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socialnetworksI was recently interviewed for an article on how social networks are changing psychology. This was an interesting interview because it moved me to think more deeply about the ways in which rapid, instant communication and information sharing is impacting our personal perspectives and relationships.

From a personal perspective, I see social networks as changing our psychology in three key ways:

1) We find it easier to compare ourselves to others. This can have pros and cons, of course- dependent, most of the time, on whether we are doing “better than” or “worse than” those in our social networks. The problem with comparing ourselves to others is that we’ll always find people who are better, or worse, than us. Clearly, our own sense of self and personal viewpoint needs to rely on something else than social comparisons.

2) We have access to more resources than ever before. If you are stuck or need help, you can ask on Twitter, and get almost instant feedback or solutions. This can be a life-saver, or, at minimum, very useful, depending on your context and circumstances. By having more access to resources, we are better able to reach our personal goals, which can help us feel more confident and secure.

3) We can approach people more easily and more fluidly. It’s easy to send a Facebook “poke” or a small gift to someone you’d like to meet, but haven’t yet met. This can be a low stress, low rejection way to make contact. Access via social networks can help us live into the idea that there are only a few people separating us from people we’d most like to know. (The “six degrees of separation” idea.)

What are the downsides of social networking in terms of our personal psychology?

1) We might mistake digital intimacy for true intimacy. True intimacy comes from shared experiences and shared meaning, most of which occur real-time, face to face. It can be easy to get caught up in your own hype or your own online popularity, without remembering that when the computer shuts down, so does your social life. We need a balance between digital and real-life intimacy in order to be truly fulfilled.

2) We might regret high levels of transparency. I often tell clients, “Google never forgets”, which means that items you post online will mostly likely be accessible forever- or, at least, for a very, very long time. If you post something in a fit of anger, or with poor judgment, you might be living with regret about this for a long time. Feeling regret and shame around something you did, which you can’t control, has huge psychological implications.

3) We get caught up in numbers, forgetting its about relationships. Ok, admit it, when you log into Twitter, don’t you check on your number of followers? I know I do. Partly, of course, this is to make sure my ideas and messages are being well received- but, also, of course, it’s a sign of growing popularity and increasing reach. So many of us want to be famous, and social media gives us a chance to experience that rush of attention and focus. Who wouldn’t want to be seen as a “social media rock-star?” The reality is, though, that in terms of real relationships, our capacity to be deeply connected to people is limited to about 10 people. Even if you have thousands in your tweetstream, my belief is that the functional benefit to you does not increase exponentially as your followers grow. Certainly, more followers or friends means more pathways of information distribution. But there will always be a core group who will focus on you, invest in you, and purchase from you; and it takes more than a few Tweets to activate larger and growing numbers of these people.

In terms of relationships (and I’ll write more about this in another post), I see social networks as changing our relationships in very significant ways, too.

We have greater real-time updates of what people are doing- this can help us understand them better, in ‘micro-slices’ because we see how and where they are investing their time and energy. We can read profile pages and learn new things about people we know and love. Of course, the greater access to knowledge also increases the rate of and rapidity of communication, which can sometimes leave us scattered and unfocused because we have too much information coming in at once.

It is easier to ‘shadow’ key people in our lives (or people we want to know), we can more easily “social engineer” meetings and connections. We might find it easier to make small talk, because we already know something about the person from his/her blog or podcast.

At the end of the day, social networks are useful for helping us find others like us– but do not trump the immediacy and benefits of real-time, real-life conversation. It is easy to be seduced into thinking that everyone in your social network is paying attention to you, all the time, but that is most likely not the case.

The people who pay most attention to you are going to be those who meet you in real life, spend time with you, or are referred by other people. In order to most fully benefit from social media, we need to focus on both online AND offline connections.