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Talks with localized foreigners, outsiders on the inside, hybrid characters of all kinds and people engaged in work that matters to global citizens and identity adventurers. Suggest a person for us to interview (or grill someone yourself and share it with us)!

Today we’re diving deep with Sweden-based Internet media theorist Leon Tan, PhD., who is also a psychotherapist with an online private practice. Born in Singapore and trained in New Zealand, his interests include ‘mixed reality’, globalization and cultural theory.

We discovered the debonaire doctor on Twitter, exploring a most modern zone of culture clash: where virtuality meets what many insist is “real life”. Since he’s a mental health pro, he’s particularly interested in how we can become our best selves in this rewired network.

TRUTH ABOUT OUR PURSUITS Sample Leon Tan tweet: “in what way is spending all day in World of Warcraft any worse than spending all day in an unstimulating heavily routinized job?”

e+H: Leon, thanks for joining us today. Besides your therapeutic work online with individuals, you also consult organizations which want to establish online mental health services?

Yes, organizations and universities. I’m also developing a hybrid online therapy system combining writing therapy programs with access to online therapists.

e+H: Besides location independence — the client and therapist don’t have to be close to each other — what’s the main benefit of online therapy over the regular kind? What’s the danger?

Online therapy is simply a way of engaging in therapeutic conversations. Its benefits include relative anonymity (one does not need to be seen in public walking into a clinic or mental health agency) and flexibility (sessions may be arranged at times outside 9-to-5 workdays).

Dangers include the possibility of misunderstandings, especially for people with little experience in communicating and interacting online, technological failures, and privacy breaches resulting from malicious attacks or carelessness on the part of practitioners and clients.

e+H: I imagine people on the move or living in far-flung places might appreciate online psych help. How can we tell if it’s the right decision?

In a recent post I wrote about considering online therapy. Here’s the Australian government’s take.

IS VIRTUAL LIFE REAL? e+H: How did you become intrigued by the virtual vs. the actual?

As a result of my interest in the opportunities and risks posed by the Internet’s virtual spaces and networks, I became interested in French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s virtual philosophy.

It’s common to find bizarre and naïve ideas that deny virtual entities the status of reality.

For example, this one psychologist seems to believe that online therapy (and online experiences) are only ‘simulations’ of reality. Health professionals in policy circles fear young people are ‘losing’ themselves in (or worse, becoming ‘addicted’ to) unreal virtual worlds, at the expense of their actual lives.

I think such ideas are moral panic — to protect the status quo by demonizing practitioners of new social orders.

CREATING A NEW SOCIAL ORDER e+H: So you’re saying the networked lives (like we love to create here at expat+HAREM!) are entirely real.

Yes, as are the virtual components of those lives: linguistic, visual and aural ideas and memories. While aspects of networked life may be simulation, the simulation is in fact realer than real if “simulation is a process that produces the real.”

e+H: I recall reading about the benefits of facing real life fears in an online world, with Second Life. Where did the idea come from that Internet-enabled social interaction is somehow unreal?

That argument is based largely on the conflation of real with actual. Virtuals are separate, and seen as lacking material substance.

One source is an influential work of 1994 which proposed a virtuality continuum which opposes virtual to real, implying that things taking place in virtual environments are unreal. The continuum of Milgram and Kishino has been cited over 800 times in academic literature.

Years earlier Deleuze had argued the virtual is not opposed to the real, but to the actual.

A mixed reality continuum is defined by actual environments on one hand, and virtual environments on the other. Everything is entirely real.

IS SOCIAL MEDIA AN INTERNET BUBBLE OF LOW-QUALITY CONNECTIONS? e+H: What do you think of the warning that social networking produces what Umair Haque calls “thin relationships”?

If ‘thin’ refers to relationships that are lacking in ‘mutual investment,’ we can find examples both online and offline. Casual interactions with bureaucratic functionaries or with salespeople, for instance. In the article you link, Haque’s thin relationships are based on ‘weak, artificial connections,’ which raises the question of what we can consider ‘natural’ as opposed to ‘artificial’ connections.

Online or offline, we’re inevitably investing our social relations with desire and memories, making the relations entirely real. Besides, there is also a role for both strong and weak ties. It’s not as though we are going to become best friends or lovers with absolutely everyone we encounter in life.

This particular article seems to lack insight about the multiplicity of different relationships made possible by the Internet. Consider instead Digital Diasporas, a 2009 book which shows how diasporans and their home and host communities are deriving a great deal of value from social interactions online.

For many, the online space has become extremely important in the absence of an actual ‘homeland.’

FUTURE OF HEIGHTENED CONNECTION + RELEVANCE e+H: Many of us find our cyber interactions are often closer to what we hope for than those we experience in actual life. How do you envision this playing out in the future?

Networked life makes possible all sorts of connections that were not previously possible (or at least were difficult to come by) in actual locales.

Individuals with relatively obscure lifestyle interests have been able to meet others with similar interests located in different parts of the world, leading to what I’m calling mixed reality or networked communities.

Then there is the so-called ‘online disinhibition effect’. Individuals loosen up and experiment more with their expressive and creative capacities. Social interactions may be richer and intimacy building more rapid. It may also lead to complications where we reveal too much too soon.

It’s been observed people used to the public lifestyles of online social networks think differently not only about politics and public affairs, but also about the more intimate social relations of everyday life.

We’ll need to cultivate ‘network intelligence’. Emotional and social intelligence. Skill in producing and managing multiple identities (one for every context and relationship).

We’ll also need to develop sensitivity to and literacy in network and media effects.

BECOMING YOUR BEST SELF, ONLINE e+H: Leon, thanks for spending some time with expat+HAREM — it’s been realer than real! Now a question for our readers — how are you becoming your best self online?

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  • http://about.me/anastasia.ashman Anastasia

    I keep coming back to this interview — it’s so much in the news these days with the lessons coming out of the Amina hoax, the Anthony Weiner Twitter scandal and the debate about whether or not social media is harming our children, our communities — our brains!

    In this Washington Post article one of the lessons is “develop network literacy”. That’s what Leon mentions at the end, about cultivating network intelligence.  Figuring out how to identity and use info you come by through online networks. Being less dupe-able when someone sends you a faked video. Knowing when you’re being marketed to.

    See this week’s social media vs. sociability debate between sociotechnologists and the outgoing exec editor of the New York Times.

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  • http://www.google.com/profiles/tara.agacayak Tara

    Incredibly fascinating.

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  • http://twitter.com/ajpapeLA A.J. Pape

    Outstanding conversation, thank you both!

  • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine Bayar

    Late to the conversation, but thank you for this insightful interview, Anastasia and Leon. I love the “actual vs virtual” continuum and appreciate that visual – I’ve intuited that for quite some time without putting it into words. They ARE both real. How did I know that I had ‘real’ relationships with those here on expat+HAREM, for instance? When I’ve been able to meet them in ‘actual’ life, we’ve picked up our conversations just like I would have with any actual close friend I’d not seen for ages, though these friends I’d never met face to face before. The lack of being in the same physical place prior did not hinder us being in the same intellectual and emotional place in our many conversations on this site.

    That I can indeed express myself with far less reserve here than in actual groups of less ‘connected’ people is of very real value to me. Perhaps there is the danger of only seeking out those who are like-minded online, but we do that in actual life anyway. The Internet removes boundaries and lets me connect with people around the globe. As someone who moved half a planet away from family and friends a decade ago, having these connections, whether virtual or actual, has kept me out of therapy (though I love the online possibility!)

    with whom I’ve been able to express opinions that never may have been voiced in the actual world?

    • http://twitter.com/hyblis Hyblis

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment Catherine. That’s an interesting observation, and I suspect there’s much truth in that… those who are able to create vital networks around themselves, to find themselves in ‘self-healing’ communities so to speak, are inevitably more resilient to stress and trauma than those without those connections. It’s an area I am very interested in… how we are helping each other to heal, rather than simply depending on meager rations of mental health care doled out by insurance companies or government agencies.

  • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

    Thanks again for this Leon! These issues are so much in the news this week, with Malcolm Gladwell’s contentious take in the NEW YORKER — “why the revolution will not be tweeted”– on social media activism, and the release of the Facebook-movie THE SOCIAL NETWORK. A review of the film notes what the ‘digital native’ reviewer sees as the filmmakers’ (old media) disdain of new media — the writer and director have never used Facebook! — and references the very real emotional value an Eritrean cab driver in Washington DC derives from the site and its ability to put him in touch with his friends lost during the Eritrean-Ethiopian war. The digital diaspora you mention. This reviewer, a ‘digital native’, doesn’t think the Internet is bad or good, it just is a reality…and “there’s a fluidity between our offline and online identities”. All real.

  • http://twitter.com/normanviss Norman Viss

    I did some research into the scientific basis for online coaching/therapy.
    Read the paper here: http://www.isolatedinternationals.com/uncategorized/isolation/

    One of the biggest eyeopeners of the last year for me has been the capacity of online communities to promote and foster real relationships.

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Norman, will you be posting that research online in whole or part? Bet more people would read it. That link downloads something to my computer without warning…

    • http://twitter.com/hyblis Hyblis

      Thanks for your paper Norman, I have been following Interapy’s work for some time, and have been especially interested in the use of writing as therapy, given that that is what so many of us spend so much time doing online, writing that is… I think there are many potentials that are still to be explored in the area of online mental health, would love to hear more of your ideas…

  • http://twitter.com/hyblis Hyblis

    Hi Lisa,

    Great to hear some feedback and that it rings true for you. That’s exactly right, everything is real, and its a distraction to attempt to ‘police’ this line between. What I think is challenging and exciting about the Internet is the way in which it allows a diversity of opinions and feelings to COEXIST, whereas in actual locales, the voices and faces of ‘small-scale’ social actors like you and me are often relegated to the sidelines if not entirely repressed by the voices and faces of ‘large-scale’ hierarchical actors such as government agencies and corporations – think of the homogenizing effect of major newspapers on public opinion for example.

    I very much like what you say about experimenting and mixing things up… as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze says, ‘Jamais interprete, experimente!’ (Never interpret, experiment!) At the same time, experiments must be done with caution and a sensitivity to the life experiments of those around us.

    Cheers!

  • http://twitter.com/lisahickey lisahickey

    So much of this interview rings true to me. “Everything is real” — it makes it so much *easier* than trying to find that darn line. And it makes me think about all the “thin” connections in life — I was going to say IRL — in real life, but I much prefer the notion everything’s in real life. You’re right — should I somehow say that the interaction I have with the cashier is more “real” than a heated debate over values that I have online? Of course not!

    I also agree that — from a personal standpoint — social networks give me a chance to “experiment more with expressive and creative capacities.” For most of my life, I’ve been afraid that everything I say would somehow be “wrong”. And then I found out — I was right. No matter what I say, someone, somewhere thinks it’s “wrong”. How great is that! I can be wrong, and the sky doesn’t fall! Amazing! So now, experiment with communication styles that supports my values — I try to be thoughtful, kind, clear, creative and with humor and insight — and to mix up the way those particular values come across.

    • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine Bayar

      Great observation, Lisa – like an old merchandiser of mine used to tell me when no matter what we did, we did failed to please the out-of-touch owner: “No? It’s all wrong? Great – so we’re free to do whatever we like!” We learned to ignore the naysayer, pushed ourselves to do our best for the customer – and listening to our best instincts worked.

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