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The depth and limits of words

In my opinion, words are the best “technology” for becoming aware of inner states and communicating them. Words are worth a thousand images. They can be like bridges to our inner world. The Net, for different reasons, discourages prolonged reading and introspection, directing our (scattered) attention toward external inputs only.

Words can bring us a long way toward the expansion of our awareness: however, they are slippery and can’t bring one up to the most elevated levels of consciousness. Furthermore, when words are communicated, they are heavily influenced by the interpretations we superimpose on them, by our cultural beliefs and our individual neuroticisms and conditionings.

Much of the communication industry – the Net included – is based on the rationale that more communication equals more understanding which equals a better world.  This comes from the assumption that ideas, concepts, meanings and feelings can be expressed and transferred by language. This is what has been called “the conduit metaphor” by Michael J. Reddy. According to the conduit metaphor:

Ideas are objects that you can put into words, so that language is seen as a container for ideas, and you send ideas over a conduit, a channel of communication to someone else who then extracts the ideas from the words… One entailment of the conduit metaphor is that the meaning, the ideas, can be extracted and can exist independently of people. Moreover, that in communication, when communication occurs, what happens is that somebody extracts the same object, the same idea, from the language that the speaker put into it. So the conduit metaphor suggests that meaning is a thing and that the hearer pulls out the same meaning from the words and that it can exist independently of beings who understand words (George Lakoff, interviewed by Iain A. Boal, “The Conduit Metaphor,” in James Brook and Iain A. Boal, eds., Resisting the Virtual Life, San Francisco: City Lights, 1995, p. 115).

The reality is that for the conduit metaphor to work we would need to share a very wide set of attributes: the same language, the same interpretation of words, a compatible level of culture, a similar background, a similar kind of sensitivity. So similar that perhaps the real point of communicating by words is actually to get closer to our self-understanding.

The conduit metaphor is what makes us write in blogs and social networks, thinking our message can be sent and “uploaded” to other human beings and will reach them in the way we intended. We don’t actually know about how this message will be interpreted, then we become surprised when there are misunderstandings and when wars get ignited.

The fathers of the digital revolution believed in the power of electronic communication and feedback as a tool for expanding participation and even consciousness. The origins of the conduit metaphor lie in the belief that we can separate information from the person who receives it. We consider “pure” information as something we can separate from the “noise” of our interpretations and feelings. It is the Cartesian dream of separating pure thoughts from the person in his wholeness, misplacing knowledge and information for the transformation of human qualities for the better.

As far as day-to-day work is concerned, language is useful, but you cannot move into the deeper realms with it, because these realms are nonverbal. Language is just a game…The meaning of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel is that the moment you speak, you are divided. The story is not that people began to speak different languages but, that they began to speak at all. The moment you speak, there is confusion. The moment you utter something, you are divided. Only silence is one. (Osho, The Psychology of the Esoteric, Cologne: Rebel Publishing House, pp. 57 and 60).

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Belonging 2.0

Several news sites recently reported that British Airways is asking its staff to work for free up to a month in order to cut the company’s costs. Such news would have been unbelievable just a few years ago. Here in Europe, having a solid trade union tradition, such a proposal would have been mocked as something suitable at most for Japanese people who are willing to sacrifice for their company.

But this is the brave  new world of 2.0 where we are becoming more and more eager to participate and contribute. We are not only viewers anymore, but actors in the society of the spectacle. On the Net, we feed social networks with our “user-generated content” and help companies to advertise their products. “More than four in five bloggers post product or brand reviews, and blog about brands they love or hate,” according to the State of the Blogosphere 2008.

To feel a sense of belonging and to contribute to our community is an authentic human need which gets exploited by companies. It is easy to obtain: first, real communities have been impoverished by a massified urban living – family members themselves have been isolated by TV, video games and other media, and individuals have been relegated to an indoor life connecting with each other mainly through the Internet.

In such a condition, our sense of belonging can easily slip to social networks, companies and brands which don’t actually care about us, apart from being instruments of promotion and sites-filling.

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After a Few Months on Facebook

After a series of resistances to Facebook I experimented with the social network in the last few months. The first resistance was about presenting a “self” of mine, the same for all people in my friends’ list. This created some perplexity for me. I like the variety of human beings and have always mixed with people of the most variety: adventurers, hippies, artists, travelers, therapists, entrepreneurs, scholars, rich, poor and creative mixes of those natures. My self, being composed of a mix of different personalities, tends to show different facets of my nature where these can find correspondence. Inevitably, this creates more intimate and personalized relationships but at the same time they are limited by a subset of our personality.

With Facebook and the public profile which widely embraces our personality, I was afraid of not being recognized “for what I am” by some individuals. It reminded me of One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, the latest novel and a masterpiece of Luigi Pirandello. Basically we are “One,” but for the majority of people we are not “No One,” while in front of the multitude of people who know us, we are “One Hundred Thousand.” We are a different person in the eyes of each person. Without going to the spiritual level where we can say that actually all of us are “nobody” and “everything” at the same time, remaining on the levels of the personality construction and object relationships, Facebook is an interesting experiment.

On the Net we are often anonymous in many spheres: in our Web surfing, in social networks and in forums, we mostly use identities which do not identify us precisely. Facebook is an attempt to reunify the various personalities and to give a center of consciousness to the fragmentation of the online personality. It is an attempt to overcome – even though limited to the digital area – the various object relationships. Facebook can represent an evolution of the adolescent search of one’s own personality, a stage when there are attempts to give ourselves an identity through experimenting with life and people and often hiding behind anonymity.

So, here I am with my “real me” on Facebook, the same in front of everybody, unifying the pieces of my history and therefore the pieces of my psyche. What will it be like, this public “me”? As a lowest common multiple where my relationships and human qualities can be creatively expanded through sharing with friends, or will it be as a highest common factor where only the common qualites will be kept, the ones which most people can accept? It seemed to me sometimes the former at other times the latter.

When in the offline community human relationships are evermore distant and formalized, where almost the whole territory has been turned into a cement jungle, where non-commercial places for meeting are becoming rare, where the time for real meetings itself becomes absorbed more and more by technological gadgets, Facebook has arrived to the rescue for helping us to find again the sense of belonging and to keep in touch in contact with people.

The first thing which struck me was that Facebook proposed to me to update my status writing in the third person: “Ivo…,” which I could have completed with “has gone to the beach,” “has had lunch with friends,” “is writing an article,” etc. We write this way in the perspective of others, to be seen and read. The third person has a double function. From the one hand to present oneself in the third person supports the inner observation. The very fact of presenting oneself from the point of view of others helps the awareness of ourselves. On the other hand, speaking in the third person can feed the ego even further, maybe for the very fact that in speaking of ourselves we are feeding an attention which is not that of inner observation, but that of the ravenous ego to be seen and recognized.

After a couple of months the initial proposal became, “What’s on your mind?” Facebook is giving more importance to the “Twitter-like” functions, stimulating the flow of daily messages almost in real time. The way of meditation is to let the thoughts pass by, not becoming attached to them. After years of working on myself, one of the few things I have learnt is that the mind excretes thoughts continuously, that the vast majority of them are not interesting and most of them do not even belong to us. Most thoughts present themselves in the form of conditionings and repeating others’ words and thoughts, with few variations on the theme. Now that I start to attach less to my thoughts, letting them flow with a certain indifference, here comes Facebook which elevates them to the “news of the day” ranking. Well…

Anyway, I played around a bit with Facebook, wrote some notes, gave links and uploaded photos of my travels. Once I was on a tropical island, taking pictures and thinking of how I would have presented them on Facebook. Instead of living the situation totally, I was thinking of how to picture it and how to present it inside a media, moving away from the direct experience on many levels. Even the mind which interferes is a part of the totality of experience and I accept it with great pleasure, but when it exaggerates, I put it aside in a corner.

I remember when I was a child and when something interesting was happening, sometimes the adults would tell me, “Oh…think of when you’ll tell this to your friends (or at home).” It used to make me mad because it got me out of the flow, whether I was playing or watching a show. For many years I did not take pictures of my trips and in some way if I have started doing it since the last few years, it is also due to the pressure of sharing them through the Internet.

Every time I connect to Facebook I browse the flow of my friends’ updates. There are those who write several notes in a day, those who seldom write, there are funny or serious appeals, a female friend of mine writes, “Something is dying inside….”If she writes it in a public way it is a desire for sharing, but it is strange to see this message running with dozens of other signals mostly ordinary and often banal. I know something about this friend’s life; it wouldn’t be appropriate to reply in public for asking further details but at the same time I would not want to use Facebook as a platform email for sending a personal message. In this manner we enter Facebook for continuing a talk which can happen much more easily through ordinary email. I choose not to send any comment or message in Facebook, reserving myself for communication with her in other ways (by Internet, through IM or email because we live in different nations). I also ask myself if I am avoiding deeper contact, being in my turn taken over by the avalanche of superficiality.

Using Facebook I tend to decrease individual contact. More than communicating I found that I was broadcasting, transmitting to an audience. Almost every day the audience increases, the number of friends expands. The effect is seductive and gratifying for the ego, but it is a different thing to communicate to a public rather than to a single person. With each of them there is a unique story and a unique relationship. Of course, it is possible to send personalized messages by Facebook too but for this purpose a mailer program is better, while the structure of Facebook gives more emphasis to broadcasting. As a mailer I use Eudora, an old software, but still functional and “ecological,” which works even with a slow Internet connection or through a mobile phone connection. Differently, it is almost impossible to open Facebook pages with a connection which is not ADSL to send just a private message.

I have noticed that after about 50 “friends” the flow of messages becomes such that it leads to loss of sense and value. I tend to scroll the messages with the mouse as if they were newspaper items. As when in some countries everybody is hooting on the road, the meaning of the signal gets lost, hearing gets anesthetized and it becomes only a background. McLuhan had noticed how technologies and the media become as much an extension as an amputation of the body/mind’s faculties.

The nature of the mind is such that after some time it erases any interest; through the repetition of the stimulus less attention is given to the same type of input. The mind chases novelties. The same happens to me with the feed of the blog I read. As soon as a blog has been discovered I follow its articles with interest, then tend to look through them quickly. I would not want to “evaporate” my friends’ messages in the same way.

Giving news regarding myself on Facebook makes me become lazier and having an excuse for not contacting people personally. And what about those who aren’t on Facebook? Most of my friends are not on Facebook and sometimes they do not even use the Internet. Since there is a limit to the time which one can dedicate to communications, those inevitably get penalized.

The really important news of my friends, including those who are on Facebook, anyway did not come through Facebook: they reached me by direct contact, on the phone or by email. In any case I’ll play the game of Facebook more, but I could decide to stop at any moment by sending a note to my contacts. Apart from the above-mentioned reason, it would be enough for me not to be connected to a fast Internet line for some time to make me lose the will to wait for minutes for looking through mostly banalities, with all the respect I have for my friends.

Facebook undoubtedly is the best engineered social network site, nevertheless I foresee the fall of its popularity as it has happened with other very popular sites such as Second Life or MySpace. Facebook will be more persistent than the others because it is linked to people we know in real life. But as the mind has constructed the game of Facebook, the mind will dismantle it. The mind loses interest about everything, especially if something remains only on the mental plane. Facebook’s strength consists in being a bridge between the purely mental world and the world of real relationships. In this reciprocal exchange between the virtual and the real on one hand some virtual meetings can be “real-ized” but on the other hand real people can be “virtualized,” reducing them in our psyche to a small icon and a flow of bytes which scroll on the screen. Similarly, various appeals and different causes risk counting in the real world as much as a discussion between prisoners during the air hour.

All of what I have written was without considering the problems connected to privacy – which would be an alarming separate chapter.

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Social networking and instant fulfillment

Dali Soft Watches[en]

The New York Times’s article Is Social Networking Killing You? quotes the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield telling the Daily Mail about social networking:

My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.

I already wrote about her in No identity and I appreciate her efforts in advising people about the inner transformations caused by technology.

When, in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the governor asked youths if they never faced a difficulty which couldn’t be overcome and had to endure a long time between a desire and its fulfillment, after some silence (during which the director started to become nervous while waiting), one of them confessed that once he had to wait almost four weeks before a woman whom he was attracted to conceded herself to him. The strong feeling associated with the waiting was “horrible” according both to the youngster and the governor, which the latter added that our ancient people were so stupid that, when the first reformers came to save them from those horrible feelings, they would reject them.

In Huxley’s Brave New World people were conditioned even before being born and life was engineered in such a way that every desire was satisfied in a short time. In case of unpleasurable feelings, there was soma, the perfect drug with no side effects.

The whole world of technologies revolves around avoiding idle time and silence. Waiting became equivalent to frustration and efficiency and speed are the qualities most cherished in technological fields. Internet technology brought the tendency to speed to new levels, which was already present in traditional media like radio or TV, where pauses or silences are consciously avoided. I don’t have a TV since a long time, but in the rare cases I do see it, I notice a progressive acceleration in editing and switches of context, with a drive to avoid vacant spaces, short though they may be.

The Internet experience, even though interactive, is even more extreme in this trend. Our attention is split between different applications which produce much input and flow of information which interact faster and faster with our clicks.

But the most fulfilling human experiences need a certain time to be internalized. To enter the flow of a dance, in making love and in meditation, time is needed. Looking for instant fulfillment is a childish peculiarity. The ability to hold and feel frustration is a gym to bring awareness to our feelings and to create a bigger container for them.

In one spiritual workshop I experienced the association between the activation of the shakti energy of kundalini and frustration. The activation of energy is modulated by the capacity to feel frustration and, staying in it without acting it out to discharge it.

In a certain way, meditation itself is an exercise in acceptance and awareness of frustration. There are few things as frustrating as sitting without doing anything and observing thoughts arising, sometimes trivial or boring, at other times associated with impatience or with feelings difficult to hold. Ecstatic states can be achieved during meditation as well, but, usually after that, some inner knots get melted in the form of awareness.

Technologies avoid reflective time and tend to minimize the gaps between a want and its fulfillment, causing irritation when there isn’t a quick response to our inputs, feeding the persistance of a childish attitude toward reality this way.

However, the quest for a null gap between a desire and its fulfillment reminds me of the condition described by spiritually realized people who, living in the “here and now,” don’t have any separation between what the mind desires and reality. There is a synchronization with reality, where the mind doesn’t filter any more what should be from what we want. Since there isn’t anybody any more who wants anything, the alignment with reality is total. Those states are not exclusive for enlightened people, but everybody gets a glance of them, even though for a short time. Somehow, looking for evermore speed at a technological level shows the need, limited to the mind’s plane, to enter the continuous flux which cancels frustration and desires themselves.

Anyway, on the mind’s plane, for as much as we can reach more speed (and if fact is the goal of most technological development), frustration is not going to disappear: rather, the quest for fulfillment becomes evermore greedy in a mechanism which reminds one of addiction. The mind, in itself, won’t ever have enough desires, information, or speed. Somehow the mind looks for the liberation of the desires/frustration couple, seeking immediate fulfillment, but finds instead reiteration and their multiplication.

See also:

Information Dopaminated

Taking away attention

Disembodying at broadband speed

Computer addiction as survival for the ego

Multitasking to nothing

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L’articolo del New York Times Is Social Networking Killing You? cita le parole della neuroscienziata Susan Greenfield al Daily Mail a riguardo dei social network:

Il mio timore è che queste tecnologie portano ad un’infantilizzazione del cervello in uno stato simile a quello dei bambini piccoli che vengono attratti da ronzii e da luci brillanti, con una scarsa capacità di concentrazione e che vivono al momento.

Avevo già scritto a riguardo della Greenfield in Senza identità ed apprezzo i suoi sforzi nel mettere in guardia sulle trasformazioni interiori causate dalla tecnologia.

Quando, ne Il mondo nuovo di Aldous Huxley, il governatore chiese ai giovani se non avessero mai incontrato un ostacolo insormontabile e subire un  lungo intervallo di tempo tra la coscienza di un desiderio e il suo compimento, dopo un certo silenzio (durante il quale il direttore iniziò ad innervosirsi per l’attesa) uno dei giovani disse” Una volta dovetti attendere quasi quattro settimane prima che una ragazza ch’io desideravo mi si concedesse”. Il governatore quindi chiese “E avete provato, di conseguenza, una forte emozione?” “Orribile!” disse il ragazzo. “Orribile; precisamente” disse il Governatore. “I nostri antichi erano talmente stupidi e corti di vista che, quando vennero i primi riformatori e si offersero di salvarli da quelle orribili emozioni, non vollero aver niente a che fare con essi.”

Ne Il mondo nuovo di Huxley le persone vengono condizionate già prima della nascita e la vita era congegnata in modo che ogni desiderio venisse soddisfatto in tempi brevi. In caso di emozioni spiacevoli c’era a disposizione il soma, la droga perfetta senza effetti collaterali.

Tutto il mondo delle tecnologie è fatto per evitare i tempi morti e il silenzio. Attendere è diventato equivalente a provare frustrazione e la rincorsa all’efficienza e alla velocità sono le qualità più apprezzate in campo tecnologico. La tecnologia di Internet ha portato la tendenza alla velocità a nuovi livelli, già presente nei media tradizionali quali la radio o la televisione, dove vengono evitati  accuratamente le pause ed il silenzio. Pur non possedendo la televisione da tempo, nelle poche volte che mi capita di vederla noto un’accelerazione progressiva nell’editing e nei cambi di contesto, manifestando una volontà di evitare pause e vuoti, per quanto brevi siano.

L’esperienza su Internet, pur se interattiva, è ancora più esasperata in questa direzione. La nostra attenzione è divisa tra diverse applicazioni le quali producono parecchi input e flussi informativi che interagiscono sempre più velocemente con i nostri clic.

Ma le esperienze umane più appaganti richiedono un certo tempo per essere interiorizzate. Per entrare nel flusso della danza, del fare l’amore e della meditazione ci vuole tempo. La ricerca dell’appagamento immediato è una caratteristica infantile. La capacità di contenere e sentire la frustrazione è una palestra per portare consapevolezza alle nostre emozioni e per creare un contenitore sempre più ampio per queste.

In un workshop spirituale ho fatto esperienza dell’associazione tra l’attivazione dell’energia shakti della kundalini e la frustrazione. L’attivazione dell’energia viene modulata dalla capacità di percepire la frustrazione e di stare con questa senza agirla o senza scaricarla.

In un certo senso, la meditazione stessa è un esercizio di accettazione e di consapevolezza della frustrazione. Ci sono poche cose altrettanto frustranti che sedere senza far nulla ed osservare pensieri che emergono, talvolta banali e noiosi, altre volte accompagnati da impazienza o da emozioni difficili da contenere. In meditazione possono giungere anche stati estatici, ma solitamente dopo che si sciolgono alcuni nodi interiori al fuoco della consapevolezza.

Le tecnologie ci evitano ogni pausa di riflessione e tendono a minimizzare gli intervalli tra un desiderio e la sua soddisfazione, causandoci irritazione quando non c’è una risposta rapida ai nostri input, alimentando così il perdurare di un’attitudine immatura verso la realtà.

Ma la ricerca di un intervallo nullo tra un desiderio e il suo appagamento mi ricorda la condizione descritta dagli individui spiritualmente realizzati i quali vivendo nel “qui e ora” non hanno la separazione tra ciò che desidera la mente e la realtà. Ci si “sincronizza” con la realtà dove la mente non filtra ciò che è da ciò che dovrebbe essere, ciò che è da ciò che si vuole. Non essendoci più nessuno che vuole alcunché, l’allineamento con la realtà è totale. Questi stati non sono esclusiva di un illuminati, ma chiunque ne ha fatto esperienza, seppur per un breve tempo. In qualche modo la ricerca di velocità sempre maggiore a livello tecnologico manifesta il bisogno, limitato al piano della mente, di entrare nel flusso continuo che annulla la frustrazione e i desideri stessi.

Tuttavia sul piano della mente, per quanto si possa raggiungere velocità sempre maggiori (e di fatto è lo scopo della maggior parte dello sviluppo tecnologico), la frustrazione non è destinata a sparire, anzi, la ricerca di soddisfacimento diventa sempre più famelica in un meccanismo che ricorda la dipendenza. La mente, in sé, non ne avrà mai a sufficienza di desideri, informazioni, velocità. In qualche modo la mnete cerca la liberazione dall’accoppiata desideri/frustrazione cercandone la soddisfazione immediata ma trova invece la reiterazione e la moltiplicazione degli stessi.

Vedi anche:

Dopaminati di informazioni

La cattura dell’attenzione

Rendendoci incorporei a velocità di banda larga

La dipendenza da computer per la sopravvivenza dell’ego

Il multitasking: strafare per niente

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Bioenergetic bytes

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Ronald David Laing was a controversial psychiatrist, often associated with the anti-psychiatrist movement. He combined existential philosophy with psychiatry, giving new perspectives on the nature of mental illness.

In his most-known book, The Divided Self, he describes the schizoid person in these terms.

The schizoid individual exists under the black sun, the evil eye, of his own scrutiny…The “self-conscious” person is caught in a dilemma. He may need to be seen and recognized, in order to maintain his sense of realness and identity. Yet, at the same time, the other represents a threat to his identity and reality…He is, therefore, driven compulsively to seek company, but never allows himself to “be himself” in the presence of anyone else…The self is related primarily to objects of his own fantasies. Being much a self-in-fantasy, it becomes eventually volatilized. In its dread of facing the commitment to the objective element, it sought to preserve its identity; but, no longer anchored to fact, to the conditioned and definitive, it comes to be in danger of losing what it was seeking above all to safeguard. Losing the conditioned, it loses its identity; losing reality, it loses its possibility of exercising freedom of choice in the world (Ronald David Laing, The Divided Self, London: Tavistock Publications, 1959).

Laing thought as well that our inner lives and feelings come mainly from our sense of connection with others and from the knowledge that others have about us. Without this, we suffer from an existential insecurity.

In Laing’s words, I can recognize the attitude of another kind of schizoid: the heavy Internet user, who needs to be connected and seen, through social networks and messaging systems, but up to a certain point, at a safe distance. His profile itself and the people he is connected to are mostly objects of his projections. He will introduce himself in order to be seen by others in a likable and acceptable way.

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Ronald David Laing era uno psichiatra controverso. Spesso è stato associata al movimento dell’antipsichiatria e combinava la filosofia esistenziale con la psichiatria, dando nuove prospettive alla natura della malattia mentale.

Nel suo libro più conosciuto, L’io diviso, descrive la persona schizoide in questi termini:

Lo schizoide vive continuamente sotto un sole nero: l’occhio malevole e scrutatore di se stesso. […] La persona “cosciente” di sé si trova in un dilemma. Ha bisogno di essere vista e riconosciuta, per poter conservare il senso della sua identità e della sua realtà; e al tempo stesso gli altri rappresentano un pericolo, proprio per tale realtà e identità. […] Perciò è costretto a cercare compagnia, ma non si lascia mai andare ad essere se stesso in presenza di altri. […] Le relazioni primarie di un io come questo riguardano gli oggetti delle sue stesse fantasie: questa è la ragione per cui alla fine esso si volatizza. Nel suo timore di affrontare con impegno l’elemento oggettivo esso lotta disperatamente per conservare la sua identità, ma non essendo più ancorato ai fatti, alla realtà contingente e definita, corre il rischio di perdere proprio ciò che soprattutto cercava di salvaguardare. Perdendo la dimensione contingente della realtà perde l’identità, e perdendo la realtà perde la possibilità di esercitare un’effettiva libertà di scelta nel mondo. (Ronald David Laing. L’io diviso. Einaudi. Torino. 1969.)

Inoltre Laing riteneva che la nostra vita interiore e le nostre emozioni derivano in grande misura dal senso di connessione che abbiamo con gli altri e dalla conoscenza che gli altri hanno di noi stessi. Senza di queste soffriamo di un’insicurezza esistenziale.

Nelle parole di Laing posso riconoscere l’attitudine di un altro tipo di schizoide: il forte utilizzatore di Internet, che necessita di essere connesso e visto, tramite i social networks ed i sistemi di messaggistica, ma connesso fino ad un certo punto, ad una distanza di sicurezza. I profili che tale utente compila nei siti e le persone con cui si connette sono più che altro produzione delle sue proiezioni. Egli si presenterà in modo tale da essere visto agli occhi altrui nel modo in cui ritiene di essere accettato e allettante.

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