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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Social media and socioanalysis

This paper discusses the proliferation of online social media (Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc), its implications for group relations, and for the psychoanalytic study of group and organisational life. Internet social theorist Clay Shirky argues that the emergence of online social media has drastically reduced the barriers to participation in group endeavours, enabling the achievement of sophisticated, collective action outside of formal organisations and institutions. From a socio-analytic perspective, however, organisations also fulfil a second function: that of containing the anxiety of members. Drawing on socio-analytic theory and case examples, the paper will argue that the threat posed to the existence of organisational and institutional structures is also a challenge to the effectiveness of their embedded social defences against anxiety. As a result, there is likely to be conscious and/or unconscious resistance to the introduction of social media and other 'Web 2.0' tools within organisations and other social systems which are based on traditional hierarchical models. The paper also explores the work of media theorist Marshall McLuhan about connections between communications technology and society. McLuhan suggests that cultures in which authority, institutions, knowledge and experience have become fragmented and distributed through the dominance of the printed word, tend to become re-integrated as instantaneous electronic communication proliferates. For example, private experience becomes re-publicized, while the hierarchical social systems which support the concept of both social and emotional privacy are 're-tribalized' in an emerging 'global village'. The paper concludes that socio-analytic principles offer a highly relevant conceptual framework for the investigation of new kinds of groups and communities which are emerging at ever more rapid pace in an increasingly connected world. However, it also cautions that the discipline of socio-analysis, which has its origins in the study of traditional organisational forms, will itself need 'regeneration' through continued engagement with and learning from the experience of online social media.