Report on The Psychology of Social Media by Ciaràn McMahon

Ciarán McMahon provides a much-needed call for action by questioning how much we really know about the influence of social media services and platforms on society and social relations in the modern world. His writing is lyrical, approachable and easily accessible. The structure of this short work – enhanced with carefully chosen case studies – reaffirms that we do in fact know very little about the impact on humanity of commercially-driven bundles of algorithms that increasingly command more and more of our time (and attention). When reading this, I hear the author’s measured tone of delivery (I gratefully still use a video of an older TedTalk of his in my modules). He builds a solid and compelling argument enhancing each section with a case study drawn from research and then summarising the findings before progressing. He argues, through psychological reflection, that this dance between users and the providers of services seeking to commodify human experience for commercial gain is one that may be captivating for both parties, but remains ignorant of the broader unexplored implications.

McMahon begins by clearly distinguishing between a social network and a social networking service. A distinction that he suggests has been deliberately made ambiguous by providers. This gulf in understanding and intention that exists between users and providers is reflected on throughout and metaphorically represented by an iceberg. The positive explicit benefits are the visible portion that we see on our screens and lurking beneath the surface are the vast multitude of ways in which our lives have been digitised and turned into valuable social data to be commodified and sold to the highest bidder. McMahon uses a psychological lens to explore seven specific aspects of the social media experience: profiles, connections, updates, media, messaging and finishes with a look at values and how this term likewise has a distinctly different meaning for providers and users of these services. These digitally mediated social networking platforms by construct are not transparent which stands in the way of the reflection demanded. As a start on this reflection, McMahon does a superb job of choosing a well-focused and short path to initiate further better-informed discussion.

The challenge is in doing and taking action based on reflection and study. Unlike Jarom Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, McMahon is merely beginning the conversation with this book. It does not provide explicit instructions but demonstrates that we must seek them out through study, reflection and subsequent social action. In this, he is clear that we, as users, have created the social media platforms that we have today and it is our responsibility to act in a socially responsible way. The book is short and easily digestible. It seeks to establish a common understanding of basic phenomenon and vocabulary to facilitate this much-needed discussion.

The role of the state at this stage is crucial, and McMahon emphasises that it is supposed to be both reflective of our social values and also ensure that legislation has the social impact that we desire. This is a call to action. We cannot expect social media platform providers to self-regulate and indeed, why would they? Do they actually have a social responsibility? I’d argue that they have a mostly fiduciary responsibility that must be policed by the state for the good of society. With a pointed indication of how easily the Chinese government is able to curb what it determines to be anti-social behaviour effectively, McMahon at least hints that there is the possibility to regulate – if not necessarily in ways that we might deem draconian.

Ultimately, one is left wanting, due to the brevity of this deliberately short work. This is clearly intentional, and this reader looks forward to broadening the discussion through subsequent contributions from the author. Creating a work that is concise and effective stems from choosing examples with unique precision and being able to narrate for impact articulately. In this, the author demonstrates mastery and delivers a product of what is clearly extensive and exhaustive reflection and translation into a hard-hitting and widely informative must-read.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Review of The Psychology of Social Media by Shawn Day - Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon

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