktivist may be fooling themselves into thinking that their participating in protest, when indeed that participation is quite negligible in the scheme of things. That being said, social media can offer another venue through which emotional contagion can spread far and wide.

Just think of the Arab Spring, which, though ultimately unsuccessful in so many places, seemed to use Twitter to its advantage to get people on the streets. Similarly with the hashtag #jesuischarlie. As in all questions digital, it is important to think of digital interaction simply as a tool, neither good, bad, nor neutral, and take a critical attitude from there.

Why does the Internet and social media warp our sense of time? Are we worse at remembering the past now than we were 10 years ago because of the Internet?

They say that "time flies fast when you’re having fun" and this is somewhat true. The perception of time, anyway, alters depending on what one is doing - and intense concentration is surely one way to make time seem like it's’ going faster. This is do to focus or what psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”. While that may be the case with attention and time, interestingly, there are some indications from recent research that memory may not work the same over digital communication as it does in face to face. This research comes from doing therapy online (say, across a platform like Skype) where therapists and clients are reporting that they don’t remember their sessions online as much as they do in real life. This could do with a variety of factors, but it is likely that the lack of complexity across online platforms (loss of body language, voice tone, and the unconscious indicators) mean that there is less of an impact on participants.

What does it mean to actually "like" something on Facebook? Are we looking for reinforcement of our own self-identity? Like, who actually goes and likes a movie, music, and game page on Facebook? Is it just a function of youth and the equivalent of hanging a MC Escher print in your dorm room, or if you're an adult, when does it just become a ridiculous exercise and something else?

This is very much the subject of my book, where I go into this in some detail. You can also get a more fulsome theory of this via these blog posts. Very briefly, though “liking” something is a simple action of pressing a button, it is linked to the profound motivation among human beings to be recognised in important ways. When you hang that MC Escher in your dorm room, you are saying something about yourself by not hanging a [Gustav] Klimt or a [] Monet. I’m reminded of Buffy Summer’s first week at college here.

Similarly on Facebook. You share a newspaper article, ask for friends to sign a petition, or post a video not just for the sake of it, but as an identity statement. So much so that we know how much Facebook knows about your politics, sexuality, class, etc. simply by compiling your posts. While that serves a commercial purpose for them, it also serves a very personal purpose for its users. An online identity is created as an outward ego expression, and that expression wants recognition. That recognition is applied though likes. However dismissible they may seem, likes and retweets, follows, uproots, reblogs, etc. are highly sought after because they are linked directly into the ego’s desire for recognition.

I couldn't view it because I'm not in the UK right now, but you created some stuff aimed at kids for the BBC, is that right?

Yeah. Yes.

What do you think a lot of adults don't realize about what life is like as a kid, growing up with social media and the Internet?

I think the problem is a lot of them are scared of it. The adults don't understand what their kids are getting into. And the kids know their way around it, at least technologically, more than the adults do. So there's a fundamental level of control the adults simply don't have. But I think the more pernicious thing is that, and it's a generalization, but I think adults, maybe less younger adults now, but adults of my generation -- I'm 42 -- are much more likely to be dismissive of what's experienced online. You know, like, "Just don't look. Why would you go back to that? Why does it matter if it happens on Facebook? So what if there's a WhatsApp group that you're not on?" What they should be doing, as any good-enough parent in any situation is to be very curious about what their children are getting up to and to ask questions and to be told why it's important rather than think you know better.

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When you had your NES that you bought, I mean, it was treated as a fad. Videogames were portrayed as just for kids. Nintendo then is the WhatsApp group of today, sort of. Could that be a contributor, that a lot of parents were not interested or just ignored it and then a lot of those kids grew up and became adults -- but I don't know why that would manifest into being so angry about videogames? But I guess that's possible? I just don’t buy that everyone who’s so angry about videogames today is necessarily a teenager.

Yeah, I think there's something in that. You take a lot of boys, for example, mostly boys, but lots of girls, too, but a lot of boys are into stuff like Minecraft. The parents get very concerned about their antisocial child spending hours and hours on Minecraft, and it becomes this kind of locus of anxiety for the parents.

Do those parents sit down and ask their kids to show them what they're doing on Minecraft? Because it's a very creative endeavor. There's a lot of creativity that goes into it and there's a lot of investment in what's made there. Now, that doesn't mean that it's definitely not pathological because if it's hours and hours and hours, there can be a detriment to that. But if the parent refuses to see what the draw is, then they're really missing the point. And I think the sophistication of gaming these days -- and I don't game, but I'm very curious about it because I know it's a deeply complex social endeavor. And you're doing it socially with people who you may not have met, who might be around the world, and on teams, and against others. It's a real relational, social fact. Very different from me playing Super Mario Bros. in 1993 or whenever it was.

That still exists, it's just that no one hears it. [Laughs.]

Right.

That's just not what the experience tends to be for kids these days.

If you can engage in this whole, fulsome world with innumerable different beasts in it and different places to go and real people to discover -- it seems to be in a different league from Pac-Man, at least.

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Which is the new public self, is it us online or us offline?

Okay, can I throw some jargon at you for a second?

I would love that.

[Laughs.] So, technically -- the technical job of the ego is it's an internal and an external job. So, the ego functions to assess what's going on in your internal world and to make appropriate choices about what to do in the external world. So, it has to be relatively socially compliant. If you want a job, you gotta go to your interview and maybe be a lot more polite than you would be in your regular life. You may be really angry at the person who's interviewing you, but the ego recognizes your anger, rightfully suppresses it, puts on a smile and does the best it can to get you through the interview. That's what your ego does.

What happens online is because it's pretty much a digital public space is it invites that outward-facing part of the ego much more than the inward-facing part. And the consequence of that is your ego starts to lean outwards and starts to inflate that outward part. So, what that looks like in the real world is if you're online all the time, and you're extending yourself through the tool of whatever online mediation you're using, most of those tools -- not all of them -- invite expressions of the outward-facing part of your ego.

So the consequence of that is that the inward-facing part of the ego isn't getting so much air time, which can have some consequences. Now, we all need to have a persona in the external world. We wouldn't want to expose our most vulnerable or shameful parts all the time everywhere, but because the public environment is now in our pockets through our smart phones and it's the first thing we wake up to in the morning and the last thing we go to bed to at night, my sense is that that we're beginning to identify more and more with the outward part of our ego and forgetting more and more about the inward part.

I would agree.

Because you can feel it, can't you? You know when you're walking down the street and you think that's Instagrammable or tweetable. [Laughs.] It becomes a show quickly.

I feel like I'm an unusual social media user in the sense that I assume and understand you can't really glean a ton about someone else. I rarely broadcast much that's really personal. Even with this, a lot of people prefer to do email Q&As and it's not the same. There's less immediacy, less connection. Like, as you know, I sought you out and said, "Hey, let's talk for about an hour."

Well, see, I think that's smart. What you're saying is you're making choices about how you want to engage with different kinds of people in different ways. And I think if everybody did that -- so, I'll use Facebook as an example and maybe you could educate me about the more social aspects of gaming in here. But Facebook is really great for secondary and tertiary relationships. Like, I don't want to be any closer to some of the friends I had in high school than I am on Facebook.

It's fine to find out what they're doing two or three times a year. It's fine. I don't want that from my partner. I don't want to keep up with what my partner's doing on Facebook or the close friend down the street that I'd rather have around for dinner.

And it's when you start making those choices and when you think, "Okay, well, Facebook tells me it's their birthday, so, 'happy birthday.'" Rather than actually, this is a first-level, close-tie friend whose birthday I should know it is and maybe I should plan something to be with them. And as soon as you stop doing that, it means you start looking for deeper relationships across networks that aren't really amenable to doing the job. So if you're looking for that through your gaming or through your Twitter or through your Facebook, you're gonna end up disappointed and hurt. Which isn't to say those relationships aren't real. They are real. It's just whether they can do the job of a real primary relationship.

Media can sometimes push this notion of a "social media generation," which is nebulous because pretty much all age groups are using social media, but the media can describe it as narcissistic which is a word that obviously carries a lot of weight and likely mean something different to you and your circles than to me and mine.

Yeah. [Laughs.]

How do you feel about the use of that term around social media?

I just wrote a blog post about this today. [Laughs.]

Oh, I'm sorry, I haven't seen it yet.

I haven't put it up. It's for someone else. But it's fresh in my head. What it was called was "Self-Centred or Self-Concerned?" I think social media is much more about self-concern than it is about self-centeredness, or even self-referentialism. The difference between your understanding of narcissism and mine is that the colloquial understanding is arrogant, self-interested, self-centered. The psychoanalytic understanding is almost exactly the opposite. That it's a show in response to a lack of a good enough sense of self. So, it always emerges from a wound. Broadly, I mean, it's not very technical but, broadly, a wound of self-esteem or self-confidence. But it sort of goes more profoundly than that. So what I always say is you're narcissistic long before you show up on social media. Like, if you're narcissistically oriented, that happens in very early childhood for the most part. So, social media will enable you to express that narcissism. However, as I said before, because it enables you to express your outward-facing part of the ego, that's kind of the location par excellence of the narcissistic way of being.

So, of course, it's going to be easier to express that part but I don't think it causes it. I think it causes an overwrought attention to how one is showing up. But I wouldn't say it caused narcissism.

I don't think it causes it, but it certainly provides a variety of outlets for it.

Yeah.

I know the very non-PC question a lot of my friends from the Internet and just my regular life would want me to ask you is just: Why are people so crazy online?

[Laughs.]

And I don't know if I can ask you that question without possibly offending you or knowing if you get a sense of that sort of vibe from your Internet, as well.

I think everybody's crazy, anyway.

[Laughs.]

I'm not excluding myself.

[Laughs.]

People are enormously complex, crazy things. I mean, look at it -- it's crazy that we exist and that we know we're gonna die and that we've created this world where we work from 9 to 5 and we have religion. It's just crazy.

You might have heard I'm not disagreeing with you. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] So, I think what happens is you just get to see it all and you get to see more and more and more of it.

So, it becomes concretized more so.

Yeah. Well, I was talking to a friend of mine who knew I was going to be talking to you. And he was talking about people he sees who claim they have body issues and they post tons and tons of selfies of them in just a corset or something. My uneducated guess was a bit of what you said about them seeking approval or just trying to throw something out that people will think they are normal.
But then there's another interview I did where I talked to a guy who was a business developer for Microsoft. He worked on -- do you remember the Microsoft Flight Simulator?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I loved it.

He told me that people -- this is pre-Web 2.0, pre-Twitter, pre-social media, late '90s Internet when people, of their own volition, would create digital airlines. Meaning, someone would be recruiting and managing people who would be flying digital airplanes on real-time flights from, say, where you are right now to San Francisco.

Sure.

And so, obviously, this is an outlet that didn't exist before where you could pretend to be in an airline and then do an eight-hour flight sitting at your computer.
This is an incredibly broad question, but what were people doing before these sorts of outlets before? I'm sure they weren't sitting around wishing they could be doing specifically that.

Right. No, but they were certainly reading fiction and going to the movies and playing Dungeons & Dragons. People have an active imaginary life, and I think that's really healthy. In fact, I think something I wanted to say before we finished, which is related to this, I don't know, it's my mental-health sort of thing: The most important thing that we need as human beings and the most important thing that we can do for each other is to authentically recognize and mutually understand each other as best we can. So, like, I really want you to understand where I'm coming from and I want to understand where you're coming from. If there's a difference there, we can kind of work it out and see how we're different. And with something like you just described, the Flight Simulator thing or Second Life, for example.

Insert

Which, to be clear, I'm not at all mocking. I'm sincerely curious: What did they do before they could do that? I think we forget what life before the Internet was even like.

Yeah, what did they do? And now, again, we have this concretization that we didn't have before. So, not only can you try to recognize me and understand me from my ideas about psychology, but if we were in a gaming world, then there could be a mutual recognition of all sorts of aspects of my imagination that I can't actualize in the real world. So I can look different, I can have an avatar, I can engage with others in a way that I don't in my waking social life.

So you could see that as an expansion of recognition, as well, that there's a possibility that you can actualize even further because you can concretize your imagination that way.

I wanted to be clear that I wasn't mocking it because I think, very easily, someone reading a transcript of this could think that I was saying it was stupid or crazy or insane or silly.

What, the Flight Simulator thing?

Yeah. I mean, but I think people would also say that about, like, Dungeons & Dragons or going to college or -- you know what I mean? It's all subjective.

Yeah, I mean, look: To use an old cliche, different strokes for different folks. [Laughs.]

Exactly.

We have a tradition in this country -- I think they do it in the states, too -- of standing around train stations with notepads, trainspotting. Knowing which train comes in and which is going out. Lots of people don't understand that, but other trainspotters understand that and that's what makes it a social act. So, a lot of the acts that we think are antisocial, or people think are antisocial, like Minecraft for example -- or gaming is often seen that way by people who don't know that, it's because they haven't tried to understand the social draw. And I think there always is a social draw.

What do you notice about the mentality of the ways people or companies combat harassment online? What seems to go into the thinking of the "best" way to solve for it?

Yeah, it's funny. I think you go one way or the other, don't you? You have the, "Look, I just want to take my hands off and say this is free speech and it's the free Internet and I don't want to intervene in any kind of a way." And then you have the other side, which wants to make it safe, it wants to make it really safe.

I usually come at it from a different angle. Like, I think we can't make it safe any more than we can make school safe or the inner-city safe. You can try all sorts of things, but something's gonna happen somewhere along the way.

So what you really have to do is teach resilience. If you have a Twitter following of 10,000 people, they're not all gonna like you. And the same thing in the gaming world. Same thing wherever your audience can be large. So, as an extension of self, I think, again, you just use the laws that are around. If somebody's making a threat online, it's a threat. If somebody's insulting you online, it helps to know it's easier to be insulted online and that you should take it less personally.

You got on my radar from that BBC program about fan armies and One Direction.

Yeah.

I think it's understood, at least among people who are going to be reading this, given the nature of the program, but fanhood is important to people. And Gamergate is like a mix of fanhood and a misfiring immune system. And one part of why I started this originally was I couldn't help notice that the game companies who have created this culture of fanhood had zero reaction to its audience sort of eating itself and threaten itself.
Obviously, I'm trying to rail against some of that silence and figure out what happened. But how does that silence impact the mentality of an audience. How can that be perceived by people within the crosshairs and outside of them?

Yeah, I mean, you can see why intense fanhood would be encouraged because the more intense the fanhood, the more invested one is in that game as an identity. So you can see the commercial advantage of that. The hands off, and I don't know the details of the hands off in relation to Gamergate, but I think from the outside can be perceived as neglectful. And this is how trolling was perceived through a number of events on Twitter, where Twitter wasn't taking responsibility for what was going on on its platform when it was becoming threatening.

And I do think, like I said before, that any online environment develops a culture of its own. And part of that is gonna happen not necessarily randomly but in its own organic kind of a way. But the people who run those platforms, the developers, have quite a lot of power. And I think that power can be used to encourage respectful cultures rather than disrespectful ones.

My working theory and the great thing about being able to talk to you now as opposed to 11 months ago when I started this -- because I told you the corporate culture is that I can't ask these questions of people at a game company. I have been able to get some who are between contracts or people who don't care anymore. I was just transcribing an interview I did with a writer who has worked on the Call of Duty games, and he told me and some other people have told me who have on, like, Grand Theft Auto -- the interesting thing that I've learned is that the workplace didn't feel like the right place to talk about this stuff. So there was no conversation about this.

You're making me really curious about it all. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] So I'm doing a good job. But this is the thing that has vexed me and why I started this. I was stunned I was able to get this out of people and what do you mean it didn't feel like the place to talk about it?

I mean, I'd be really curious about that because what you're describing is a culture of something that you haven't been able to put your finger on.

That you send somebody in, like an organizational psychologist who can just sit and absorb what's going on and come to some kind of a conclusion about what's being said or what's not being said and you might find some very interesting conclusions. I have no idea what they would be.

One of my guesses is the development of games is like the development of any artistic endeavor, like a film or a book or something like that. Which requires a lot of emotional -- a ton of emotional investment because it's about your creative expression also, but it's also a team effort, like a film, with different developers with different skills doing different jobs and probably with people with different visions and different ideas that can invite all kinds of tensions. Perhaps in an environment where it's not so safe to be explicit about those tensions.

Which isn't different from a lot of workplaces, actually. But this particular workplace has those challenges. And there might be a culture of fear, too, from what I'm hearing.

I felt like I saw a lot of writers explaining about things that they couldn't possibly know about because people at these companies are just not allowed to talk. One of my conclusions after 130-some interviews in 11 months so far is it feels like to me the industry is afraid of the audience it created. And they're kind of stuck in a way because they don't want to offend -- it's not that simple that it's just the passionate people making threats and the people in the crosshairs, but you run the risk of alienating people no matter what you do.

Yeah. And you know the answer to this much more than I do, but you know that the scale of the numbers of people that must be deeply involved in how these things develop must be huge.

Yeah. Not only that, but the people who make them -- so as they become bigger entities to create, they're more difficult to be nimble, but then the audience grows. It calcifies.

Well, I think psychologically, at least, whenever you move towards rigidity, it always gets more difficult because things do calcify, which means they can't bend, which means they can't be nimble as you say and respond to response changes. People want it to be the same, and that's why you get a sudden break instead of a gradual change. Like I said, I don't know a lot about Gamergate, but I'm sure if you want to before, during, and after and did a critical psychodynamic analysis, you'd see lots of instances of ossification and rigidification and splitting until it reached this sort of crisis point.

I think in a way too, it branches off a lot of non-communication, as far as companies commenting or being able to interact with an audience beyond marketing.

Yeah. And dialog tends to happen across social networks as well, and as we were talking about before, with the nature of complexity, it's just not the best way. If your industry is digital, and communications are digital and asynchronous, you're not starting from a very solid foundation for being able to negotiate complex difference. You're kind of put at a disadvantage.

because somebody can take to the airwaves very quickly in a Rush Limbaugh-style of just out-of-context decimation for the end goal of that.

[Laughs.] Are you familiar with the Twitter account, @veryoldtweets?

No, I'm not.

I'm sure you can figure out what it is from the name.

[Laughs.] Yeah.

So, it's a bot that tweet things from the first 90 days of Twitter in seemingly random fashion. Clearly we've come a long way from -- well, the culture has changed so much. People used to scoff about how they didn't really care what other people are eating, don't need to see it, and now people scoff about not needing to know what everyone has to say.
But the thing that strikes me about this account is -- and these are just random examples I plucked out. This is a tweet: "want a massage," "dinner... roast beef, peas and carrots, rice and gravy. mmm," "I'm ready to use a new software at work. Nice, but I still see some old problems."

[Laughs.] Riveting stuff.

[Laughs.] It's truly gripping, the pathos. But what changes where we went from that to the sort of stuff we're talking about now? Is it merely adoption and the platform got flooded by more and more people who didn’t know each other?

Again, first let me commend you for your questions, because you're asking some really interesting questions. [Laughs.]

Oh, thank you.

[Laughs.] No, really.

Well, that's why when I wrote you I said, "I swear, it's gonna seem like I'm asking you to talk about videogames, but it's really about more than that."

I mean, you're plugging into a lot of, I think, really interesting and important issues. I hadn't thought about that in relation to Twitter. I was probably a relatively late adopter anyway.

I started in about 2009, and only because I had to for work.

Right. And I had to for my book. I love it, actually. I really like Twitter a lot.

I like parts of it.

I get that, too.

Yeah.

I think what you see is the development of a culture. So, again, it'll develop in a way that maybe the people who build it don't necessarily expect, and I think maybe with @veryoldtweets, it hasn't developed that culture yet. So, it's marketed originally as a microblogging site, and back at the time, blogs were often diary entries for not very many people, under 140 characters. So I think what happens is you build an environment -- it's like, you can build a park, and if you put trees in it, something's gonna happen, but if you put sliding boards and swings in it, something different is gonna happen. So they put these certain variables into place and people start using it and then over time it develops a culture that's amenable to that.

So, now, the culture is kind of a hashtag-based, trending culture. That started, again, kind of randomly, but now it's manipulated. Same thing with Google. Google started a search engine, which is an environment, which starts to happen randomly, and then people start to manipulate the system to get the best out of it, which then, Google kind of shifts again and then it develops a culture.

So it's not like we're getting angrier or changing, it's just that an outlet for it that wasn't there before, maybe?

Yeah.

I don't know if I'm formally proposing that, but obviously something has changed.

I don't think we're getting angrier. I think we are exposed to more of it. We see it. We see it.

Yeah.

But I wish there were social media that enabled a deeper kind of engagement that promoted more complexity, because the trouble with the lack of complexity is you do get Donald Trump solutions. [Laughs.] I'm sorry if I'm going to offend the Donald Trump supporters, but they're not really helpful for anyone.

It's okay. I think you can offend some people. And that's another thing, I've seen with the Internet, too, is, you see rhetoric that's like, "You offend me, as a bigot." There's the erosion of the fact that, actually, some people are just wrong.

Yeah, I think that's true, and unfortunately it's very easy to paint somebody wrong. It's an ad hominem attack, which means I can dismiss what you're saying because I'm painting you as a racist.

Correct.

And, again, the medium enables that to happen, whereas if you're having a conversation or if there's some history there you might say, "Look, you know I'm not a racist, but this is how I feel about So And So."

So, you know, it enables certain kinds of communication and it disables other kinds of communication. For some things, that can be good, and for other things that can be really terrible. It is a tool.

What confounds you about the Internet or social media?

[Laughs.] Yeah.

These may not be your pet topics, what we’ve been discussing so far.

My pet topics are really about what motivates people to do what they do and all of their and our craziness.

[Laughs.]

I suppose -- [Laughs.] I suppose it's why we continue to do things that aren't particularly good for us. Something as simple as checking your emails after hours when you probably don't even want the emails that are coming, but you still check. Like, none of those emails are gonna make you happy that you're looking at just before you go to bed, and yet we do it. [Laughs.]

You put something on Facebook that's offended some people and people start talking and you think you should not talk about that on Facebook anymore because that always happens, and then you do it anyway and then you look, and then you keep looking as it builds and you get more and more upset and you keep going back, this repetition compulsion.

Is it actually an addiction? Because you hear that word thrown around a lot too, and I know that word means something different to me than it might to you.

Yeah, there's a lot of debate about it. I think there are addictive components because I think it's the nature of novelty. That's why we look at our emails even though we don't want them. It's the random "bing" that alerts us that something new is coming in and it has to do with us, so we must look. So, yeah, they do say that there is some evidence that there's some addictive qualities to a lot of the things that we do on the Internet, and I think that is concerning. I think we do have to make better choices for ourselves, and I include myself in that. I do now put my phone away an hour before I go to bed. That's my latest concession.

But we have to be mindful. I think Sherry Turkle said it: "We get technology that we want, but not necessarily technology that we need."

I often make the metaphor to fast food. Fast food has everything that we love in it and you can get it really cheaply and really easily and you can have it all the time if you wanted it, but it's actually not very good for you.

There's a comedian, and I forget who it is, but he had a joke that goes, "When you're a kid, every time you have McDonald's it's a victory, but when you're an adult, every time you have McDonald's it's a defeat."

[Laughs.] Right. Wow, that's really right on the money, isn't it?

Normally I like to ask people what they feel videogames have accomplished, and as that is not your field of focus or something you've paid close attention to I don't know if that'd be fair to ask you. So I'll go even broader and perhaps more profound: What do you feel digital communication has accomplished?

[Pause.]

Because it used to not exist.

Yeah, it really did. It was funny. I was looking at an old Air France map the other day, and they had the flight from Paris to New York, which stopped in Shannon, in Ireland and then stopped in Newfoundland and then stopped again, like, in Maine, and stopped again in New York. It took, I don't know, 20 hours or something like that? So, this kind of notion of the shrinking world, which we've done in some ways physically because we can get to New York now in six hours.

But we have access to information and people in ways that we never ever had.

So, we're having this conversation because you heard a radio broadcast. But I don't even know where you live. Where do you live?

I live in the United States, but, honestly, the only reason I heard about that broadcast was because someone I interviewed told me about it. They did not mention you specifically, but I heard you and your title and I was like, "Oh, I have to talk to this guy."

Cool. [Laughs.]

"Because he's like me but he probably knows what he's talking about!"

Yeah, we'll see.

[Laughs.]

And look what's happened, yeah? So there's this one bit of media that only happened over here, that this woman told you about through your shared interest over Skype, and then we get to share an interest over Skype. And I think that's incredible. Like, I think it's great. Actually, a lot of the closest associates I have in my life I never would have encountered or had the opportunity to share ideas with if it weren't for the kind of digital infrastructure we have these days.

I go by that Kranzberg motto a lot, I don't know if you know it: "Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral."

It is just is?

It just is, but the way in which the architecture functions makes it not neutral.

So we're having a conversation, but we wouldn't happen to be looking at each other in this moment. This is a sound conversation that's going to be turned into a transcript, and then that transcript is gonna go online, and then somebody might see my name or your name and wanna connect us to have a similar interest, and then that can grow. Unfortunately, the shadow side of that exists at the same time. People can gang up to do some serious damage.

But that is the nature of any tool. A hammer can hammer on a nail or it can hammer in somebody's head. It's what you decide to use with the tool, and it's always gonna be thus. But it's a pretty remarkable tool, and I think for the most part I'm pretty happy about it.

I'm getting there. There's a lot of disconnects, and it's over some pretty bleak stuff.

Your inspiration for this project came from a kind of a breakdown. And I think the more we can learn about what variables are in play that facilitate that which you just described, then you can incorporate that knowledge into further developments of things and create cultures that are more amenable to more humane undertaking.

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