Episode 332 – Dark Social with Ian MacRae

Ian MacRaeThe internet is a funny old place. Most of us can’t live (or certainly work) without it, and our online relationships and conversations are just as real and valuable as those we have offline. But we’re complex beings with lots going on under the surface, and the internet is no different. 

Psychologist Ian MacRae is fascinated by the ‘dark’ side of online – the ‘unconscious of the internet’ – and how we can use a more nuanced understanding of that to better inform our online lives. 

He also has some wise words on how to go about pulling complex ideas and vast quantities of research into a readable book – even when it means creating a volume of untold stories as a byproduct… 



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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Ian MacRae, who is a psychologist who’s developed workplace psychometric assessments that have been used by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. He’s also the author of six books, the latest, Dark Social: Understanding the dark side of personality, work and social media, was described as ‘prescient’ in a review by The Financial Times, and won the People, Culture and Management Category at the Business Book Awards 2022 where I saw you briefly, didn’t I? So it’s good to have you on the show.

Ian MacRae: Yes, thanks for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

Alison Jones: It’s great to have you, and let’s just talk about that night and that moment when your name was called, what was that all like?

Ian MacRae: Yes, it was really exciting. It was a bit overwhelming because I hadn’t been at a big event or seen most of those people for almost two years. I hadn’t seen my publisher or editor since I signed the book deal in January of 2020. So the whole experience was very fun, a bit overwhelming. But yes, really enjoyable.

Alison Jones: Yes, it is extraordinary isn’t it? Just that it feels now as though, you know, we’re back in the room, it it’s all happening, but there was just that first few events. Extraordinary.

Ian MacRae: It was all very strange, especially for, I mean, after writing a book about communication and digital communication and how there’s a lot of similarities, it’s interesting when you’re actually in a room, how you see, okay, this is a different experience. It’s slightly different relationships. Everything has a different dynamic, which is actually great.

I was surprised at how happy I was to get back to seeing people

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because it felt fine, not fine, but it was okay. You were just, you’re doing online, like we are now, it’s fine. And then you get in a room with people and the quality of it is so different.

Ian MacRae: Yes, it’s just impossible to replicate. Yes.

Alison Jones: Yes, and actually it’s interesting because you talk in the book about how ‘online only’ communication kind of facilitates or exacerbates some of the sort of darker aspects of workplace communication and bullying and so on.

So I do, I want to come onto that in a minute, but I think before we go into specifics, I mean, Dark Social is a really interesting weighty sort of textured phrase. Just tell me a little bit about it and also the breadth of it because it isn’t just about social media at all, is it?

Ian MacRae: No, I actually had fun with that title and I had wanted to have a few kind of layers of meaning that we could talk about in the book. Because I think the standard meaning of dark social is a marketing term is basically all of the activity that happens on social media that you can’t see. It’s not visible, it’s dark because it’s hidden, it’s shadowed, whatever, but that’s not necessarily dark is in destructive or evil or malicious.

It’s one on one messages. Yes, it’s WhatsApp messages. It’s Slack messages. It’s just everything you can’t find on Google basically. But there is that layer of what happens under the surface that you can’t see. Most of it is fine, it’s harmless, it’s day to day stuff, but there is that dark element of it.

And the interesting thing about that too, is it’s almost like the unconscious of the internet, right? Like in our brains, there’s, you know, a percentage of our own emotions, our own behavioral understanding of ourself that we can see, but there is a big unconscious element, that we don’t always know what’s happening or, you know, what kind of chemicals and biochemical processes are regulating the way we’re thinking, acting and feeling.

But that kind of happens in the internet too, in different ways because there’s billions of people communicating with each other, all online. Some of it we can see, some of it’s very obvious behaviour, but all sorts of stuff underlying what’s going on on social media, in the news, all of that stuff that we can’t necessarily see or access or understand in a really obvious way.

So I think there’s those kind of layers that we have to peel back and understand, or at least have some insight into what’s going on if we’re using digital communication tools, social media in our day to day lives, with our family, with our work and understanding everything that’s going on there, because it does have an effect on us.

Like the virtual world is very real, that communication, those relationships, those interactions do profoundly affect us in our day to day lives. And you know, how we think about ourselves and our relationships with other people.

So, exploring the levels of that I think is really interesting. And, at this point in everyone’s kind of working lives is essential.

Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. And oh, so much there to dig into.

So firstly, just to notice your point about the fact that there’s so much going on that we don’t see and it really struck me the bit when you were talking about breaking down the percentage of people who are active on social media and the percentage that you actually see, and you draw an impression, you know, everybody’s saying this, everybody thinks that, you know, this is going to, you can make sort of what feel like really confident predictions about how people are going to vote or behave.

And it’s nonsense, because you’re seeing a tiny, tiny fraction of the people out there. And then you’re only seeing the people whose views align with yours, typically. So I thought that was really interesting.

Ian MacRae: Yes, exactly. It’s a very small percentage of people who are creating most of the content on social media. And most people are passive observers, so you don’t necessarily know what their reactions are to it, even if you’re getting clicks or likes or something, you don’t necessarily know if people are agreeing with that or they’re just saving it for later or, you know, what their response is to that.

So we have to be very careful about building profile, especially of whole nations or countries or groups of people, based on what we see online. And it’s interesting too, because that data is getting less reliable. So I remember reading the research about 10 years ago on what you could predict or what you could tell about people’s attitudes from social media.

And one of the assumptions at the time was people were very honest about what they were posting and they didn’t really realize they were being evaluated in the same way. And then that was when all of the stuff came out about be careful what you post online, because your employers are probably going to read this and, you know, references might check this and then, you know, see what your family’s going to see.

And it was also when social media was a lot less kind of heterogeneous. So there were certain groups of people on certain platforms talking to each other instead of talking to the world. So the evidence from, you know, 10, 15 years ago about what people were posting online, when they weren’t really being watched in the same way, or weren’t really being measured in the same way is very different now, because most people know if they’re posting stuff publicly on social media it’s been analyzed in all sorts of different ways. Whether it’s for, you know, sentiment analysis or marketing or politics or whatever reason, or you might get in trouble for what you post later on.

So the openness people have on social media platforms is just not the same anymore. I mean, some people are still very, very, very open about what they post online, but that’s a small, very small minority of people.

And it would, I would suggest that certain characteristics of people who do that. So it’s definitely not representative of, you know, the general public.

Alison Jones: Yes. I was going to say, you’d like to think that that level of kind of self-awareness and self consciousness would regulate some of the more offensive stuff on the internet.

Ian MacRae: Yes, it does from a lot of people, but some people not so much. And the other thing about that social media activity is you don’t always know if those are real people. I mean, some you do because they’re actual people and public figures, but the amount of bot activity online is massive too. Like both Facebook, Twitter, they ban billions and billions of bots.

Some of them are for marketing. Some of them are for politics. Some of them are ideological. But there’s a lot of stuff that just aren’t real people, they are computer programs designed to create an impression of certain activity or communication. So you have to be careful about, you know, making judgements about any sort of activity you see online.

Alison Jones: I mean, that’s terrifying. And one of the other things that really struck me about the book, just to kind of unpick what we were saying at the beginning, is the I guess that the fact that you don’t separate out social media from being human, that actually that there’s dark and bright sides of social media and how it impacts us in life, but also at work particularly.

Just as there are dark and bright sides of who we are and how we are, our personality types, our personality traits and so on. So I thought it was very interesting seeing, I mean, I guess you’re coming at technology from a psychologist standpoint, aren’t you? And, it’s how we see how we are playing out in these new arenas, which I thought was fascinating and complex.

Ian MacRae: Very complex and so that’s why I think we have to be careful about making judgements too, about saying, you know, these are bad people, or there’s a certain amount of bad people who are causing all of the problems. I mean, there’s definitely some very destructive activity and some very destructive people with ill intent that happen online, but everyone has bad days and everyone does stuff that is a bit dark or a bit destructive or a bit toxic sometimes.

Right, and a lot of times that’s when people are most stressed, they’re under the most anxiety, they’re under the most pressure and they aren’t making good decisions. So they make decisions or they do things that affect some people they work with, or some people they know, poorly, negatively. Most people can resolve those problems and they can, you know, have a conversation, get through it, talk it through and figure it out.

But that kind of stuff happens in every relationship, every team, every business, and a big part of understanding those other people’s dark sides, as well as your own, is figuring out how to navigate that and get through it and make sure it doesn’t keep getting worse and amplify it and figuring out what kind of situations you want to put yourself in, online too, right?

What kind of things you’re comfortable talking about? What kind of stuff you want to put out there? Do you want to put your work online? Do you want to put personal life online? And I think as this technology is changing, it’s something you kind of have to reevaluate and look at your own behaviour, as well as other people’s behaviour and go, okay, is this the right place to have this discussion?

Is this the right time to talk about this? Are these the right people that I want to be spending all my time with virtually or in person. And it’s hard to separate that now from the physical world, from the virtual world, because there’s just so much constant overlap.

Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. It’s just the world, isn’t it? I mean, I used to be a Digital Director at a publisher and, you know, we used to sit around a Digital Director’s meeting at the Publishers Association and go, well, you know, our kind of job is to make our job title completely irrelevant.

Because it’s just publishing, you know, it’s just…

Ian MacRae: Yes, yes

Alison Jones: …the digital is what you do, you can’t separate it out anymore. It’s a part of life.

I want to talk to you about the genesis of the book as well. Where was that, well, I guess, conceptually, but also how did you start writing? How did you sort of take that itch, that sort of idea and start turning it into a manuscript?

Ian MacRae: Yes, I mean, there’s two parts of it, really. My initial work and my first book was about high potential and that was all of the kind of positive, bright characteristics you look for in leadership and work and identifying those and how to spot it. High potential, talented employee, and all of the good qualities and characteristics.

So I thought the reverse side of that is also interesting and a lot of the questions I got going around talking to people or having discussions was about the dark side of it too, and how to spot that. But the other part of it was a lot of, I’ve written a lot about social media over quite a few years now and part of it was, you know, writing chapters or writing components of digital communication within a chapter and nested within something else. And I just thought this needs to be a whole book. Like this is such a big topic now, that we need to understand people, personality traits and digital communication online and social media is such a big part of that.

So it’s kind of combining a few different topics and you probably see that you can do that in the book. So there’s some about personality traits, some of it’s social psychology, talking about big picture stuff in organizations and society, and some of it’s really the impact on individual people. So I think understanding that behaviour in the context of online and how people are behaving and working online is just so important.

And I think sometimes people neglect that or neglect to kind of examine how that behaviour is really affecting you. Because it’s, I’ve said this before, but it’s not a separate place. It’s really part of you.

Alison Jones: And the writing bit, because you’ve done it six times now, how do you do that thing where you take the kind of, okay, here’s an idea. Here’s a way of looking at the world that I haven’t seen yet, that I feel I’m well placed to put across. Where do you start?

Ian MacRae: Yes, I like to, well, I like to go from kind of individual, very specific personality traits, to the kind of large-scale social kind of impacts, problems and try and draw a line from those individual kind of relationships and situations to the bigger picture. So doing that can be challenging, but that’s why I usually start from personality traits.

That’s actually in the middle of the book. I didn’t start the book from personality traits.

But then trying to figure that from, you know, individual level kind of behavior and change and stuff to how that affects everyone else and then how those relationships work together.

So the foundation of the writing, was explaining those personality traits and then that’s from the psychological literature, but converting it into something that is useful and really applicable in the workplace to say, you know, most of these people aren’t diagnosed with psychopathy or something. We’re just looking at these normal levels of traits and bad behaviors or tendencies to do things that other people might perceive as difficult in the workplace, in our everyday lives.

So how do we interpret that and manage it? And then how do we apply that to everything?

Alison Jones: I like that principle of starting with specific and broadening out to implications as well, because in fact, that’s kind of how we work as humans, isn’t it? We think about stories. We think about individuals. We see specific incidents and then we kind of abstract patterns from them.

So it sort of makes a lot of sense to structure it that way as a writer, but also to structure that way for your readers as well, to, to lock into specific things that we can relate to.

Ian MacRae: Yes, and I think some of the optimism comes from that too, because I always find narrowing down on the specifics, people tend to be a lot more optimistic about relationships and kind of people they know, than the bigger picture. Because if you talk about social media, as a whole, people tend to have really negative ideas about it, right? There’s all these kind of deep, evil, dark destructive people on social media and the trends are bad.

But if you go like, who do you talk to every day? Who are you using it to communicate with? It’s probably close friends, family members, colleagues who hopefully you enjoy spending time with, most of the time, and like local communities and groups. Then people tend to be a lot more optimistic about those people, but then in the abstract, it’s a lot more negative. So I think whenever you’re feeling a bit of despair about social media and the state of the world too, it’s good to narrow in on the difference that people around you’re making or the good things that you can do directly with other people you know.

Alison Jones: That’s really interesting, because one of the things that struck me was just how optimistic you are. And you’ve sort of set out some really, really quite grim stuff, frankly. Thanks. And then you end in a really optimistic way and that’s interesting. I now understand that a bit better because it’s not just the big trends, you know, the we’re all going to hell on a hand basket, sort of, you know, it’s very easy to throw your hands up, isn’t it, and sort of, you know, say it’s all just terrible.

And then you look at actually what specific people are doing and how actually the majority of people just want to do a good job, just want to connect with people, don’t want to do harm. And it’s possible to see how you can facilitate that and amplify that.

Which is, I think the only response, isn’t it?

Ian MacRae: Yes, it has to be. And the understanding of how we can use this technology constructively in our own everyday life, because we can’t change everything in the world or everyone else. But we can make a really profound impact on the people around us. And I think if you can focus on that at sometimes or others, then that’s kind of the best way to go about it, because I know there’s some worrying trends and there’s some slightly terrifying stuff going on.

But I think that has mostly always been the case somewhere or other. There’s always been, you know, dark politicians or kind of shadowy forces that we’re worried about or people doing really toxic things. But you can’t always change that and that is something that is always going to be going on somewhere.

And it’s good to know kind of what’s going on behind the scenes when you can look at it, to understand how algorithms are kind of affecting our relationship or communications because then you also have the option of opting out of some of it, right?

Like there’s social media platforms that I don’t use. Like the first book I wrote about social media, I stopped using Facebook and Facebook-related products pretty much permanently, but I also don’t think it’s realistic for everyone to do that. So if it’s a core part of your business and you’ve got, you know, a local community business, that that’s where your advertising is, and that’s where people are finding you, then great, use it for that, understand some of the negative consequences of it, and don’t put your entire life on it, just use it for a specific, useful purpose. And then you mitigate a lot of the negative impacts of it. So it’s just the understanding that we can use.

Alison Jones: Yes, and very sane. And I mean, obviously you write regularly, you write as an academic and you write the books which are intended for more general readers. What do you most enjoy about it? About writing?

Ian MacRae: Yes, it really helps me organize my thoughts. So I do have a lot of ideas about psychology and social media, and sometimes it takes me a while to figure it out. And I really enjoy that process of structuring it in that way of, okay, how is this issue relevant to me or someone else or someone specifically in their work that they’re doing every day.

And then how does that filter into all of these other processes? You know, communication, group dynamics, organizational dynamics, and the general social ones. But I really enjoy that process of figuring it out and connecting it all together. And I think a book is the best way to do that and to really be forced to do it because you know, sometimes your editor will come back and go, oh, this doesn’t make any sense…

Alison Jones: There’s nowhere to hide is there…

Ian MacRae: …oh you’re right. That doesn’t…

Alison Jones: …if I wrote it in a really flowery way no-one would notice. That’s so funny.

Ian MacRae: Exactly. But it’s such a great story, right? It sounds so good. No, but so I have had some of those pieces of feedback. It’s the rewrites. And I really like that process of it too, because sometimes we have these ideas about how things are or how to explain things. And then you realize actually they don’t make that much sense to other people.

And so that conversation, I really like these conversations too, about what was interesting about the book or what resonated or what’s useful. Because then I always end up thinking of the book I

want to…

Alison Jones: Not sorry. Yes. There’s a level of rigour, isn’t there, and scrutiny about writing a book that you perhaps don’t have when you’re writing an article or a long form post or something. The way that you connect the ideas together really has to, because you’ve got to make a table of contents out of it, it’s got to really stand up to that kind of scrutiny.

Ian MacRae: Exactly. And you have to do the table of contents for the publishers to accept the book first. So it needs to make sense.

Alison Jones: So you need to structure it and that in itself is a hugely, do you just sort of let that come out as you write in quite an exploratory way, or do you sit there with post-it notes or do you draw mind maps? You know, where’s your sort of toe hold for getting those ideas organized?

Ian MacRae: Yes, I start with the table of contents and I usually have three big ideas, which I like to structure as three sections. It doesn’t always work out like that in the end in the table of contents. But yes, three key ideas and then I do the table of contents from there. So the, you know, five or eight things that I want to discuss in each section, how they fit together. And I write the table of contents first. I write a summary of each thing, how it fits together. I usually have a separate document of stories I want to tell, see how they fit in. They don’t always, so sometimes chapters or…

Alison Jones: …even though they’re damn good stories. If they don’t fit, they can’t go in. It’s really annoying. Isn’t it?

Ian MacRae: I know it is frustrating sometimes. I need a book of just untold stories.

Alison Jones: It’s the director’s cut from the things that didn’t make it into the book

Ian MacRae: Exactly. yes.

Alison Jones: Well, Dan Pink who was on the podcast a little while back is a Trinitarian as well. He says he just doesn’t know why, but that’s how books work. Three key sections and a few points under each.

Ian MacRae: Yes, that seems to work really well.

Alison Jones: Really funny. And I always ask people for their best tip for a first-time writer. I mean, it might be the three-point thing, I don’t know, but if there’s somebody who’s listening, who’s just sort of starting off on writing their first book, what would you tell them?

Ian MacRae: I would actually, one of the things that I do is I don’t just read business books and I do that deliberately when I’m writing. So I think sometimes it’s easy to get your focus too narrow on trying to recreate something or trying to emulate something or following a template that’s really good.

So I always like to have at least two books on the go and one that I’m reading really rigorously, thoroughly taking paper notes, writing detailed notes about and something else that I’m reading for pleasure. And just so I’m getting something else that’s, one, it’s a different perspective, but it’s also kind of continuously reading something that I find really enjoyable.

And sometimes you can get inspiration from just the style. I mean, sometimes I like reading science fiction and sometimes fiction writers are amazing at describing nonverbal communication or relationships between people. And that’s something that you wouldn’t always think translate into business book writing, but I think it does.

And I think having that kind of breadth of kind of reading and context is really, really useful in writing about business, about people, about relationships, about anything to do with the workplace.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s so true because writers, I suppose like artists, are so good at observing reality and people and how they tick and that can feed into your stuff. And I love that distinction you make between different kinds of reading as well. I call that rich reading, when you’re doing something really closely, you’re making notes, you sort of think about, you’re taking it slowly. And then there’s the just kind of throwing yourself into a book and just being completely lost in that world, which is a different kind of reading and yes, very complementary.

Ian MacRae: It is, but I think both are so important. yes.

Alison Jones: Love that. And now I’m really interested to hear the answer to this. I always ask people to recommend a book. You’re not allowed to recommend Dark Social, but I will do that for you in the outro, don’t worry. But what would you recommend people read to support their writing journey if you like, or just to make them more, you know, well informed people.

Ian MacRae: Yes, I mean, one of my favourite books that I’ve read this when I was quite young actually, but Eats, Shoots & Leaves. But I do like style guides and I have a few style guides and I pick them up. I buy a new one every once in a while. I don’t always agree with them. But I recommend reading those, even if you disagree with them or don’t like the structure, have a reason and say, okay, I’m going to take this bit of advice. I’m not going to take this bit of advice. I’m going to throw this one away. I think it’s terrible. That’s not the kind of book I want to write. That’s all fine. But I like style guides.

Alison Jones: I love style guides. That’s yes, Eats, Shoots & Leaves is absolutely wonderful, but Strunk’s Elements and yes, there’s loads of… and actually Steven King’s On Writing. It’s not a style guide exactly. But those books that actually dissect how writing works, what effect you can create, they’re just wonderful. Aren’t they?

Ian MacRae: Yes, they’re great. And I never, I can’t get enough of them.

Alison Jones: Great recommendations. Wonderful.

Ian, if people want to find out more about you, more about all of your books, particularly Dark Social, where should they go?

Ian MacRae: Well, you can find all about my evils of social media on Twitter, LinkedIn, and I do have a YouTube channel too, that I post discussion videos and stuff that’s complementary to the books or general information that’s relevant to the other work I do. So I do have social media and I do like to talk on social media.

So feel free to contact me.

Alison Jones: But not Facebook, right?

Ian MacRae: Not Facebook. No, not for a long time.

Alison Jones: Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s absolutely fascinating.

Ian MacRae: Yes, thank you so much. It was a great chat.

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