Wednesday, May 30

Migrating Profession: The Internet Is A Petri Dish

Five years is a long time on the Internet. In fact, it was five years ago that someone concocted the Online Identity Calculator, which has since migrated to a new address. But what the Online Identity Calculator never considered is the extent to which online identities would be out of our hands.

I'm not talking about professional criticisms, erroneous articles, or discrepancies in how we perceive ourselves compared to what has been posted online. I'm talking about the next generation who will have an online identity before they can talk. Ninety percent of them will have an online history before they are two years old, written by their parents and other relatives.

The next few years will be different too. By the time they are 5, more than 50 percent will interact with a computer or tablet. By the time they are 8, almost all of them will be playing video games and reading (if not participating) with associated forums. By the time they are preteens or early teens, they will open a Facebook account (even though you must be 13 to legally join the site). And by the time they are teens, they will spend more time with media than their parents and teachers combined.

It's improbable to believe that the open, media-driven world that today's children are being born into won't have an impact on them, infinitely greater than television did to the generations before them. In this new world, they aren't just tuning in to find entertainment — they are the entertainment, for better or worse. Along with every triumph posted, some parents delight in sharing tragedies too — unerasable bits of information that establishes our online identity before we even have an identity offline.

As media and technology change people, psychologists will migrate to the space. 

Although psychology ranks relatively high on the list of degrees leaving recent grads unemployed or underemployed, the field is already beginning to add another layer as a viable potential career path. Psychologists don't have to settle for the proverbial choice of listening to people's problems or teaching mice to press bars for cheese.

The subset to watch is media psychology (for lack of a better term), and the directional choices a psychologist might take it in are as diverse as the application. Sure, marketers and advertisers (the good ones anyway) always considered psychology and sociology as assets. But compared to the greater number of psychologists working in the field, relatively few focused on communication and media.

That's not going to be the case anymore, given that media has become so intertwined into our lives that it is somewhat difficult to separate the two — even more so than all those babies who were born into a world that celebrates their arrival with increased exposure to the world, e.g., public Facebook posts have replaced semi-public baby announcements. And that's only the beginning of media psychology.

• Marketing. The primary reason marketers sometimes struggle with determining ROI on the web is because most of them have no scientific or psychological training to boost their understanding of the human experience. Few of them run studies with control groups, preferring to guess at analytics instead of knowing the truth behind the abundance of measurements at their disposal. Expect psychologists and sociologists to be working with marketers and network programmers in the near future.

• Public Perception. Along with marketing, public policy and socio-economics could use a lift. With legislators listening too keenly to the loudest voices online, psychologists would add real research into the mix to determine the "why" behind any outcry. This would be an asset, given many political decisions are knee-jerk responses instead of an attempt to truly understand where people might be on any given topic. (Ergo, people are more likely to sacrifice liberties after a highly visible threat, but then push back as the threat becomes less immediate.)

• Societal Change. Some psychologists have already noted that media and social media shape our perception of reality (accidentally, purposefully, and cohesively). Psychologists can treat entire populations as their petri dish. They know it too. Some are already starting to study why types of individuals use social networks for what purposes and how — much like some dedicated significant time studying whether or not violent television programs make the world a meaner place.

• Real-time Psychology. Sooner or later, we might anticipate some psychologists who work with individuals to consider the Internet as a tool to provide greater insight into the social interactions their clients have with others online. One can only imagine what this might look like 20 years from now, when psychologists look online to not only track social interactions but also scroll back to early family photos and random posts. Who knows too, what kind of psychological stigmas might be created as some parents not only reinforce a child's potential to be one way or another, but also post semi-permanent evidence in the process.

Personally, I have always seen psychology and sociology as critical components of communication planning and message development. But it seems to me that those professions might see a boost in relevance in the years ahead. After all, if social media has changed anything it is that we've given permission to let people study us as a public. You might be surprised by what they find.

To illustrate (although it might make its own post someday), I remember an old sociology project in college that asked us to team with a partner and then study three or four of their high school yearbooks. Based on the information those yearbooks contained, the best students (with surprising accuracy) could outline various niche groups within the school, what they liked, and how they behaved toward others.

Now imagine the same thing online, except without the confines of a few years and a handful of pictures. If a narrow field of information could reveal so much about people, then the vastness of the net could open up almost anything.
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