I was interviewed for The Psychologst magazine’s Media Page for their April edition for a column about the psychological impact of the Web, and the best practices for communicating research to the general public. The latter is a hot topic in academic circles; part of the application process for grant money is to describe how your work will be disseminated widely, and engage audiences who reside outside the academic Ivory Tower. And, of course, everyone’s keen to know the best way to use the Web.

The article is unfortunately behind a pay wall, available for cash or for British Psychological Association members only (I’m channeling Ben Goldacre here), so you can’t see how what I said relates to the context of the piece. However, I have received permission to post the transcript from my interview. So here you go.

Here’s the interview in its published context.

Regarding your TV series and your PhD thesis, I was wondering what you see as the biggest psychological impact of the internet?

I have the sense that the Web has created a perception amongst its users of hyper-connectivity: that they believe that it is possible to find out information and connect with people in an unprecedented way. Although I don’t fully subscribe to this idea, recognising that in fact people are as likely – if not more likely – to balkanise themselves into small groups of like-minded groups that confirm identity and beliefs, I feel that this sense of Web-user self-efficacy may have a positive impact on global self-esteem. Certainly it seems that the Web has galvanised people to do things,to take action. The feedback loop of constant updates – whether from social networking sites like Facebook, or from the simple abundance of content that is available on the Web – presents a culture of do-ers, rather than consumers.

On the other side of the coin, I believe there is a danger associated with how people choose to present themselves online. Prof. Sherry Turkle’s work in the 1990s documents the Life on the Screen experiences of people who were already engaged in the Web in the early 1990s, describing how participants at that time and in online community environments used these spaces for identity play. As we’ve moved on, and more and more people have become familiar with self-presentation in these spaces, I wonder how active and passive construction of self, embraced in a feedback loop from web-peers, affects the concept of self: is it becoming more fragmented? Self-actualised? What are the effects of the stressors of maintaining an online self that is either consistent or inconsistent with who one feels one is offline? And most importantly, what will happen when online participants realise that their virtual selves are not owned by them, but the companies who’s products they are using? How will this affect the perception of privacy, and what effect will that have on our (individualist, Western) society?

I was wondering what the benefits are of working both as an academic and broadcaster? If there is any advice you could give academics? And what are the benefits of talking to journalists about your scientific work?
This is something I’m almost constantly worrying about. Particularly as a relatively new academic, with an academic reputation to build, I’m very cautious about how I am represented academically in the broadcasting sphere. This has occasionally frustrated the people I’m working with in the media, and has resulted in a few frantic days of script re-writes or long conversations on the phone with sub-editors. I think the conflict can be summed up this way: I have always said that, as an academic, the objective is to pick apart broad, sweeping generalisations when writing and researching, but as a journalist, my job is, often, to make broad, sweeping generalisations. It’s possible to balance the two, but I feel that anyone who chooses to try to balance on this tightrope must tread very carefully.

The benefits, I feel, are manifold, however, which is why I continue to do it. If we as academics insist on keeping our findings within the privileged walls of research, we are failing at our public duty. If we can inspire people by talking about our work in different spheres, exposing the themes and the theories to people who would perhaps otherwise not consider tripping over a line of inquiry, then we’ll welcome new perspectives and new challenges to existing thought. And isn’t that a good reason to pursue academia?

There is a lot of cynicism about talking to journalists because, as I well know, the objective is to get a concise soundbite that will fulfill the agenda of the article, radio programme or tv series (or blog, or podcast). Certainly the nuances of results and analysis are frequently lost in translation. But if the top-line information inspires people to look a little bit deeper, I feel that justifies the risk.

Additionally, there’s a whole new way to communicate science with the public that doesn’t involve traditional journalists: the Web. From a self-publicising point of view, recent research by Gargouri et al (2010) in Computers and Society found that academics who publish their papers and analyses online are more likely to be referenced in peer-reviewed publications than research that isn’t published online. From a public communication of science point of view, this puts the content of research in the hands of the public. A clear win!

With newspapers and TV broadcasters increasing using the internet as multimedia platforms, I was wondering what you consider to be the future benefits for academics? Such as the rise of Web 2.0, web interviews, podcasts etc.
There are two approaches to answering this question. First, the Web offers an exciting new platform to study human social behaviour. I’ve written about this on my blog and for various journal articles and chapters. Briefly, we have access to an enormous dataset of actual human behaviour. It may be computer-mediated, but nonetheless it is a record of decisions that have been made, norms that have emerged, community practices that have formed out of, literally, nothing. Extraordinary. Yet this abundance of plenty is also riddled with ethical questions about how to study, who to study and when it is appropriate and inappropriate to study (to wit, I’m editing a special issue of the International Journal of Internet Research Ethics, and the call for papers is here: http://alekskrotoski.com/post/ijire-call-for-papers-international-journal-of-internet-research).

Second, the Web offers an opportunity for researchers to engage a (non-academic and academic) community in research as it happens, and makes the debates that often go on behind closed doors transparent. This has huge benefit to academics, for the possibilities to discuss, to document and to discover approaches to a research question that may not have been apparent before.