Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Carom Transaction in Social Media

I have fallen out of love with Facebook. I have become attached to Twitter. I have discovered LinkedIn. This is my current position; it may change!

Over the several years that I've been involved in social media, I have noticed more the vast array of transactions on display. Some social, some psychological, but all the different permutations of the Berne's original dual ego-state model are there.

Looking at the different ways in which people use the platforms of Facebook, Twitter et al, I have been reminded of an old, seldom-used bit of Transactional Analysis theory which I now feel deserves a fresh look.

The Carom Transaction

In the wider literature this first appears in Woolams & Brown (1978) although it's a very brief mention. Very simply, it's a kind of transaction where the speaker says something to another person in the vicinity of a third party ... the third party is the real recipient of the strokes. It's an unusual transaction because of its use of an intermediary. It is also an example of the social & psychological levels of action (i.e. Berne's third rule of communication*)

Here's a basic example:

"Carom" is a broadly European term that is found in Carom Billiards, where players must deliberately bounce (carom) the cue ball against a cushion or another ball, in order to progress. Carom transactions, then, are used to 'bounce' a message off one person, so that it 'rebounds' off to the next one (the real target).
Caroms may be used deliberately in a therapy. Usually this is done in order to reinforce a particularly important message, or to convey a point that couldn't be done directly for some reason. The client's partner, or other members of a group, may be the 'bounce-ees' in this respect.

The Carom in Social Media

Looking at Facebook and Twitter etc, it becomes clear how many of the postings, status updates or tweets are not actually intended for the supposed recipient. In fact, caroms are in play all over the place - intentional or not. The 'bouncees' are those others-out-there; the folks on one's Friend list (in the case of Facebook), or just other users in the Twittersphere (which can potentially mean millions of people!). Obviously the more public the settings, the more potential bouncings there might be.

Here are a few examples I have found:

1. The Old-fashioned carom

Simply, an indirect message conveyed in the manner we've just seen. Here's a kindly example:

Now, nearly everyone knows what a nice person Louise is. This is much more powerful than sending a text, or perhaps even a thank-you card (although that might depend on the wording). But it's potent; maybe because of its public nature, as depicted in the diagram below.

Of course, this kind of carom can be used in a not-so-kindly way. I have refrained from posting an example here, but I'm sure you have seen a status update in your feed that's of the "Levon is a doo-doo-head" variety.
I have seen this kind of carom escalate into something really gamey and poisonous; family feuds and bitter disputes have been played out in this manner.

2. "Now Hear This, Now Hear This"

This is an interesting one, where the 'target' of the message is everyone. The bouncee may not even be present amongst that following, but be referred to in the posting itself. Here's an example:

This is a loving parent. What's interesting is that the child isn't actually the recipient of the message. On the social level, this is a birthday greeting to someone (who 'happens' not to be there). I suspect that an ulterior message is being conveyed, and that the 'others-out-there' are the intended recipients (below).

Other forms of this type of carom can easily be found. If you "like" a particular posting or group, for instance, it can be a way of conveying a message to those around. (They will see that you've clicked on "No Tolerance for Domestic Violence", or "I Hate People Who Stand Still on the Escalator", and will know this about you).

3. Social Media as Marketing, or "Hey, Google, Look at Me!"

This is a double-rebound carom, which I think has been born of the digital age. In this situation, users of Facebook, Twitter, and bloggers in general have taken to using their social media as a marketing tool. Google (other search engines are available) is the driver behind this; SEO gurus tell us that Google looks for "quality content", and so we merrily type away in the hope that Google will hear us **. Of course, Google may not hear what we're saying; we just need Google to know we're here. Our Facebook Friends, Followers, and the general public may hear us, and if so that's good - but there is the added dimension of telling Google something about ourselves.

(Pink lines show the second carom phase)


* Berne's Third Rule of Communication: Where there is a transaction on the social and psychological level, the outcome will always be determined by the latter.

** I am aware that many, many people write blogs and use social media for reasons other than marketing. Astute and/or prolific readers will have seen examples of those that do (write for marketing purposes) and those that don't. I can usually tell the difference; there is a difference in tone, and the 'marketing' writer often has little or no engagement with those who comment/tweet back etc.


  1. Interesting to think of this in relation to my long term psychotherapy groups. The boundaries keep the available bounce-back space relatively small but it's still a crucial feature of the communication.

  2. Hi Chris, and thank for your interest!

    Even today I have noticed myself in a group, talking to one member, and being aware at the same time that I am "really" talking to another.
    I guess it follows that group members will be carom-ing each other also?

    With best wishes, ian

  3. Sometimes when I make a comment to 'the group as a whole' I am saying something difficult to a particular member; sometimes I am implicitly encouraging one person to speak directly to another; sometimes I am throwing it into the middle just to see who will pick it up. It's one of the great things about group psychotherapy - the richness and complexity of the communication. I'll think more about this, maybe write something too! Thanks, Chris

  4. Chris,

    If & when you do write something, please be sure to copy me in - I'd be interested to read it.

    Cheers, Ian