Twitter and the Social Unconscious: how tweets and blogs go far beyond the individual

The distinction between what is conscious and what is unconscious is a familiar one – Freud gave us the image of an iceberg where the small exposed bit represents the conscious mind and the much larger unexposed chunk underneath represents the unconscious.

An even a more moving picture of the relationship between the two is sometimes represented as a block of wood floating on an ocean of unconsciousness. When we consider that our personal unconscious may also be connected up with a common or collective unconscious, the floating block of wood image really puts that relationship in perspective.

Collective unconscious” – in a Jungian term which takes Freud’s notion of the unconscious even further in this direction, postulating that there is a layer of unconsciousness that not only belongs to us all, but is “innate” and comes wired in to our human programming.

The social unconscious is another perspective all together, this is a concept that looks at how crowds or groups operate in a ‘herd’ sense – potentially offering a greater kind of wisdom that we don’t get simply as individuals. Though each of these concepts is different, they can be brought into good use when thinking about how the human race expresses itself online.

In previous posts I looked at some of the unconscious motivations that may underlie an individual’s use of Twitter and other forms of social networking; notably the role of ego in Twitter and the false self with regard to Facebook. These posts were mostly interested in the individual unconscious, but as I investigated the Jungian model further I found that the link of the persona (previously taken in the context of an individual’s public facing “mask”) also serves an interesting collective function.

For Jung, the persona is “only a mask worn by the collective psyche, a mask that feigns individuality, making others and oneself believe that one is individual, whereas one is simply acting a role through which the collective psyche speaks. When we analyse the persona we strip off the mask, and discover that what seemed to be individual is at bottom collective” (p. 281)

 Is the collective psyche speaking to us through Twitter?

There is some interesting research taking place in this area. Though not explicitly Freudian or Jungian in nature, we can see how models from depth psychology can be applied to gain access to collective or social unconscious themes that may be embedded in our online communications.

First we have Alan Mislove’s research from Northwestern University which follows mood trends across the US as expressed over Twitter (more here). In the video below (after the ad) you can see what the researchers call “the pulse of the nation” suggesting that those on the west coast are happier than those back east: and that happiness peaks on Sunday mornings and dives on Thursday evenings:

In a similar study Scott Golder and Michael Macy at Cornell University studied the emotional content of the entire world coming up with similar findings on a global scale. The map below indicates average negative feelings (blue/top) and average positive feelings (red/bottom) across the countries that were measured. [image: Science/AAAS].

The coolest I’ve found yet (thanks to David Patman) has been the We Feel Fine project defined as “an exploration of human emotion, in six movements. This project searches weblogs across the world for words associated with the statements “I feel” and “I am feeling” and records the feeling associated with that statement”. To quote from their website:

The result is a database of several million human feelings, increasing by 15,000 – 20,000 new feelings per day. Using a series of playful interfaces, the feelings can be searched and sorted across a number of demographic slices, offering responses to specific questions like: do Europeans feel sad more often than Americans? Do women feel fat more often than men? Does rainy weather affect how we feel? What are the most representative feelings of female New Yorkers in their 20s? What do people feel about right now in Baghdad? What were people feeling on Valentines’ Day? Which are the happiest cities in the world? The saddest? And so on.

There is a stunning graphic in which you can see, in real time, groupings and clusterings of feelings as they occur. Interestingly, you can filter your searches by feeling, gender, age, weather, location or date, and then view your search in a variety of visually interesting ways.

When I looked at it at 8:55 on Tuesday morning the 3rd of July I could see that in Britain the dominant feeling was “better” (circa 130,000 people) followed by “bad” (93,000 then) “good” (77,000). By clicking on individual nodes, you can even gain access to the original text. By doing this, you can get a great deal of detail about the context, as well as the feeling tone. The creators Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar should be highly commended for this work.

Looking at this emerging research is very exciting because it offers us, for the first time, access to oodles of data about the state of the world through their communication over a global social network. While research methods will surely have to be refined, we now have the capacity to do some “data mining” not for commercial gain, but to understand the nature of our “social voice.”

The difference between an approach informed by depth psychology and the projects I’ve spoken about above, is that these empirical studies look at what is present on the surface, and by looking at that, comes up with some pretty interesting results. The depth psychologies take this one step further by taking what is on the surface and interpreting what might be going on underneath.

For Freud, dreams were the “royal road to the unconscious” because of the way they created uninhibited images that gave symbolic meaning to what couldn’t be expressed in our waking lives. I wonder if the parts of ourselves we project into the internet; the words from our tweets and our blogs can be sort of a social dreaming, a socio-cultural “free association” from which we can gain understanding about our collective unconscious.

This post is just a start on these thoughts, outlining the possibility of a different way of reading the web – so watch this space for more developments.

References:

Jung. C.G. (1966).Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. (Trans. R.F.C. Hull). Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

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