Aleks Krotoski, Emmy and BAFTA winning journalist, explains the psychology of digital identities in the autumn edition of Chief Disruptor magazine.
Getting online and staying online used to be difficult. We all remember the loud days of dial-up internet and the familiar sight of a pager sticking out of a shirt pocket. These have now been replaced with faster broadband and slick smartphones, and capabilities unimaginable a decade ago.
But should this influx of new technologies be considered a new industrial revolution in the making? Aleks Krotoski, host of BBC Radio 4’s Digital Human Series, doesn’t think so.
Aleks has been studying interactivity since the late 90s and holds a PhD in the social psychology of relationships in online communities. I met Aleks at Redondo Beach, California, to get her thoughts on how the internet has altered humans’ interactions with one another.
Internet & Identity
I started by asking Aleks for her thoughts on whether the internet has changed human identity. She didn’t think so.
‘What I find interesting about the effects on psychological and social self [with] the internet is how little it’s changed things, and I think in some ways we like to imagine that it’s changed everything.’
‘We like to imagine that it has turned the whole world upside down and that’s a very romantic idea of what new technologies and what new innovation can offer.’
‘The actual reality is that the only way it’s really changed identity is that we can search for someone and their entire self is available. And that’s a past self, and a present self, and there’s no way to distinguish between the two.’
Aleks explained how this blurring of past and present self created new challenges. danah boyd’s theory of “context collapse” argues that social media has grouped people or experiences into single contexts, making it difficult for people to rectify the difference between online and face-to-face interactions. Because physical interactions is limited to smaller groups, individuals know the social constructs appropriate to that setting. But these offline behaviours may not transfer well to a wider, online context.1
‘Throughout our lives we often have different periods of time when we are allowed to look backwards, whether that be a graduation or a birthday, etcetera. You get everyone together from different aspects of your life and point out the foibles and flaws of something you did in the past and everyone laughs about it and people tend to not bring up those things again. And that’s a movement to the next phase of your life, but because of this sense of context collapse, we don’t have the opportunity necessarily to finish our chapters and move on.’
Has this perception of multiple identities affected our social or mental well-being?
‘I do think it’s a little too soon to say. The internet has only been around for 20 years and evolution of the human being takes a long time. So the idea that everything has changed and transformed in a single generation is hubris.’
Although the internet has only been around for 20 years, it is quite striking to see the advancements made in the last 10 years even. But do modern day technologies, like smartphones, seem so momentous because technology today is more sophisticated than it was in the past, or is it because of humans’ innate hubris?
‘Each generation has a technology that defines it, and what we’re seeing now is unique for many different reasons, but it’s very much a reflection of its time. It’s a globalised technology, it’s a computerised technology.’
‘I think that’s just kind of the magic of being alive at a certain point. We imbue our specific context, our moment in time as being something that’s very special.’
Were the influx of new technologies not that momentous because previous generations had undergone a similar transformation?
‘Each generation has a technology that defines it, and social media is incredibly different in that it’s a globalised, computerised technology. It is coming at a time in our history when we’re questioning things like national identity, what it means to live in a particular place and what it means to be an employee. We were already questioning these things, but now we have these new technologies that landed at exactly the right time so that makes it very unique...in that way, it’s an evolution.’
‘Obviously there are going to be differences [from the past] because we are talking global. The very first time there was a live, global satellite link up on the television was in 1968 and now we’re connected to people around the whole world so that’s obviously going to change our concept of where we are and who we are in the world.’
Social media has played a significant role in shedding light on long-standing issues, as well as facilitating revolutions. The public burning of Mohamed Bouazizi, which sparked the Arab Spring, was more well-known than other similar suicides because it was filmed and circulated on social media. More recently, coverage of protests in Nicaragua shared on social media has allowed people outside the conflict zone to be aware of what is happening on the ground.
Smartphones and social media are the logical next step in a technological evolution that has been occurring for centuries. The introduction of television in the late 20s was greeted with similar accolade and was rightly viewed as a life-changing technology. What will come next is not easy to determine, but Aleks emphasised the need to be mindful of the power we place in technology.
Regardless of the reach and capacities of tech, society is still susceptible to human nature.
‘One area that I think is really important, and it has to do with this hubris, is that we imbue technologies, whatever innovations they are, with the magic that they are either going to save us or destroy us.’
‘And while the internet has its own special and unique features, what innovations and new technologies do, is show us the boundaries of our self because they push the boundaries. They are new things we have to adopt, that we have to incorporate into our moralities and social world.’
‘The internet, and the way we are sharing things is new to many people. Now, because everything is up there for everyone to see, it’s exposing those invisible forces that have always been around, but suddenly everyone can see them.’
‘And because we imbue these technologies with magic, we think they are the things that are doing these things to us, rather than recognising that, ultimately, the technology is a mirror to us. We have to have those difficult conversations to decide which of these things the technology is showing us about ourselves that we actually want to have as part of our society.’
I asked Aleks to clarify. Was technology allowing us to see different perceptions of ourselves?
‘Perceptions of ourselves as individuals and perceptions of ourselves as a society, so any time we have some kind of awful headline around cyber-bullying or fraud or predatory behaviour, we think it’s the technology’s fault or the narcissism of the modern age.’
‘But actually the technology is only facilitating something that is in us. It’s not making us predators or fraudsters. It’s an agnostic phenomena and we are the ones who are allowing ourselves to be drawn into it. The real challenge is to recognise that and to call for those difficult conversations to happen.’
‘Why is it okay for kids to bully one another, what is it about the society that allows bullying to happen full stop? It’s not the technology, it’s the fact that kids are bullying one another, it’s human nature.’
Aleks seemed to be of the opinion that technology hadn’t changed human interactions all that much, it was simply bringing to the surface aspects of our society that have always been around.
But that, in itself, is a big thing, and represents a change. Most would agree it would be quite out of the ordinary to start a conversation with another individual riding on the same train today, and commonplace 20 years ago. Has the ubiquity of smartphones disconnected us?
‘I can’t tell you for sure whether people are more or less disconnected, but I certainly know that even before the internet, people were complaining about disconnect because of television.’
‘I think what’s really important is remembering that this is the contemporary innovation and the contemporary technology and we’re getting all the same arguments that happened with television or radio, even the printing press. So I think it’s hard to say yes or no because there are so many historical examples of “disconnect.”’
Aleks went on to add that technology could serve to connect people in a more meaningful way.
‘In the old days, you would go to a singles’ bar to meet one night stands or potentially long term relationships. You’d go to the park to meet other parents; you’d go to school to meet people who think like you. There are different contexts for meeting different types of people and online is just another avenue with lots of singles’ bars or playgrounds or schools.’
‘There’s the argument that you should move an online relationship, platonic or romantic, offline, to have a deeper relationship. But there are relationships that go through their entire lives and die online, and they have the same emotional depth and psychological relevance for the individual. You can have closer relationships online than offline because that’s where you find your people.’
After meeting Aleks, I understood the need for a human-centric approach to new innovations. Instead of putting our entire focus on technology as the “be all and end all”, we should instead take a step back and see what technology is enabling us to do. The key features of human nature will still remain as technology continues to evolve and operate as another channel to connect individuals.
1 Marwick, A. and boyd, d. (2010) I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media & Society. Vol 13, no. 1. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444810365313 [Accessed 03.09.2018]