Blog Real Insight Lies Beneath the Surface: The Psychology of Social Media

Real Insight Lies Beneath the Surface: The Psychology of Social Media

Aaron Balick is a psychotherapist, cultural theorist, media consultant, and author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” 

These are among the last booming words of the Great Wizard of Oz. He’s concerned because Dorothy’s little dog is about to reveal that all that bluster, smoke and fire is just a show; the real deal is actually just a nervous bespectacled man from Kansas hidden from sight. In my trade, we call this bluster “ego”. We all have one, and we all use it in different ways to put on a particular kind of show for others (and we often believe it ourselves). If we can learn to distinguish between the show and what’s really going on, we can be well ahead of the game.

There’s nothing at all wrong with the ego as such, it’s the way it is deployed that matters. What also matters is that we all realise that though ego makes much of the noise, it’s only a small part of the whole picture. Looking at our world of social media today, however, you might not think so.

There’s a reason why Facebook is the most popular social network on the planet: it’s because it’s psychologically savvy and it appeals to our egos. Just like that old Kansan used smoke and mirrors to present an image of himself to the good people of Oz, we use social media (and a whole lot more) to present our preferred selves to the world. While we think of social media as something technological, it isactually an intensely psychological and emotional phenomenon.


"I conceive of social media and many forms of technology as a psychological extension of the self"

I conceive of social media and many forms of technology as a psychological extension of the self. Just like a car is an extension of your legs (only it gets you there faster) and a telephone an extension of your ears and your voice – social media is an extension of your psychology. Facebook, for example, is a way that your extended ego can engage with others while your actual ego is offline. Just like the ego, there is a lot more going on than what is shown, and that is where the real value is.

It’s not just about ego either; it’s about relationships too. It’s no accident that the most popular forms of software and hardware are actually about connecting people. Facebook again becomes the obvious choice, but simpler mechanisms such as Skype, text messages, and emails do the same. In fact, whenever one person reaches out to another to communicate to them, it is a psychological event. While there might be a simple request on the surface, what is really being asked underneath? What’s the real motivation behind clicking “like” or connected to someone on LinkedIn? Why tweet this, or Instagram that? It’s all about the psychology – which is usually not the most apparent thing.


With more than a decade and a half of clinical psychotherapy under my belt, I have made it my business to understand the relationship between people’s unconscious motivations and the way they express them outwardly. Over the past five years my research has been on the extension of the psychological self through technology and social media. While most of the research in this field looks at the content  of what goes on online (looking at words in tweets, or posts on Facebook), I look at the process – that is, using inferences from the content to work out what’s going on underneath. By doing this, we get closer to the heart of the matter.

Why does one charity’s campaign take off and go viral while another one founders? Why does one brand connect with a customer while another one leaves him dry? What is it that people are actually looking for when they are checking their Facebook profiles an average of 14 times a day? You won’t find these answers on the surface. For the real human story, you need to look underneath it.

Wizard of Oz picture courtesy of Flickr: Insomnia Cured Here

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