Witches on Facebook: Mediatization of Neo-Paganism

Mediatization of witches

While media has long played a role in introducing magical practices to wider audiences—books, magazines, and TV have historically been significant in popularizing Paganism—the more recent increase in internet access further contributes to the growing number of Pagan practitioners across the globe. 

 

Reference: Renser, B., & Tiidenberg, K. (2020). Witches on Facebook: Mediatization of Neo-Paganism. Social Media + Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305120928514

Abstract

This article investigates the mediatization of neo-Paganism by analyzing how Estonian witches use Facebook groups and Messenger and how Facebook’s affordances shape the neo-Paganism practiced in those spaces. This is a small-scale exploratory study based on ethnographic interviews and observational data. To understand the mediatization of neo-Paganism, we use the communicative figurations model which suggests three layers of analysis: framing, actors, and communicative practices. For a more granular understanding of these three on social media, we rely on the framework of affordances. We found that social media neo-Paganism is (1) characterized by networked eclecticism; (2) enacted by witches who amass authority by successfully using social media affordances; and (3) consists of practices and rituals that are preferred by seekers, easily transferable to social media settings and validated by Facebook algorithms. Social media neo-Paganism thus is a negotiation between authoritative witches, seekers, and platform affordances that validate some practices over others.

Keywords: digital religion, Facebook, neo-Paganism, mediatization, communicative figurations, affordances, authority, ritual transfer online, witches

Introduction

In recent decades, neo-Paganism as a religious phenomenon has flourished across the world (Rountree, 2017). While media has long played a role in introducing magical practices to wider audiences (Hiiemäe, 2015)—books, magazines, and TV have historically been significant in popularizing Paganism (e.g., Berger & Ezzy, 2009; Possamai, 2005)—the more recent increase in internet access further contributes to the growing number of Pagan practitioners across the globe (Strmiska, 2005, p. 43). Moreover, social media has allowed neo-Pagan practitioners to enter into active dialogue with each other. This has, as we will show in this article, changed the content and structure of these practices.

This small-scale study explores the mediatization of neo-Paganism on social media. More specifically, we analyze Estonian online witches who use Facebook groups and Messenger to counsel people seeking answers from the spiritual realm (hereinafter, “seekers”). We ask how social media shapes our participants’ beliefs and practices, how its affordances structure authority and how neo-Pagan counseling practices have been altered when carried out in social media. The article contributes to social media research and digital religion research by exploring how the sociality afforded by social media as well as the features, functions, and limitations of social media platforms shape the mediatization of neo-Pagan practices, significantly transforming them in the process.

Our approach sits at the intersection of mediatization, social media, and digital religion1 studies. Research on the mediatization of religion has mostly taken on an institutional approach (e.g. Hjarvard, 2008), focusing on religious representations in media and asking how media institutions shape the understanding of religion. Meanwhile, neo-Pagan practices are non-institutional and increasingly conceptualized through Hamilton’s (2000) „pick and mix” religion model that highlights the blurring boundaries between local and global, past and present. Digital religion research examines how these kinds of traditional beliefs and practices translate to online contexts and how religion is re-imagined in new spaces (Campbell, 2017, p.16). Research on social media, in turn, explores how religious communities function in digital settings (Campbell, 2013a; Hutchings, 2013). However, there is little available on how social media shapes the neo-Pagan practices of those practitioners who use it to counsel seekers.

To understand how neo-Pagan practices are mediatized (Lundby, 2014) on social media, we rely on the model of communicative figurations (Hepp & Hasebrink, 2018) and the conceptual framework of affordances (Evans et al., 2017). The communicative figurations framework invites analyzing the mediatization of neo-Paganism through the lens of leading topics, actors in the network, and their practices. The framework of affordances allows exploring how these topics, actors, and practices have been enabled, shaped, and constrained by social media generally and Facebook specifically.

 

Mediatizing Neo-Paganism

Mediatization describes the long-term processes during which sociocultural change is interrelated with media change (Lundby, 2014, p. 19). The social constructivist approach to mediatization, which we subscribe to in this article, is more actor than media-centered—it takes social phenomena and their actors as a starting point of the analysis, and then observes how the phenomena are affected by the media environment (Hepp, 2014, p. 85).

Mediatization research has not specifically focused on online interactions (Campbell & Evolvi, 2019, p. 3). To fill this gap, we incorporate the concept of affordances to further address how the logics and architecture of social media platforms shape neo-Pagan practices. While there is a multitude of approaches to understanding affordances, they can broadly be defined as a “‘multifaceted relational structure’ (Faraj & Azad, 2012, p. 254) between an object/technology and the user that enables or constrains potential behavioral outcomes in a particular context” (Evans et al., 2017). Tiidenberg and Siibak (2018) suggested using the seven key concepts which Nancy Baym (2015) had proposed for comparing mediated interactions with face-to-face communication as general social media affordances. We follow this suggestion, and analyze the relational structure between Facebook and the users, specifically in terms of how much it affords:

1. Variability in interactivity;

2. Temporal malleability;

3. Manageability of the shortage of social cues;

4. Possibility to store and search content;

5. Potential for reaching a wider audience (Baym, 2015).

As an extra, we incorporate one further affordance:

6. Networked information access, which according to Halpern and Gibbs (2013) means that social media has the potential to expand and diversify (or contract and limit) users’ access to information via algorithmic and featured linkages (e.g., newsfeed updates, notifications, seeing the likes of your friends). All of the aforementioned affordances play a role in shaping neo-Paganism as practiced in Facebook groups and Messenger chats.

To analyze the process of mediatization of neo-Paganism, we use the heuristic of “communicative figurations ‘which can be described as’ (typically cross-media) patterns of interweaving through practices of communication” (Hepp & Hasebrink, 2018, p. 29). The concept permits a holistic focus on the actors and audiences, production and uses, texts and practices of a mediatized phenomenon (Lohmeier & Böhling, 2018, p. 348). Three layers of analysis are suggested: analysis of frames of relevance, analysis of constellations of actors, and analysis of communicative practices (Hepp & Hasebrink, 2018, pp. 15–58).

 

Frames of Relevance

According to Uwe Hasebrink and Andreas Hepp (2017, p. 366), each communicative figuration has dominant frames of relevance. These define the leading topic and guide its constituting practices. In the context of this study, neo-Paganism functions as the broad frame of relevance that binds the figuration together.

Neo-Paganism is notably a heterogeneous term, however, some common characteristics can still be identified in contemporary Pagan beliefs. As described by Maria Beatrice Bittarello (2008, pp. 221–222), these include the absence of a normative sacred text, non-hierarchical authority models, respecting the individual choice, offering heterogeneous interpretations of the divine, emphasizing the importance of practice over belief, reevaluating magic, recreating myths and rituals, and believing in the idea of a sacred Earth. Furthermore, Michael Strmiska (2005) points out that neo-Pagan thought has various manifestations that can be scattered along a continuum of the “reconstructionists” who aim to resurrect the ancient traditions of their geographical location or ethnic group—on the one end; and the “eclectics”—Pagans who mix traditions across space and time boundaries—on the other. Furthermore, neo-Pagan actors can be either communal or solitary. The former gather in communities, during festivals and events, the latter practice their beliefs alone. The surfacing of solitary practitioners has been linked to greater access to learning materials through movies, books, and the internet (Berger, 2019, p. 54).

 

Constellation of Actors

A constellation of actors is a network of individuals who communicate with each other within the figuration (Hasebrink & Hepp, 2017, p. 366). In the neo-Pagan sphere, these can be aspiring and self-acclaimed witches, seekers, as well as outcasts. In this article, we focus on active neo-Pagan practitioners and ask how their authority is claimed, assigned, and construed in the Facebook groups.

Much of the prior research on religious authority relies on the work of Max Weber (1978) and his proposed three forms of domination: rational–legal, traditional, and charismatic. According to Weber, the magician is a charismatic authority whose leadership relies on voluntary obedience of followers. However, he also finds that this type of authority is prone to routinization, leading to more stable forms of traditional or rational–legal authority. While Weber’s forms of domination still contribute to understanding religious leadership, several authors have described the ideal types as inefficient in the digital age. For example, Hjarvard (2016, p. 13) suggests that Weber’s model of gaining, preserving, and expressing authority does not apply in the times of modern mediated communication, as the new religious authorities are more popular, temporary, and individual in their character.

The two main schools of thought regarding the conceptualization of authority in digital religion have been well summarized by Pauline H. Cheong (2013, pp. 72–87). According to her, the first draws on the idea that the internet is a decentralized space with characteristics that erode religious authority and hence have corrosive consequences on traditionally hierarchical religious communication. Here, studies have shown that religious leaders are worried about the loss of their authority or their sole legitimacy in interpreting religious tenets (Barker, 2005; Rashi, 2013). The second approach highlights the connectedness, continuity, and possibility for negotiation on the internet, and sees it as an opportunity for religious leaders to regain trust and legitimacy, mobilizing people on religious topics and spreading religious ideas (Eisenlohr, 2017; Kluver & Cheong, 2007).

 

Communicative Practices

Finally, the figuration relies on communicative practices of the actors (Hasebrink & Hepp, 2017, p. 366). We can consider here all neo-Pagan communicative practices conducted by the actors in online and offline spaces. These could involve communicating ritual activities or counseling seekers, but include non-sacred activities, such as sharing and exchanging knowledge on Facebook, or taking part in the groups’ activities as well.

Social media has been regarded as a new platform for expressing and disseminating religious ideas (Campbell, 2013b), supporting and extending the believers’ offline religious lives (Johns, 2015), or allowing more open religious communication (Campbell & Vitullo, 2016). While these approaches support understanding neo-Paganism on social media, they are less helpful for analyzing the dynamics between practitioners and seekers in an online environment.

Counseling seekers over social media involves performing ritual practices at a distance or communicating advice in non-ritual form, often combining the two. In either of the cases, some adaptations need to be made to the original actions. For analyzing this, we borrow Nadja Miczek’s (2008) framework of ritual transfer online. First, Miczek (2008) proposes asking how the original structure or content of the ritual has been transformed when taken online. Second, she proposes examining which new aspects have been invented and added to the ritual. Third, she recommends analyzing which elements have been abandoned and excluded from the ritual.

Overall, this article analyzes the three aspects of the process of mediatization of neo-Pagan practices as shaped by the affordances of social media. First, we determine the frame of relevance by looking at the form and content of Estonian neo-Paganist practice on Facebook. We ask how social media affordances have contributed to or limited the choice of beliefs and practices. Second, we focus on the actors, and analyze how Facebook’s affordances are used and experienced as structuring authority among neo-Pagan practitioners. Third, to understand if and how neo-Pagan practices have been altered when carried out on social media, we look at ritual transfer (Miczek, 2008) and its shaping by Facebook.

 

Context and Methods of Study

Estonia is a fertile ground for researching neo-Pagan beliefs and practices. Neo-Paganism has found a substantial and dedicated audience among the general public. Not many Estonians say they believe in God, but 54% believe in “some sort of spirit or life force” (Eurobarometer, 2005, p. 9) and 59% believe in people with supernatural powers (Kantar Emor, 2017). Estonian religiosities could be largely characterized as “believing without belonging” (Ringvee, 2011, p. 45) and, similar to other post-Soviet countries, there is a wide variety of syncretistic beliefs and practices which are chosen to satisfy individual needs (Uibu, 2016, p. 16).

Media has played a significant role in introducing magical practices to Estonian people. During the Soviet period, folk healers were portrayed as national heroes (Kõiva, 2015). Today, too, witches are widely covered in mass media. Weekly Maaleht doubles its sales each January with its yearly horoscope by a famous astrologist (Lauri, 2015), the largest mainstream online news portal Delfi has devoted a section to spiritual matters, and the local adaptation of the international TV show “The Psychic Challenge” has contributed to the recent rise of esotericism (Vahter, 2018).

This interest in magical and spiritual matters is reflected in social networking sites. Facebook, which is the most popular social media platform in Estonia, is a home for a plethora of neo-Pagan, spiritual, and self-help groups and pages where witches, sages, shamans, and the like gather. Three of the largest groups are vibrant discussion boards with more than 20,000 members each (for context, the population of Estonia is 1.3 m).

The practitioners whom this article focuses on use a multitude of differing self-definitions that tend to appear in the titles and descriptions of the Facebook groups. Sometimes they denounce clear labeling altogether. However, for the readers’ convenience, we have chosen to use a common designation—“witch,” also used to define the actors in the most active Facebook group. In the Estonian context, “witch” is used to denote someone with supernatural powers, herbal medicine (wo)men, sages, healers, and the like (Kõiva, 2014). The term rarely carries negative connotations in Estonian. We use the term “seekers” to refer to people who are looking for help, advice, or predictions of their future.

This study is based on ethnographic interviews, conducted by Berit Renser with five respondents, as well as on observations they made in three Facebook groups between January and May, 2018. As neither of the researchers were previously part of the witchcraft community, Renser relied on the administrator of the largest group to act as a gatekeeper. She suggested interviewees whom she considered to be “real” witches, from both her own and other groups. These informants had overlapping roles: three of them were administrators of groups, three were approved counselors, and all of them were ordinary members in each others’ groups. Two of the informants were male and two female, however, there is no statistics to suggest that this sample accurately represents the witches’ gender ratio, but intends to show that male witches are active contributors to the observed groups where the majority of seekers are women.

The interviews took place in the respondents’ homes and cafes and were conducted in Estonian (both authors are native speakers). During the interviews, the respondents were asked to demonstrate their ritual practices in face-to-face settings and then asked about how they transfer those rituals to Facebook. Their practices varied considerably and included the following: fortune-telling with runes, talking to the dead with the ouija board, spells, herbal medicine, Tarot and Lenormand cards, pendulum, palmistry, astrology, energy loading and channeling, and shamanic journeys. In addition, Renser followed the respondents’ Facebook activities: their pages and posts, to get a broader understanding of their social media use. The screenshots seen in the article are rough re-enactments of original posts, which Renser created to de-identify the users following the logic of ethical fabrication (cf. Markham, 2012; Tiidenberg, 2017). We changed all names of the groups and the informants to protect their anonymity, and Renser has informed consent from the informants.

 

Discussion of Results

Based on the threefold focus suggested by the model of communicative figurations, we analyze Estonian witches’ practices for the general frame of relevance, observe how authority is constructed in the constellation of actors, and finally, discuss how their neo-Pagan practices have transformed when taken to Facebook. In all of this, we pay attention to how Facebook affordances shape and constrain the process of mediatization.

 

Frame of Relevance: Eclectic Neo-Paganism

Access to information has always been crucial to learning about neo-Pagan practices, but has historically been restricted by the availability of media, geographical constraints, and literacy (Hiiemäe, 2015). The era of “deep mediatization” (Hepp & Hasebrink, 2018) offers an assortment of new and traditional media types. The studied witches find most of their information about new or revived practices through different websites and platforms, such as blogs and forums, Wikipedia, YouTube, online courses, and the internet in general. This allows the practitioners to gather, interpret, combine, and share information from different sources, and to create a highly personal blend of eclectic neo-Paganism. Therefore, we suggest that the frame of relevance of this communicative figuration is eclectic neo-Paganism. However, as we shortly demonstrate, unlike the eclecticism observed in previous studies of neo-Paganism, in the Facebook groups we studied, it is profoundly negotiated and networked.

The eclecticism can be observed in both the individual choices made by the witches and the broad variety of practices accepted within the Facebook groups. These range from New Age to indigenous folk beliefs, with some references to monotheist religions, Eastern religious traditions, all infused with self-help tips (cf. Figure 1).

The witches advertise themselves and their specialty services on a Facebook group’s wall (ethical fabrication of a typical Facebook post)

Figure 1. The witches advertise themselves and their specialty services on a Facebook group’s wall (ethical fabrication of a typical Facebook post).

This eclecticism is supported by several of the aforementioned social media affordances—most notably interactivity, storage, and networked information access. The seekers can and do interact with the content shared by the witches via likes, comments, and shares. While these are packaged into immediately visible popularity metrics on the Facebook interface, and thus offer mostly quantitative feedback, some group members also reach out directly and make requests or suggestions in private chats. Both types of feedback help witches determine seekers’ interests and the best ways to meet their needs, and thus shape the particular form of eclecticism that frames neo-Paganism in this space. The fact that older posts and messages remain available for searching and revisiting increases the witches’ awareness of resurgent topics, adding a dimension of time or cyclicality to how witches perceive audience feedback and how they select the elements to be included in or discarded from their eclectic mix of neo-Paganism. Finally, Facebook’s newsfeed and recommendation algorithms—relying on data generated from all of the interactions described above—(de)prioritize specific topics and thereby also shape the witches’ repertoires. Thus, which practices are validated over the others, and how the eclecticism of mediatized neo-Paganism shapes up, is, as we noted above, profoundly negotiated and networked.

Tanel Wolf was well aware of the performance of his various posts and could easily point out the winter solstice rituals as his most popular topic—something that he now posted each year. One of our informants, Little Witch, said she started off with giving advice on herbal medicine, but the high demand for fortune-telling, especially with runes, made her readjust. The popularity of angel card readings across many groups and networks made the witches suppress their own dislike for them and comply with members’ requests. “If you want those angels that much,—well, here you go!” commented Little Witch. Even more so, high demand for love-related guidance, which Little Witch herself was not interested in, encouraged her to invite witches who specialized in these issues to her Facebook group, thus shaping the conversations in and the overall tone of the group as such.

Witches’ individual foreign language skills also shape the eclectic choices made from the potpourri of global practices. For example, Little Witch feels more comfortable reading Russian. While the roots of her practices are Estonian, she gathers information from the Russian-speaking internet, and is consequently influenced by Siberian witchcraft. Another informant—Odin speaks Finnish, and is interested in Scandinavian mythology. Leena works with three languages, mixing information disseminated in Estonian, English, and Russian and adding her own experiences, as described below:

Lenormand Leena: I’m telling you this growth has happened because of the internet . . . That’s how you do it, translate from English, Russian and add your own experiences . . . I have bought courses from online and other places, in English. I hang out on YouTube all the time, hours and hours. It is frenetic, like going to school.

While the geographical boundaries are increasingly easy to overcome, some of the informants are concerned with keeping their Estonian roots and traditions. As a result, they make sure to remix local heritage with globally trendy practices, as described by Tanel Wolf:

Tanel Wolf: I would describe myself as a philosophical Pagan chaos magician who holds satanic views and practices shamanism and voodoo . . . I try to mix things, to get people interested in our own mythologies, but I do it through the already attractive voodoo.

Therefore, while the internet as such allows practitioners to formulate and promote an individual set of techniques based on demand and popularity they can gauge because of social media’s affordances, they are still limited by their own skills. Those skill-related limitations can, in turn, be amplified by social media’s affordances. To simplify, when recommendation algorithms hone in on witches’ interests in a particular practice (e.g., runes) from a particular geographic region (e.g., Siberia) and in a particular language (e.g., Russian), they afford very little networked information access, shrinking and limiting the information the witches have access to by offering more and more of the same.

 

Constellation of Actors: Negotiating Authority Online

For the purposes of this article, the constellation of actors within the communicative figuration of neo-Paganism is the interrelated network of neo-Pagan counselors in Facebook groups. While the social media affordances discussed in the previous section shape the practitioners’ religious eclecticism, they also shape how the witches experience and make sense of their authority and do so in contradictory ways. On one hand, our informants highlight that the plethora of voices and interpretations offered in online groups and private consultations can be cacophonous and conflicting, causing anxiety in their clients:

Little Witch: It’s becoming a catastrophe . . . One doesn’t know what to believe. Look at our posts. They are scared of everything! Karma, a feather, someone whispering, a mouse scuffling inside the wall . . . They panic, they write to me: what’s gonna happen?! Will I die today?! Isn’t it so? . . . A few years ago it wasn’t like this. I used to lurk in other witch-groups back then and it wasn’t as bad yet.

This perception echoes previous findings regarding religious leaders who see the internet as a threat to their authority and as leading to the weakening of religious messages (Barker, 2005; Hjarvard, 2013). On the other hand, the witches also perceive social media and specifically Facebook groups to have affordances that mitigate these concerns. The possibility to manage and control (to an extent) the interactivity, the social cues, and the size of an audience for particular people or posts, allows gathering solitary practitioners into loose but hierarchical communities wherein some users amass more authority than others. This is accomplished using the platform’s features both as intended and creatively.

The features that are intended to create hierarchical associations are creating groups, becoming an administrator and assigning moderators. These features allow group administrators to sit at the top of the membership hierarchy. Furthermore, being an administrator of a community is not only seen as an administrative function, it also legitimizes the administrator’s spiritual leadership:

Marit: I, myself, believe that the admins have greater rights because they have greater knowledge. They are like heads of a large community who keep order and lead us all.

Using groups’ privacy settings, accepting and declining new members and their posts, deciding who can join and contribute to the conversation are all used to create hierarchical association. While group membership can be gained relatively easily and requires answering simple questions (e.g., “Why do you want to join this group?,” “What are your expectations?”), getting banned from the group or being deleted from the list of approved readers is also commonplace. The witches explain this by alluding to the administrators’ responsibility to protect users from charlatans, whom they describe as self-promoters with no real skills, who charge exorbitant fees for their services, give readings that are too negative, take (sexual) advantage of their clients, sell harmful medicine, and so on. Therefore, the features and affordances that are seen as allowing control are positively valued by the informants:

Lenormand Leena: They have somehow nailed this, how they shape this group. This, how they weed out the people they do not want . . . This is the right system. They keep an eye on people, they have feedback on me, too . . . They have organized this well, weeding out charlatans and weirdos.

The administrators also use creative ways to control and create further layers of hierarchy beyond what Facebook’s features and settings allow. In Facebook pinned posts, in the group’s description, or in the group’s documents, a list of approved counselors is articulated, all listed with their expertise in neo-Pagan topics and tools (i.e., counseling on love and money with cards, communicating with the dead by ouija board). The methods of witch vetting vary across groups: while Group A uses mystery shopping to control the quality of service of potential counselors, Group C asks for a letter of recommendation and a certain amount of experience with card readings, and Group B collects the names of all aspiring witches and sages in a single post and invites everyone to provide feedback on their competence. Finally, some people receive personal invites by the administrators after having been active, visible, and seemingly reliable on the group’s walls.

Facebook released its group rules feature in 2018, after the fieldwork period. In the neo-Pagan groups we observed, the administrators, creatively using the empty spaces of document files, pinned group posts or group’s description fields, and set rules covering a variety of topics. Typically, declaring the ultimate authority of administrators in decision-making, providing a long list of preferred, undesirable, and banned beliefs and practices (e.g., runes, dreams, various New Age practices), or establishing prohibitions and restrictions (e.g., adult membership and access only, no ads, no photos of children or other third parties, no fishing for clients by outsiders, no radical medical advice, etc.) were listed. Group posts were monitored for their accordance with the stated rules, but ultimately depended on the administrator’s perceptions. For instance, the comment sections of public posts were sometimes closed if the topic was deemed too sensitive, and the administrators approached the seeker via chat. While they could not monitor other witches’ Messenger chats, they issued public warnings about potentially malicious users and invited users to make complaints about misconduct (this is also evident in the post in Figure 1).

While a lot of existing research has shown that social media can be an egalitarian space where the previously vertical structure of authority has become horizontal (Barker, 2005), the witch-administrators have used the affordances of social media to claim authority in spiritual matters. In addition, controlling content allows witches to define their views on witchcraft and build the groups as authoritative spaces on these matters. In Weberian terms the charismatic authority of the witches is routinized, with the help of social media affordances, through creating user hierarchies and group rules, resulting in more stable forms of authority.

 

Communicative Practices: Counseling Online

All six of Facebook’s affordances mentioned above shape how the neo-Pagan ritual practices performed during counseling transfer online (Miczek, 2008). The varying interactivity and the malleable temporal structure allows practitioners to communicate with their clients in multiple ways. Typically, communication happens on group walls (posts, comments) or private chats. The witches interpret the wall posts as having a higher potential to reach a wider audience and thus use them as a visibility tool that helps showcase the group as a space for magical issues, to attract more visitors, increase engagement, and build a vibrant community. In addition, posting on group walls allows the witches to grow their personal client base who can later be engaged in “more serious” private chats. Yet, commenting on posts made on the public walls by other users is the least favored activity of the informants, mainly because they are already busy with private chats and administrative duties. This leaves the comments section mainly for ordinary users. However, the informants do interrupt if they consider the content in the comments section harmful, confusing, or misleading, and may contribute with their own expert advice for further clarifications on the topic. This grants the witches access to spiritually inclined people and allows them to have a say in discussions not directly involving them. Arguably, social media thus affords greater closeness between witches and the community, and fluidly integrates their expert opinions into seekers’ lives more broadly than individual counseling would allow.

A more popular activity among the informants is curating wall posts. Some of these posts are informative in nature. The witches share spells, herbal medicine tips, general observations of the spiritual world, or daily good wishes for group members, content familiar from witchcraft coverage in traditional media. Other posts serve the purpose of entertainment. Witchcraft-related humor in the form of memes qualifies as what Miczek (2008) called the invented aspect of ritual practices. Lenormand Leena interprets it as “making fun of yourself for a good laugh,” which is not meant to trivialize magical practices, but to increase engagement and build community. An example would be a humorous visual post, where a young, nude woman is depicted sitting on a rock, with next to her a black cat and a broomstick. On the bottom of the image a text in Russian says: “I am an angel, I promise! It’s just that broomstick is so much faster . . . .” A different one offered a magic spell for Friday night that involved tequila with lemon and salt.

A notable invented format is mass-counseling through wall posts. These posts typically set the rules of partaking (e.g., time restriction and preferred topics), add a photo of the instrument used (e.g., cards, runes, or pendulum) (Figure 2), or use live video. Group members are then offered an opportunity to ask for guidance in the comments, and the witch who posted it will use the advertised tools to offer guidance for the promised duration of time. Facebook’s features of infinite scroll and automatic shortening of posts encourage fast-paced interactions around easily digestible, succinct, catchy, and visually attractive content. This has proven to be immensely popular, engaging hundreds, if not thousands, of followers. The affordances of interactivity, malleable temporal structure, potential for a larger audience, and networked information access significantly revise the communication between the witch and the seeker. It allows all members to take part in the process as the Q&A unfolds. These public interactions create engagement and increase the sense of community that solitary practitioners and their clients would otherwise not have. However, it also creates social pressure among practitioners to maintain one’s visibility and to perform these rather demanding mass-counseling sessions.

Tarot reading on public walls, initiated by the informant Marit, received 330 questions

Figure 2. Tarot reading on public walls, initiated by the informant Marit, received 330 questions (ethical fabrication of a Facebook post).

The fast-paced interaction needed for mass counseling informs the witches’ choice of ritual method and tools. Repertoires are transformed so they fit the platform’s limitations. Traditional face-to-face tools and practices involve herbal mixtures, spell-casting, energetic cleansing of physical places, playing music, and so on. Taking magical practices to the walls of Facebook groups reduces this diversity notably. Time-consuming activities, such as reading the ouija board or going on a shamanic journey, are excluded (Miczek, 2008) entirely from mass-counseling. Instead, practices like card or rune reading are preferred for their easy adaptability to the social media setting. A pendulum giving simple “yes” and “no” answers also suits mediated servicing of the crowds.

Transferring ritual to social media does not only reduce the variety of tools applied, it also transforms (Miczek, 2008) the way those tools are used. Instead of reading a whole Tarot deck, only one card is drawn; instead of laying out the entire set of runes, one is picked. While these changes may be frowned upon by some practitioners who consider them too shallow to be taken seriously, the witches we studied claim to make no compromises content-wise. They argue that seemingly trivial activities, such as sharing humorous memes or mass-counseling, contribute to, carry on, and expand the understanding of witchcraft in new ways and should therefore not be regarded as mere entertainment.

However, the witches also counsel seekers in Facebook Messenger chat, which they think more closely resembles face-to-face counseling. The chats often expand into involved conversations with the seeker, much like in an offline situation, although text-based and often slower and longer lasting. The witches said they have to invest extra time in typing the answers they receive from the cards, runes, or spirits, introducing and inventing (Miczek, 2008) a written practice into the ritual. The affordance of malleable temporality permits the counselors to handle several seekers at a time, but may also extend the duration of single sessions, sometimes to days and weeks. Those witches who have a day job can now integrate witchcraft into their lives with more ease, possibly expanding the number of aspiring witches.

The affordance of storage allows seekers as well as counselors to return to prior readings. The witches see this as a great opportunity to pick up the conversations from where they had left off and introduce a more significant continuity to interpersonal counseling relationships. The witches also presume the storage to be valuable for the seekers, as it enables them to reinterpret their earlier readings from time to time.

Communication on Facebook lacks physical proximity that normally carries a plenitude of social cues—important conveyors of information about the context and people involved. The witches take advantage of Facebook’s features to invent some missing cues, while others are transformed or excluded (Miczek, 2008) from the communicative practices altogether. While the magical tools, decorations, and symbols in the informants’ homes help present it as a spiritual space, Facebook is not designed to be a spiritual space per se. The cues for making the space magical need to be transformed through the use of multimodal communication. Photos and memes that convey the neo-Pagan thought, or textual references infused with spiritual jargon, serve these purposes. However, the witches choose to exclude (Miczek, 2008) some cues that could be incorporated, most notably the voice. Facebook allows sending voice clips or YouTube links, live videos, and video chats, but the interviewed witches did not take advantage of these features. Practices considered typical in face-to-face settings, such as casting spells or playing drums, were considered too inconvenient to be transmitted over the internet. This indicates that the witches enjoy or at least have fully accepted and gotten used to the differently paced rituals consisting of often shortened or simplified magic tool use.

Among those cues that cannot be substituted and are therefore excluded (Miczek, 2008) are the physical bodies and the touch of the healer. This amounts to a significant transformation of the repertoire of practices. Estonian witches have historically served as folk healers working with spells, herbal mixtures (Kõiva, 2014), and laying of hands. Concurrently, the witches we studied in these Facebook groups have largely excluded medical problems from their repertoire, to the point that giving medical advice is altogether forbidden in some groups. Some of the witches listed in the groups do give medical consultations, but mostly when met in person. Others, instead, have refocused on psychological and lifestyle issues, such as finding love and balance in life, and solving financial and other everyday problems.

The shortage of social cues and the ability to effectively manage them offers the witches and the seekers some degree of anonymity. While pseudonym use and profile privacy settings vary among seekers, the informants interpret mediated communication on Facebook as more anonymous than face-to-face interaction and this, in turn, as advantageous for both sides. Our informants argue that the perceived anonymity in private chats contributes to the seekers’ willingness to open up, transforming (Miczek, 2008) the counseling process, so it becomes more honest and intimate than it would be in a face-to-face situation:

Tanel Wolf: Let’s say, for example during counseling, there’s anonymity online, it makes people more open. When she chats online or in real life, then in real life she’s more reserved than in her text . . . Plus over the internet, we can have contact across hundreds of kilometers.

While some witches perform under their full given names and depict themselves in their profile images, others use the shield of pseudonyms that enables them to work without having to disclose their real identity and, instead, invent (Miczek, 2008) an online persona. The latter enjoy Facebook as the sole place to perform their practices in and exclude (Miczek, 2008) offline consultations altogether. This choice is made for a variety of reasons, including the possibility to communicate over long distances, afford more flexible schedules, and mitigate shyness or anxiety of meeting people face-to-face. Practitioners state the need to protect their privacy as the main argument against accepting visitors in their home. Nosy neighbors and a queue of cars in front of the house are mentioned as common unwanted negative side effects endured by those renowned witches who do. Using the affordance of social cue management allows the witches to profit from their skills while cordoning off other aspects of their lives.

 

Conclusion

We have analyzed the mediatization of neo-Paganism on Facebook using the model of communicative figurations (Hepp & Hasebrink, 2018) and affordances (Evans et al., 2017). More specifically, we analyzed the frame of relevance, the constellation of actors, and the communicative practices involved in our research participants’ mediatized neo-Pagan practices. In addition, we focused on how Facebook’s affordances of interactivity, malleable temporal structure, manageability of social cues, storability, the potential of a wider audience, and networked information access transform neo-Pagan practices as they become mediatized.

Similarly to what has been argued in the previous literature (Berger, 2019), the witches we studied use the internet to find, learn, and develop an eclectic and personalized set of beliefs and techniques. Thus, the frame of relevance of the communicative figuration at hand is negotiated and networked eclectic neo-Paganism. The eclecticism of our participants is constrained by their individual preferences and foreign language skills as well as the witches’ ideological concerns with keeping Estonian traditions alive. However, besides the individual preferences, our participants’ neo-Pagan eclecticism is also shaped by the interactivity, storage, and networked information access affordances of Facebook, primarily where they shape and constrain specific forms of individual, automated, and algorithmic feedback. Thus, it is not only the witches but also the seekers and Facebook as such who shape neo-Pagan eclecticism. The group members’ preferences are inserted into the negotiation of the frame via direct requests on Messenger, posting and commenting on the group walls, or by liking and sharing content. The neo-Pagan eclecticism of the witches we studied is thus shaped by both—the interactive human, and the automated metrics-based feedback that Facebook affords. This feedback is then amplified by Facebook’s algorithmic (de)prioritization of certain content via features like notifications, recommendations, or newsfeed updates that make some topics trend over others.

Our participant’s authority negotiation practices on Facebook align with both—the earlier work that argued that the cacophony of voices online is experienced as detrimental to the perceived expertise of the practitioners (Barker, 2005), and the work that has found that it may also help legitimize religious authority (Eisenlohr, 2017; Kluver & Cheong, 2007). The lens of affordances allowed us to detail the concurrent and entangled nature of these two seemingly contradictory processes. We found that while social media affords challenging any authority, it also triggers witches’ awareness of authority and leads to conscious authority-making practices. Facebook groups (via both intended and off-label use of features and functions) allow practitioners to exert loose control over the content and membership of the groups, accomplished by listing approved beliefs, setting rules for seekers and witches, keeping an eye on ongoing conversations and trends, and recruiting and promoting practitioners, while excluding those that are not deemed as appropriate. These practices create hierarchies, contribute to the routinization of authority in Weberian terms (1978), and put witches in the position to define and reinterpret neo-Paganism.

Facebook’s affordances also shape how elements of the neo-Pagan rituals themselves are transformed, excluded, or invented (Miczek, 2008). The temporal flexibility of Facebook permits witches to service several people at the same time—both by keeping multiple one-on-one sessions via Messenger and by performing newly invented mass rituals on Facebook walls—enabling the expansion of their client base. Some traditionally time-consuming practices (e.g., Tarot readings and runes) are truncated or simplified. Together, these transformations of temporality introduce unprecedented instant gratification and 24/7 advice and support into the neo-Pagan practices and rituals. The limited social cues of social media interaction have led to further major alterations in neo-Pagan practices. The exclusion of sound, scent, or touch notably transforms the traditional counseling process. As a result, physical healing is often replaced by psychological and lifestyle guidance. The affordance of social cue management expands and diversifies the ranks of both seekers and witches. Seekers who did not reach out for face-to-face counseling, do so now. Others are more likely to open up during the counseling session. Witches who chose not to see clients face-to-face because of practical reasons and privacy concerns can now practice without hassle.

This is a very small study and our ambition is not to generalize to a population of all neo-Pagan practitioners on social media or on Facebook. However, triangulating interview data with observational data and analysis of affordances, the expert status of the informants both in terms of the subject matter and their central roles as administrators and leaders of the groups suggest that it might be useful to consider the dynamics we observed when designing future studies of digital religion, neo-Paganism, belief-based communication, or counsel-seeking on social media. We think a focus on authority, dialogue, and ritual transfer could serve as a starting point to ask further questions about how different types of groups deal with content moderation and even misinformation.

The mediatization of neo-Paganism on Facebook is a negotiation between witches, seekers, and the technological affordances of the platform. Some witches, by virtue of effort and luck, but also by successfully taking advantage of Facebook’s affordances, gain authority to define what neo-Paganism is and how it should be practiced. What these witches put forward as neo-Paganism is not only shaped by their personal preferences, but also by constant input from seekers and Facebook’s algorithms, as well as by how well particular rituals translate to social media. Mediatized neo-Paganism, as manifest in the studied Facebook groups, is thus significantly shaped by social media and is in the process of constant negotiation—not static, but dynamic, and in flux.

 

Acknowledgements
We are deeply grateful to the informants for sharing their lives and experiences.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author (s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Funding
The author (s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

ORCID iD
Berit Renser https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3600-8691

Notes
1.Interpreting religion only as “embodied in a social institution” is being increasingly challenged (Hanegraaff, 1999, p. 147). This article focuses on religiosities in a broader sense that involves both institutional and non-institutional beliefs and practices.

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Author Biographies

Berit Renser (MA, University of Tallinn and University of Tartu) is a research assistant and a PhD student of Audiovisual Arts and Media Studies at the Baltic Film, Media, Arts and Communication School of the University of Tallinn, Estonia. Her current research interests include social media, belief systems, and health and wellbeing.

Katrin Tiidenberg, PhD, is an associate professor of Social Media and Visual Culture at the Baltic Film, Media, Arts and Communication School of Tallinn University, Estonia. She is the author of Selfies, why we love (and hate) them (2018), the forthcoming Sex and Social Media (2020, co-authored with Emily van der Nagel) and Metaphors of internet (2020, co-edited with Annette Markham). Tiidenberg is on the executive board of the Association of Internet Researcher and the Estonian Young Academy of Sciences. She is currently researching social media, participatory cultures, sexuality, and civic engagement. More info at: kkatot.tumblr.com

Sotsiaalmeedia nõidade vastuvõtu­ruum asub Facebook Messengeris

Sotsiaalmeedia nõiad Facebook Messengeris

Uurija Berit Renser kirjeldab, kuidas sotsiaalmeedia nõiad Eestis elavad: nõiatöö asemel peavad meedianõiad tihti asuma psühholoogi või ärakuulaja rolli ning tegelema perevägivalla ohvrite ja depressiooniga. Artikkel ilmus Eesti Ekspressis

Nõidade ja meedia vastastikuses suhtluses pole midagi uut. Folklorist Mare Kõiva on kirjutanud, et juba nõukogude ajal küsisid ajakirjanikud ravitsejatelt ekspertarvamusi ja ravinippe, tõstes nõiad seeläbi vaat et rahvuskangelase staatusesse. Tänasel päeval on telesaadete ja trükimeedia kõrval just sotsiaalmeedia see koht, kus nõiad oma publikuga suhtlevad. Ainuüksi ühes suuremas eestikeelses nõiateemalises Facebooki grupis on jälgijaid üle 27 000 ja see arv kasvab pidevalt.

Sotsiaalmeedianõiad olid tegevad juba ammu enne koroonakriisi ja tavalised nõiad ammu enne sotsiaalmeediat. Koroonakriisist on räägitud kui üldise digitaliseerimise kiirendajast – ka nõiad seovad aina aktiivsemalt pärimuskultuure ja uusi uskumusi meediatehnoloogiaga ning vormivad sel kombel uut arusaama paganlusest. Samas ei ole meedia neutraalne vahendaja, vaid paratamatult kujundab seda sõnumit või nähtust, mida selle kaudu edastatakse. Nii sünnibki uuspaganlus Facebooki seintel ja vestlusakendes.

Varasemate salajaste ja võrdlemisi kohalike nõiakunsti teadmiste asemele on tekkinud vägagi avalik ja globaalne internetiruum, mida moodsad nõiad kasutavad esmalt uute võtete õppimiseks ja seejärel nende rakendamiseks sotsiaalmeedias. Isegi posijad istuvad YouTube’is, et kaardiladumises paremad olla, ja välismaistes foorumites, et end voodoo-võttestikuga kurssi viia. Uuspaganlus ongi oma olemuselt eklektiline kompott, mis põimib uue vanaga, lähedase kaugega, usu teadusega – libahundi inglikaartide ja kompuutertomograafia loitsuga. Ehkki tehnoloogia arengut on korduvalt seostatud usu mõju vähenemisega ühiskonnas, näib see olevat nõiaelule hoopis uue hingamise andnud. Nii mõnigi moodne nõid leiab, et ilma sotsiaalmeedia abita ta sellist hobi või ametit polekski endale valinud.

Sotsiaalmeedia vahendusel tegutsev nõid on distantsilt kättesaadav ka siis, kui ta elab parasjagu Soomes, ja isegi nendele, kellel varem jäi käik nõia juurde transpordi, raha või julguse puudumise tõttu tegemata. Samuti saab sotsiaalmeedias kehastada mis tahes rolle. Nii võib moodne nõid olla päeval riigitöötaja või turvamees ning alles õhtul koju jõudes Facebook Live’is pendlit keerutama asuda. Ka privaatsus on oluline argument. Mõni nõid mäletab lapsepõlvest, kuidas kaardimoorist vanaema väikeses korteris pidevalt rahvast vooris, nii et kunagi rahu ei saanud, mõni teine toob näitena autode rivi Kaika Laine ukse taga, mis ei kadunud isegi öötundideks.

Kuna sotsiaalmeedias saab varjata nii oma nägu, nime kui asukohta, kasutavadki nõiad neid võimalusi loominguliselt ja vastavalt vajadusele. Üks populaarsest Facebooki grupist välja kasvanud raamatu „Nõid annab nõu“ autoritest on varjunime Väike Myy taha peitunud Lõuna-Eesti talus elav pensionär. Teda on teleekraanil nähtud ennustamas paruka ja päikeseprillidega, kuid sotsiaalmeedias on ta paljudele tuntud vaid pseudonüümi ja profiilipildiga. Ta ohkab rahulolevalt – õnneks saab tänapäeval nõiatööd teha ilma, et tülikad naabrid või nõudlikud võõrad tema privaatsfääri tungiks. Väikese Myy rahulolu on igati põhjendatud, sest meie vestluse ajal ootab tema arvutis 18 vastamata kirja hoolimata sellest, et ta hommikust õhtuni arvuti taga tööd teeb. Töö all peab ta silmas Facebooki grupis korra hoidmist ja privaatvestluse kaudu inimeste aitamist.

Nõia uus vastuvõturuum on Facebook Messengeris. Vestlusakna kaudu ei pea nõid enam külalistega ükshaaval kohtuma, vaid saab suhelda mitme kliendiga korraga, vastates neile täpselt siis, kui endal selleks aega jagub. Seejuures ei näe nõid mingit sisulist vahet, kas kohtumine toimub otse või tehnoloogia vahendusel. Ka telefoni teel saab väelooma välja kutsuda või vett energiaga laadida, samuti saab vestlus­aknasse trükkida ouija-laualt saadud sõnumeid kadunud hingedelt.

Sellegipoolest tunnevad sotsiaalmeedia nõiad, et tõelist nõiatööd vähem, kui tahaks, sest tihti peavad nad võtma psühholoogi või ärakuulaja rolli. Privaatvestluses jõutakse nõia jutule tihti alles siis, kui kõik teised lahendused on osutunud sobimatuks või ei osatagi kusagilt mujalt abi otsida. Milline riiklik institutsioon su murekoormast vabastab, kui mees joob, laps on haiglas, töölt lastakse lahti ja pidev stress on rikkunud tervise? Või nagu ütleb üks nõidadest – tema kirjakasti jõuab kontaktisoov enamasti siis, kui „kõik on juba täiesti pekkis“.

Segastel aegadel otsitaksegi nõidade juurest tihemini abi, seda nii isiklikus elus kui laiemalt ühiskondlikul tasandil. Nõukogude ajal pöörduti selgeltnägijate poole kadunud inimeste leidmise sooviga, mis oli otsene küüditamise järelmõju, kirjutas folklorist Mare Kõiva. Vietnamis muutusid nõiad aga populaarseks pärast kommunistliku režiimi kukkumist, mida saatis majanduslik kitsikus ja ebakindlus eesootava suhtes. Kui koroonakriis selgitab ehk viimase aja suurenenud nõudlust, siis pikemaajalist sotsiaalmeedia nõidade populaarsust kriisi arvele kirjutada ei saa.

Samas on ka nõiagruppides juba pikemat aega läbivateks mõisteteks „hirm“ ja „ärevus“. Nõiad arvavad, et üks probleemide läte on sotsiaalmeedia ise, sest infomüras ei tea inimene, mida või keda enam uskuda. Nõidade jutule jõuab aina rohkem neid, kes ise endale kummitusi, needusi ja haigusi diagnoosivad. Nii peavadki nõiad inimesi hoopis rahustama: su töökaotuse taga ei ole kaetamine ja öösel seisma jäänud kell ei ennusta su peatset surma. Samas peegeldavad inimeste murekohad igapäevaelulisi probleeme ja nõiad peavad tegelema maagia kõrval ka perevägivalla ohvrite ja depressiooniga.

Osa sotsiaalmeedia nõidu näevad end hoopis korrahoidjate ja uute väravavalvuritena, kes Facebooki funktsioone kasutades paganluse lubatud vorme kirjeldavad, reegleid loovad ja lubatust üleastujaid grupist välja heidavad. Minema on aetud nii neid, kes lubavad hapras olekus inimesele alastifotode pealt ennustada, kui ka neid, kes nõiarohu nime all püüavad MMSi müüa. Sellised oportunistid ei ole hukka mõistetud ainult ajakirjanduse veergudel, vaid ka nõidade endi seas. Üsnagi vastupidi oodatule võib juhtuda, et sotsiaalmeedia nõid saadab abiotsija arsti jutule, kuid annab teele kaasa mõne toetava loitsu.

Suurima eestikeelse Facebooki nõiagrupi populaarsus annab mõista, et pidevalt muutuv pärimuskultuur on digitaalse eluga hästi kohanenud ja esitleb end nüüd hoopiski atraktiivses ja kättesaadavas vormis. Just karantiiniajal, kui inimesed sulgusid teadmatuses kodudesse, avanesid sotsiaalmeedia nõidade postkastid, pakkudes seal tuge, lootust ja lohutust.

– PISITEKST –

Sotsiaalmeedia nõiad saavad teha tõelist nõiatööd vähem, kui ise tahaksid.

● Kui koroonakriis selgitab ehk viimase aja suurenenud nõudlust, siis pikemaajalist sotsiaalmeedia nõidade populaarsust kriisi arvele kirjutada ei saa.

“Am i really cursed?” Self-disclosure in Facebook: conceptualizing networked therapeutic culture

“Am i really cursed?” Self-disclosure in a spiritual Facebook group: conceptualizing networked therapeutic culture

By Berit Renser, See full text and references on the networked therapeutic culture

“Why is everyone getting sick around me–am I really cursed?” is a typical question encountered in a Facebook group for spiritually inclined people. The group, comprising of 30,000 members brought together by interest in spiritual and pagan topics, is an active discussion board where people seek to raise their wellbeing by publicly asking for counsel on how to deal with their everyday problems. Some may suffer from health issues, others struggle in toxic relationships, facing grief or loneliness. There are those who seek advice from traditional healers, hoping to solve their problems with the help of spiritual guidance, yearning for a better future promised by clairvoyants. However, the bulk of the group is made up by those who are happy to have a chat and receive advice from their peers. While these Facebook corners may be regarded as fountains of misinformation and bastions of anti-scientific thought, inspiring a steady stream of dismay, contempt and mockery in media (Orav, 2018)⁠, it makes sense to contemplate, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, why people choose to turn to peers in spiritual Facebook groups for advice and while doing so, reveal themselves to large audiences.

On the following pages, I will analyze the self-disclosure practices among the users of the largest Estonian spiritual Facebook group as they seek help from peers to a variety of problems related to mental health, money, work and home, spiritual matters and interpersonal relationships or, in general, voice concern over their wellbeing.
The approach sits at the intersection of the studies of the global therapeutic culture, (g)local sociocultural context and social media studies. The therapeutic culture⁠ refers to the prevalence of a psychological mindset outside of the traditional domains of psychology (Madsen, 2014), where the language of therapy has made revealing one’s emotions widely acceptable, changes the boundaries between the public and the private self (Illouz, 2008)⁠, endorses self-help practices, and builds on the ideals of individual choice, autonomy, and self-responsibility (McGee, 2005)⁠. While in Estonia the cultural figure of therapist is not well represented, the main carrier of the self-reflective endeavours may be seen in new spirituality (Uibu, 2016a)⁠–an umbrella term for spiritual-religious beliefs and practices widely popular in Estonia. This therapeutic culture in its many forms, from psychological to spiritual counsel, has commonly been popularized by the media: through seminars, self-help books or talk shows (Illouz, 2008)⁠. In the digital age, therapeutic culture moves online, appearing in YouTube videos, online diagnostic questionnaires, Facebook memes and healing or spiritual practices (Rimke, 2017)⁠. Here, the affective claims to suffering are even further amplified, accelerated and complicated in social media (Chouliaraki, 2020)⁠. However, there is still little research available on how social media affords the therapeutic culture–a gap this ethnography-inspired study seeks to fill.

I will demonstrate in the article, by looking at the characteristics of therapeutic culture and self-disclosure in online spaces, that help-seeking motivated self-disclosure in this group is shaped by reasons for and previous experiences with help-seeking, discursive frames available for presenting help-seeking questions and answers, and the ambivalent social media affordances that encourage further self-disclosure. Based on the analysis, I conclude the article with proposing the concept of networked therapeutic culture.

The therapeutic culture
The “Triumph of the Therapeutic” (Rieff, 1966)⁠ was already claimed to have happened half a century ago, but the outlook has changed significantly since then. The rise of the therapeutic cultures has been connected to the rise of the importance of psychology in the 20th and 21st century, also called the psychologisation of society, which reduces social, political or moral questions to psychological issues (Nehring, Madsen, Cabanas, Mills, & Kerrigan, 2020a). It can be seen as a hegemonic discourse that offers a discursive scheme to look at the self and the world (de Vos, 2010). Similarly, Illouz (2008) points out that the emotional language of the therapeutic culture frames how we talk about and understand emotions, thoughts, and behaviours or their hierarchies: what is normal or pathological. In fact, much of the therapeutic discourses relies heavily on psy-knowledges (Illouz, 2008)⁠, concentrates on positive psychology (Illouz, 2020)⁠, happiness (Fanti, 2020)⁠, mindfulness (Nehring & Frawley, 2020)⁠, or resilience that often denies negative feelings, depicts the self as a repository of inner strength and emphasizes individual responsibility, while urging to be grateful for everything, including suffering (Rimke, 2020)⁠. In this way, striving for wellbeing and positivity may be the solution, but also the cause behind the conditions that give rise to the therapeutic culture.

Earlier work saw therapeutic culture in mainly negative terms as the result of rising individualism and waning religious authority (Rieff, 1966)⁠⁠, and interpreted the increasing role of private matters in public space as narcissism (Lasch, 1979)⁠⁠, cultural decline (Rieff, 1966)⁠, and cultivation of victim mentality (Furedi, 2004)⁠. More recently, however, authors have pointed out that the therapeutic culture has an empowering potential, since it has made suffering socially acceptable (Wright, 2008)⁠, offers new discursive spaces for speaking out about injustices (Salmenniemi, 2017)⁠⁠⁠ and should therefore be regarded as a strategy for emotional coping (McLeod & Wright, 2009)⁠. Furthermore, Lilie Chouliaraki (2020)⁠ has argued that social media reorganizes the who, when, and how one can claim personal suffering by democratizing access to broadcasting and claiming victimhood.

The reasons behind engagement with the therapeutic culture may be manifold. The neoliberal ethos of individual responsibility suggests that complex social problems can be solved by simple individual actions. Anthony Giddens has proposed that the modern self feels a loss of significance and hopes to find a cure to it from the looking glass–something he calls the “reflexive project of the self” (Giddens, 1991)⁠. Furthermore, self-diagnoses and self-help become necessary when other experts fail or when gaps in social support are felt (Seear, 2009; Lubi, Uibu, & Koppel, 2018)⁠. More specifically, within the post-Soviet context, people have been shown to turn to therapeutic practices as a way to renegotiate subjectivity in the changed ideological context, cope with labour and other inequalities and to fill gaps in healthcare (Salmenniemi, 2017)⁠. Therefore, reasons behind engagement in the therapeutic culture fluctuate between wider sociocultural context, local conditions and personal experiences.

The focus on the individual and the decline of religious authority is not only the cornerstone of the therapeutic culture, but also connects to the rise of the new spirituality–an umbrella term for spiritual-religious beliefs and practices (Uibu, 2016a)⁠. These practices in and of themselves have been described as a hybrid of therapeutic culture, self-help and spiritual quests (Heelas, 2009)⁠⁠, where the supernatural dimension often permeates all other ways of dealing with distress (Koenig, 2004)⁠. The two approaches to healing and salvation, therapeutic and spiritual-religious, have merged to an unprecedented extent (Hanegraaff, 1998, p. 46)⁠. Both discourses have entered schools, gyms, etc., contributing to their popularization (Illouz, 2008; Pagis, 2020)⁠ and increasing blending. For example, Michael Pagis (2020) has shown how popularization of bodily practices like yoga, meditation, mindfulness or alternative healing practices have spread from non-Western religious spaces to Western hospitals, mental health clinics and gyms. So does the therapeutic sneak into traditional Indian faith-healers’ practices who mix psy-discourses with traditional healing (Siddiqui, 2020)⁠, while psychological experts often provide spiritual guidance (Moskowitz, 2001)⁠. In fact, spirituality can be seen as a cultural toolbox (Uibu, 2016b)⁠ where the spiritual tools are frequently intended to help reach non-spiritual goals, from health to fitness, motivation and even entertainment where spiritual aspects are often optional (Kraft, 2014, p. 306)⁠. Overall, new spirituality and therapeutic culture overlap significantly and it is difficult to say whether one is witness to secular ideas with esoteric roots or spiritual beliefs borrowing from psy-discourses.

Self-disclosure in social media

Self-disclosure is integral to finding spiritual guidance as well as participating in the therapeutic culture. By self-disclosure I mean the provision of personal information to other individuals about oneself or any other people or events somehow affecting the self. While self-disclosure is often triggered by life stress (Stiles, 1987)⁠, opening up about negative feelings is considered good for mental health, has therapeutic functions and is hence called the “talking cure” (Corcoran, 2000)⁠. Self-disclosure is also regarded as a necessary precondition for receiving social support ⁠(Lu & Hampton, 2017), building connectedness, reducing loneliness (Deters & Mehl, 2013)⁠ and depression (Frison & Eggermont, 2020)⁠, and enhancing general wellbeing (Huang, 2016)⁠.

It can be argued that social media has ambivalent affordances for self-disclosure. By affordances I mean a range of technological conditions that are perceived by users as requesting, demanding, allowing, encouraging, discouraging or refusing certain behaviours and are always relative depending on who they afford and how the subjects who engage perceive the affordances (Davis & Chouinard, 2016). Most platforms share features and functions that encourage self-disclosure, such as invitations to share personal information in status updates, profiles, etc. (cf. de Vos 2020; Trepte, 2015). Oftentimes, self-disclosure depends on perceptions of the audience or the “imagined audience” (Litt, 2012)⁠⁠. While help-seeking self-disclosure on social media is usually addressed to potential helpers or the so-called ideal, sympathetic audiences, social networking sites also include nightmare audiences (Boyd & Marwick, 2011; Murumaa-Mengel, 2017)⁠, such as malicious users who engage in various forms of cyberbullying. Group dynamics such as flaming, trolling, harassment (cf. Kwan & Skoric, 2013) that unfold on social media may discourage its users from self-disclosure.

Self-disclosure is typically discussed in the context of privacy since privacy is required as a precondition before opening up to others. The two are in a dialectic relationship where one needs to give up privacy in order to speak out (Masur, 2019)⁠. Computer-mediated communication in general confuses the typical boundaries one may have when opening up, because it challenges our understanding of our audiences and our privacy. For example, online communication blurs the borders between the public and the private (e.g., Papacharissi, 2010)⁠, the affordance of anonymity has been observed to reduce perceived vulnerability (Krämer & Haferkamp, 2011) and positively affect self-disclosure (Walther, 1996). On the other hand, privacy is threatened by social media recommendation and connection algorithms that foster forced connections by associating otherwise disparate data points (van der Nagel, 2018). Yet, as self-disclosure has multiple social and personal benefits as mentioned above, social media users have been found to react to these ambivalent affordances by engaging in various privacy-enabling practices, including strategic information sharing, social steganography and self-censorship (Oolo & Siibak, 2013)⁠, vaguebooking or in other words blurring the meaning of the content to be understandable for only the intended audience (Child & Starcher, 2016), editing already posted content (Georgalou, 2016) or producing more generalized information (Krämer & Haferkamp, 2011)⁠.

Context and methods

This research on therapeutic culture was conducted in Estonia where, before foraying deeper into therapeutic culture, we must first take into account two important local sociocultural factors: spread of spiritual beliefs and practices and the relatively limited support network for wellbeing. As many as 34% Estonians consider themselves as spiritual and 59% believe in people with supernatural abilities (Kantar Emor, 2017). Estonians’ religious affiliation is therefore best characterised by “believing without belonging” (Ringvee, 2011, p. 45)⁠. Furthermore, media has played a significant role in resurrecting spiritual and magical practices among Estonian people. During the Soviet period, folk healers were portrayed as national heroes who shared expert advice and useful health tips (Kõiva, 2015), and still today, healers and spiritual advisers enjoy wide popularity in mass media (Lauri, 2015; Vahter, 2018). In the age of social media, many of the older healers as well as new ones have started working or promoting themselves online. The Facebook group under investigation is an example of one of those popular groups ran by healers. In this case, the group is led by two people who call themselves either witches or sages and who see themselves as helpers and advice-givers, often taking on the roles of psychologists (Renser & Tiidenberg, 2020). The group also gathers over 30K people (as of June 2021) and has gained almost 15,000 followers since I first joined it in 2017 (for comparison, the total population of Estonia is slightly more than 1.3 million). It also has vibrant discussions among regular members who do not necessarily consider themselves as “healers”, but are interested in mystical, spiritual and esoteric ideas or seek advice from peers or witches in the group. Overall, the group reflects a wide variety of syncretistic beliefs and practices which are typically chosen and tailored to satisfy individual needs (Uibu, 2016b, p. 16).

While therapeutic culture has been regarded as partly grown out of the rise of the authority of psychologists, institutionalized mental health and wellbeing support has been systematically underfunded in Estonia (Ministry of Social Affairs, 2020). I consider wellbeing as a combination of “having”, “loving”, “being” or a mixture of material, interpersonal and personal development conditions (Allardt, 1993). A continued erosion of any of those aspects may contribute to deterioration of mental health. Recent initiatives to improve the situation point to a crisis in the availability of psychological support, as evident in the rising numbers of help-seekers and growing psychologists’ waitlists (Ministry of Social Affairs, 2020). Further, mental health issues are stigmatized, 62% Estonian population does not want anyone to know of their mental health issues (Faktum & Ariko, 2016)⁠, yet mental health problems, among which depression is the most prevalent, account for a quarter of the total of all health issues (Vos et al., 2015)⁠. In this article, I limit my focus on the public discussion among the regular group members to such topics that concern the help-seekers’ wellbeing, excluding all posts that deal with physical health (which is a very broad topic in itself that deserves a separate discussion).

I was welcomed in the Facebook group by one of the administrators who calls herself a witch. For the current article, I conducted an online ethnographic study and collected approximately 1,000 posted questions from the group since 2017, out of which roughly a half is concerned with physical health and the remaining half deals with wellbeing in general. The analysis was followed by ethnographic interviews. The respondents were found and the final eight selected with the help of the group administrator who encouraged and invited members in a public post to share their stories with me. The interviews took place both online and offline, subject to restrictions of COVID-19. During the interviews, I asked the respondents to comment on their Facebook activities and their posts, to get a broader understanding of their social media use. In addition, to contextualize some interpretations of the post and interview analysis, I set up a short online survey which I sent to some people personally after they had posted in the group. All interviewees were female, as were 16 out of the 19 respondents who filled out the survey, which also mirrors the gender makeup of the group. Altogether, I analysed eight interviews, 498 posts and their comment threads, and the survey answers, using grounded theory (Charmaz, 2006) to identify significant topics, and discourse analysis (Gee, 2011) to determine the discursive framing within the posts.

As I will also show in the analysis, there was a conflicting understanding between the members of the group whether the Facebook group of 30,000 people and designated as Private by Facebook was in principle public or private. I was mindful of this complexity when developing my approach to research ethics. First, I obtained informed consent from all interviewees and survey respondents to analyze and use their responses as well as their group posts. Any material from the posts of other users I gathered with the blessing of the administrator and used it with careful consideration of my respondents’ anonymity. This applies to both their identities in real life as well as in networked space (where they often use pseudonyms or partial names. This means that I have modified the details of the interview quotations to protect my respondents from any unexpected harm. Also, the screenshots seen in the article are rough re-enactments of original posts which I re-created to anonymize the users, following the logic of ethical fabrication (cf. Markham, 2012; Tiidenberg, 2017). None of the help-seekers mentioned in the analysis can be traced back based on the information presented in the article.

Self-disclosure in a spiritual Facebook group

Reasons for and previous experiences with help-seeking and self-disclosure

Members engage in intentional self-disclosure in order to receive answers to what they perceive to be important personal matters. In many cases, by the time the participants decide to reach out to the group, they have already sought information from other sources, considered contacting professionals or simply have no clue as to the nature of their problem and the competency best suited to provide the solution. In the interviews, several participants map out their previous efforts to seek help, taking them to Google and forums, friends and relatives, or other media and self-help books. Other times, police, family advisers, doctors, mental health professionals, also witches, therapists, alternative medicine practitioners are mentioned as someone whose counsel has already been sought or who are next on the list of potential helpers. In fact, all my respondents confessed to having earlier experiences with witches and healers, often from decades ago, as the reason for joining the group in the first place. While some people reach out to the group as their first resort, for others it is the last–all followed trajectories were personal and different, but often reflected the complexity of issues. Here, Asta, one of my interviewees, posts a message where she seeks help for her dandruff problem, while, in fact, she suffers from stress caused by being a single mother of five and fighting with an alcoholic ex-husband over finances:

At the time, I was raising five children alone on my own. Then my ex-husband decided to sue me, demanded that I pay him every month, because he has a disability and I left him–but I left a healthy man, it was himself who ruined his health with his drinking… And finally I got psoriasis on my head–dandruff and itching all over. Went to a skin doctor and was told that it was my nerves doing it. I then looked for help everywhere–I got some vitamins, one was 30 euros pack and the other was 75 euros pack. Expensive, right? Then I asked the people in the Facebook group, all sorts of things they told me I should try, but all of which turned out to be completely useless. And then, when I was already about to accept that nothing could help me, I turned to Piret [one of the witches in the group]. I had heard that she could make the tensions in your body go away… . Whom else could I still have turned for help? (Asta)

In many cases, participants choose self-disclosure in the group over alternative options because of the shortcomings in the accessibility of services, such as lack of available appointments, high costs or long distance. The group’s popularity and relevance builds on crowdsourced answers from its members and administrators and the more responders in the network, the more useful it becomes for its participants. Furthermore, many of the participants are expatriate Estonians, which may be reflective of the cultural and linguistic barriers they may have when encountering these services while living in a foreign country. In this context, the digital space that can be accessed regardless of the many limitations imposed by distance, time and money eradicates at least some of the problems that offline services have.
In addition, trust in the institution or knowledge about the possibilities play a major role in the choice one makes. A certain prejudice towards doctors and psychologists can make them seen as someone who is “not interested in the root causes of problems, but only wants to prescribe medications”. Police, typically, “won’t bother to help anyway”. Furthermore, while participants oftentimes confess to feelings of inferiority, worthlessness, loneliness, and suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks or constant fatigue, mental health related posts rarely recommend the help of mental health professionals unless the problem has been stated very clearly as I will discuss in the following paragraphs. This possibly reflects the lack of knowledge and experience of how to or with whose help to deal with those problems, stigmatization of the issue in the culture in general and the limits of mental health support in Estonia.

Discursive framing of problems and solutions

After choosing to self-disclose through the mere act of posting about one’s problems, participants also choose their discursive framing. Here, three main culturally informed discursive framing strategies of problems and solutions emerge: psychologization, spiritualization and rationalization.

Facebook group discussion

Facebook group discussion

Figure 1, Therapeutic culture. Post A: Example of psychologization. Post B: Example of spiritualization. Post C: Example of rationalization. Post D: Example of typically mixed discourses. (Ethical fabrication of Facebook posts)

The first discursive frame that draws on therapeutic culture is interested in the psychological aspects of the self or what I call psychologization (Figure 1, Post A). It presents the self as the root cause of all our woes and troubles and suggests all problems can be remedied by simply changing our thoughts and behaviour. The expressive emotionality or confession that is characteristic of therapeutic culture is also present here and is most conspicuous in those examples which use impassioned language to describe a series of setbacks and failures and the related emotional distress. Here, positive thoughts do not result from being well, but rather the wellbeing is a condition to be attained by “thinking positive”. It is notable, at the same time, while therapy culture heavily promotes “positive thinking”, it is rarely found in the posts of those who seek it, but is used by the ones who give advice. The former are characteristically mired in negative thoughts and feelings which they came to express. Thus, the comments suggest all mental and physical illnesses, as well as bad luck and relationship troubles, are born out of these negative thoughts, not caused by any structural problems. For example, victims of workplace bullying who “just cannot take it anymore” are advised to “look into the mirror” and reflect upon the truth that “every coin has two sides”. As it appears, failures and illnesses are seen to be caused by “wrong thinking” and should recede when forced to confront with positive thoughts and actions, such as smiling, forgiving, letting go or expressing gratefulness.

The second discursive frame is spiritualization (Figure 1, Post B), where the cause and/or solution of the problem is attributed to external agents, such as curses, inherited behaviour patterns, certain auras, energies, etc. According to these accounts, the root of the problem/solution lies not within, but without, in some external spiritual or magic factors which we can still somehow manipulate or change. Bad omens and negative meanings are looked for in objects, people, environment and dreams. Often, these descriptions draw from folklore and popular culture‒it is known that the lunar cycle can affect one’s mood and behaviour, sleep disturbances might be caused by the radiation of water veins, while protection may be offered by certain medicinal herbs, red string, when worn, can ward off misfortune, various spells and incantations should also not be overlooked. We know from earlier studies that anxious people are more likely to be superstitious (Wolfradt, 1997)⁠ and people who place the locus of control in the exterior, as it is in the case of bad omens, are more prone to pessimism (Dember, Martin, Hummer, Howe, & Melton, 1989)⁠. Hence, the mild hints of feelings of anxiety, fear and doubt that are consistently veiled in mystical events and tied to spiritual or supernatural phenomena, suggest one’s wellbeing may be the main driving force behind many of the posts also when not so explicitly expressed.

The last discursive frame is that of rationalization where both common and uncommon problems are explained in normal, everyday terms (Figure 1, Post C). Rationalization appears to be a frequent strategy of choice when dealing with the most common and easily identifiable problems, such as theft, in which case the “rational” option would be going to the police. Following the “rational” scenario, victims of domestic abuse and violence may be directed to a battered women’s shelter for help, one’s legal problems might be solved with the help of a good professional lawyer, and it also makes sense to try regular pharmacotherapy to alleviate one’s anxiety and depression. Well-informed answers often means the person responding has experienced a similar problem themselves and relates to the advice-seeker on the basis of their personal experience.

The size of the social media group and the constant flux of users between groups, however, facilitates the borrowing of techniques which are used in other groups as well as in other media channels and social contexts. The scope of the group and the members’ different experiences allow combining various discursive frames that are not necessarily opposite, but complementary to each other. Thus, we can observe collapsing discursive frames within a single individual post (Figure 1, Post D). Such an approach to different coping tools and their application is encouraged by the neoliberal conception of freedom of choice and the right to seek personalized solutions which fit one’s preconceived beliefs and to use coping tools which freely mix and match science and supernatural, mundane and spiritual.
The discursive frames used by the participants also shape their understanding of problems and their solutions. One noteworthy problem that surfaces from interviews and is reflected in the posts is the lack of knowledge of how to define or frame certain problems and who is best suited to solve these problems (see also Figure 1, Post D). The often-arcane language which conceals emotions and places fault in the self, coupled with the typical brevity encouraged in social media posts, obfuscates the problem statements for the audience. The help-seeker, in many cases, may disguise and downplay her real problem as a mild spiritual or emotional distress. However, such obfuscation makes it difficult to get and give good advice, which, when intersecting with Facebook groups’ affordances, leads to what I describe in the next section as accumulating self-disclosure.

Accumulating self-disclosure

The group as social context and Facebook as technological context condition the help-seeking and giving practices and related self-disclosure on the platform. The networked nature of these groups affords what I am referring to as accumulating self-disclosure, by shaping how privacy is perceived and audiences imagined in these groups, as well as whether Facebook is perceived as encouraging or discouraging algorithmic connections.

First, many of the group members consider the group as private, since it is designated as such by its administrators, regardless of the fact that it only takes three questions to answer concerning the applicant’s interest in the group to become its member among more than 30,000 others. The help-seekers emphasize the important contribution of administrators to this perception of privacy, as they oversee and enforce the group rules. Besides their role as helpers, supporters, entertainers and educators, their role as enforcers of discipline is mentioned as a major incentive for joining this particular group. The administrators can accept members and decline applicants, approve or reject their contributions and ask them questions for background check before acceptance, such as their reasons behind joining. Enforcement of group rules (e.g. no negative readings, no fishing for customers by outsiders, etc.) gives a sense of security and privacy. In addition, members often describe the group based on the assumption of ideal audiences and characterize their peers as “knowledgeable”, “smart” or “experienced” who give good advice, share their intimate thoughts, participate in discussions and function as “a supportive family” that fulfills the users’ needs. The group is seen as a source of sense of belonging and wellbeing and reading posts has become part of their daily routine.
The supportive community offered by the imagined audiences and the perceived privacy resulting from tightly enforced rules encourages self-disclosure. This, however, leads to a snowballing effect where the disclosure of one person encourages other people to share similar experiences, as is shown in Figure 2. Here, comment B answers to post E with a personal story of loss, that of her own unborn baby. In these cases, members of the group often join the discussion in the hopes of finding consolation and solace for themselves as well. This assumes the swapping of the roles of the help-seeker and the help-giver–easily accomplished in a community where the conventional adviser (therapist, doctor, marriage counselor, spiritual guide or other) has been replaced with decentralized experts. The level of perceived privacy in the group and trust in the good intentions of its members and the quality of the content, strengthened by the feeling of belonging, encourage the advice-seekers to self-disclose and relinquish their privacy in exchange for help.

Therapeutic culture - Facebook group discussion

Therapeutic culture – Facebook group discussion

Figure 2, Therapeutic culture. Post E: Example of accumulating self-disclosure by sharing experiences (comment B) and divulging further details (comment A from the initial help-seeker) in discussions.

However, some members have a heightened sense of privacy and are therefore less inclined to divulge their intimate secrets, preferring to vaguebook their posts, as they are discouraged by the size of the group and the threat of sensitive personal information leaking beyond the confines of the group. Marta gives a description of how information is passed on from one friend to another, eventually spreading to people outside of the group, making it impossible to keep track of who receives the information, especially in a small country like Estonia. The interviewees are also worried of self-disclosure to nightmare audiences: either their own family members, colleagues or friends or people who intend to stigmatize, shame and mock self-disclosure. Elsa explains, the problem may lie in the mere act of participation in this type of group–there is a certain stigma attached to esoteric gatherings that may be frowned upon in the work environment.

Second, even despite these fears and occasional choice of complete secrecy, the respondents still posted their questions in the hopes of receiving valuable feedback, but did so by vaguebooking, hiding the meaning of the content or even editing and deleting their posts afterwards. In effect, the advice-givers looking to overcome the brevity and vagueness of the original post, worded as such to control the vulnerabilities associated with self-disclosure in compliance with the group rules, ask clarifying questions to understand the specific situation. This coaxes the help-seeker herself into full disclosure of the premises of her original post, in order to improve the relevance of the advice to her actual situation, as is shown in Figure 2, Post E, comment A. Here, the user starts revealing herself a bit further as she feels the received answers may not help her to find the solution to her problem. Therefore, while Facebook as a platform and the group as a social context may at first discourage in-depth descriptions of oneself by limited post length and the large potential audience, shortened and vaguebooked posts may unintentionally have an opposite effect of encouraging accumulating self-disclosure as a result of the interaction within the comments section in order to receive more relevant answers.
Third, accumulating self-disclosure may be involuntary and rather encouraged by Facebook’s algorithmic connections. Here, the participants may not truly comprehend the extent of all the connections to their person that exist on the platform. For example, Facebook enables easy search of its users’ posting histories within the group as is shown in Figure 3, and unless the corresponding privacy settings have been turned on by the user, also common friends, interests, photos and personal statuses are visible to anyone digging for contextual information.

Accumulating self-disclosure

Accumulating self-disclosure

Figure 3, Therapeutic culture. Posts F and G: examples of accumulating self-disclosure by virtue of algorithmic linking of posts by the same person over time. (Ethical fabrications of Facebook posts)

One can easily find the same person’s posts within the group(s) throughout the year(s), rendering it easier to track down personal narratives for additional helpful clues from their past. Advice-givers often use these tools to determine the context of the person’s problems: its duration, depth, or any personality clues. In several cases, when a group member has posted a question, the other members have turned to the post and used it for their own purposes. As seen in Figure 3, Post G, comment A, the advice-giver discovered that the help-seeker had been struggling with her work already for two years–a fact that gave her further context for the reply. Such realizations, brought about algorithmically, have been mentioned in the interviews as discomforting for the help-seekers who mention the feeling of their personal space being invaded once someone refers to the narrative picked up through algorithmic disclosure.

 

Concluding discussion on the networked therapeutic culture

I propose the term networked therapeutic culture to describe the dialogic and interactive therapeutic culture that has emerged on social media and can be characterised by, first, the more accessible platform for speaking out, second, its shaping of the therapeutic discourses and third, how it affords accumulating self-disclosure in return for help.
First, social media, where anyone has access to broadcasting their pain, reorganizes the who, when and how one can claim personal suffering (Chouliaraki, 2020). It offers a new discursive space for speaking out (Salmenniemi, 2019)⁠ for those whose voice may have been less heard and on topics that have been suppressed. While social media as such, and this group in particular, encourages self-disclosure, it also rewards the users for posting their personal stories with high levels of attention and engagement, help and advice from others. On the other hand, it makes other people’s posts publicly available and sets these as standards of what is regarded as normal within the group. With consistent participation and encouraged by seeing other members receive answers, users’ confidence in the group grows, making it a viable alternative for help seeking, should the need suddenly arise. This becomes especially crucial when the participant is unaware of official or offline alternatives or these may be inaccessible because of their higher entry barrier or other structural reasons. Social media groups help to seemingly overcome structural problems of access to help, offer an alternative to institutional support, tackle psychological barriers one may have with reaching out to experts and set a low bar for participation. In addition, seeking help from the group gives the participant the sense of agency and self-responsibility that the neoliberal culture requires us to have.

Second, the new and the more accessible platform and the help-seeking groups within it simultaneously expand and shrink the language of the therapeutic culture. Therapeutic culture may reveal itself in other closely connected phenomena, such as new spirituality. As shown in the analysis above, members of the studied group relied on discourses of psychology, spirituality and rationality to frame how they disclosed their problems. The networked nature of social media easily enables us to bring together different discourses that may not otherwise be readily compatible. In this way, therapeutic advice has become decentralized, opposing any specific expertise, and leaves the participants entirely to their own devices when choosing the correct answers. However, the networked nature and the fear of losing privacy contribute to simultaneous shrinking of the therapeutic language, resulting in less detailed descriptions, shielding of important contextual information and conforming to the fast-paced consumption of Facebook posts.
Third, social media affords accumulative self-disclosure and it does so in three main ways. Most typically, self-disclosure in help-seeking posts encourages audience members to also share their own experiences and disclose their own stories within the comment feed, creating a snowballing effect of self-disclosure and contributing to the expansion of the therapeutic culture and the interchangeability of the roles of the help-giver and the help-seeker. In addition, the help-seeker herself may share more information than originally intended. Lack of privacy and nightmare audiences discourage self-disclosure and induce short problem descriptions with little context. These posts, in turn, often require further clarification in order for the audience members to be able to offer help that feels substantial. Social media also allows the disclosure of help-seeker’s information algorithmically, as it shows a list of her earlier posts within the same group. The “therapeutic narratives of selfhood” (Illouz, 2008) are thus not only told by the help-seeker herself, but are algorithmically exposed and shaped by connecting different data points (van der Nagel, 2018). Thus, self-disclosure in the networked therapeutic culture always triggers further disclosures that are possibly unintended or unwanted. While users seek help on social media, they contribute to the further shaping and expansion of the networked therapeutic culture.

Finally, I suggest that this analysis and the conceptual framework of networked therapeutic culture provides an empirical analysis of peoples’ help-seeking behaviours online at a time when mental health and wellbeing have been systematically stigmatized and underfunded, and social media groups increasingly rise to fill the gaps. Future research might ask whether these networked therapeutic cultures go beyond the local spiritual domain described in this article and one may ask, especially during the times of isolation and stress resulting from COVID-19, which other themed communities people seek help from, how these groups shape the discourses and understanding of (mental) health and how these groups contribute to or disrupt the effective solving of a pandemic-related (mental) health crisis. This hopefully enriches the ongoing discussions around public healthcare policies and health misinformation. Furthermore, the article contributes to the academic discussion of self-disclosure and privacy on social media, suggesting that within some contexts the need for help encourages self-disclosure, with possibly unforeseen consequences for the participants’ privacy.

 

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Facebooki kolinud Eesti nõiad ennustavad GIFide abil tulevikku

Facebooki nõiad

Ühismeediaajastul kolivad oma tegevuse Facebooki ka end nõiana määratlevad inimesed. Ehkki ekraani vahendusel ei saa nad osutada klientidele näiteks energiaravi, löövad Facebookis õitsele kiired ennustused pendli või GIFide abil, kirjutavad Tallinna Ülikooli meediauurijad Berit Renser ja Katrin Tiidenberg.

“”Nõiad Facebookis” võib kõlada esialgu kentsakalt, sest intuitiivselt tundub esimene arhailine ja teine vastupidiselt modernne nähtus,” seletab Berit Renser. Samas on eestlased tema sõnul üsna agarad Facebooki kasutajad ning nõiad ei erine siin oma kaasmaalastest kuigivõrd.

Koos sostiaalmeediauurija Katrin Tiidenbergiga vaatleski Berit Renser end nõiana määratlevate eestlaste tegevust Facebookis. Täpsemalt huvitas uurijaid, kuidas nõiad Facebooki ja selle vestlusrakendust Messengeri kasutavad, ning kuidas mõjutavad nimetatud platvormide omadused ja lubavused nõidade tegevust.

Fotod käelabadest ja meelerännak telefonis

Eesti nõiad kasutavad Facebooki ja Messengeri üsna erineval määral, tõdeb Berit Renser. “Mõni piirdub lihtsalt kasutajaprofiili tegemisega ja kasutab seda sõpradega suhtlemiseks, mõni kasutab sotsiaalmeediat teadlikult turunduskanalina ja mõni on endale terve suure kogukonna kasvatanud,” loetleb ta.

Nõia aktiivsus sõltub tema eesmärkidest ja tähelepanuvajadusest. Osa nõidu suhtleb ajakirjanikega meelsasti ja naudib enda näo ja nimega esinemist, teine osa eelistab aga avalikust tähelepanust hoiduda. Renseri sõnul näevad just viimased Facebookis päästerõngast. “Neil tekib võimalus kasutada pseudonüüme, fotomaterjali ja muud infot, mis varjavad inimese nime, nägu või asukohta,” ütleb ta.

Igal nõial on oma lemmikteemad ja -tegevused. Mõni peab end ravitsejaks või psühholoogiks, mõni tegeleb surmateemadega, mõnele meeldib ennustada tulevikku. Just see viimane, ennustamise teema, on Renseri hinnangul abiotsijate seas populaarne ning hõlpsasti online-formaadis tehtav. “Pendli, kaartide ja ruunidega saab ennustada vestlusaknas või videokõnes – inimene kirjutab kommentaaridesse oma küsimuse. Ennustaja teisel pool ekraani tõmbab kaardi ja annab abiotsijale kaardi tõlgenduse,” toob ta näiteid.

Lahendusi on veelgi: näiteks võib nõid saata kliendile vahelduvate kaardipiltidega GIFi, kus klient saab klikkides endale õige ennustuskaardi valida. Mõnes grupis ennustavad nõiad tulevikku aga inimeste postitatud käelabapiltide või selfide järgi. Samas pakub osa nõidu kiirete meetodite kõrval vestlusaknas või telefonitsi näiteks pikemaid konsultatsioone, meelerännakuid ja kaugpuhastust kodule.

Mida lubavad lubavused?

Renserit ja Tiidenbergi huvitas aga just platvormi lubavuste mõju nõidade tegevusele.

Igal ühismeediaplatvormil on oma funktsioonid ja omadused: Facebooki iseloomustavad näiteks koht kasutaja nime ja profiilipildi jaoks, teiste kasutajate tegevusi näitav muutuv uudisvoog ning võimalus luua ise gruppe ja lehti. “Lubavuste puhul me räägime pigem sellest, kuidas inimesed neid funktsioone ja omadusi tajuvad,” seletab Berit Renser, “ehk et mida inimesed arvavad, et nad Facebookiga teha saavad ja ei saa. Samuti et millist käitumist Facebooki omadused võimaldavad, soodustavad või piiravad.”

Sestap võib Facebook panna ennast nõiana määratlevaid inimesi nende seniseid tegevusi üle vaatama. Kõike ekraani vahendusel paraku teha ei saa. “Näiteks on üsnagi raske olla Facebooki vahendusel käte abil ravitseja,” märgib Renser.

Nõiad leiavad lubavustest tingitud takistustele aga loomingulisi lahendusi. Nad saadavad loitse kirja teel, sümboleid fotona ja muusikat salvestustena. Mõni ravib abiotsijaid veebis kaugteel isegi energiameditsiini võtetega.

Teised loovad lubavuste pinnalt päris uusi tegutsemisviise, olgu need siis igapäevased virtuaalsed ühistegevused või meelelahutuslikud ennustusformaadid. “Mõnel päeval võib nõid teha kiirkorras nõustamise mitmekümnele inimesele,” ütleb Renser. “Abiotsija trükib sotsiaalmeedia seinale küsimuse: “Millal lapse saan?” ja teisel pool ekraani vastab pendliga nõid “Kahe aasta pärast”.” Osa nõidu ennustab aga tasuta kõigile, kes esitavad kviitungi annetusest mõnele varjupaigale.

Renseri sõnul on kirjeldatud uued tegevused kiired ja kaasahaaravad, kuid nagu näitas annetusekviitungite näide, ka kohati sotsiaalselt tundlikud.

Nõiad tähelepanuturul

Facebooki algoritmid teevad nõidade positused paljudele kasutajatele nähtavaks ja kavatavad Renseri sõnul postitajate tuntust. Ühismeedias valitseb aga autoriteetide asemel arvamuste paljusus ning nimekaks võib saada igaüks.

“Ühelt poolt tekitab see ka nõidadele peavalu, sest tihti jõuab nende jutule inimene, kes on nõu küsinud veel kolmelt internetinõialt, aga pole rahu leidnud,” ütleb Renser. Teisalt teeb interneti anonüümsus nõidu valvsaks, sest iga nõiana tegutseja või peidetud identiteediga pöörduja ei pruugi olla alati heade kavatsustega.

Üksteise võidu jälgijaid koguvate postituste kõrval tekivad Facebookis ka nõidu ühendavad grupid. Renseri sõnul on neis gruppides kindlad käitumisreeglid, juhid ja visionäärid ning liigne infomüra praagitakse grupi seinalt välja. “Nii muutub see grupp usaldusväärseks ruumiks, kuhu pöörduda ja kus autoriteetsust kogub nii grupp tervikuna kui ka selle peamised tegutsejad indiviididena,” ütleb ta.

Olgu siis üksikpostitajana või grupis, kasvatab iga nõia mainet ja jälgijaskonda tema postituste juurde kogunev tähelepanu. “Kui sa oma Facebooki infovoos näed pidevalt kedagi sõna võtmas, ja et tema positustel on hulga laike, teda tänatakse abi eest või soovitatakse teiste poolt, siis see mõjub ka asjast huvitanutele staatuse näitajana,” seletab uurija.

Postituste juurde kommentaaride ja meeldimistena tekkiv tähelepanu annab nõidade tööle kiiret tagasisidet. Nõiad saavad niimoodi hõlpsalt aru, millised teemad korduvad ja inimesi huvitavad ning millised trendid valitsevad Eestis ja mujal maailmas.

“Nagu üks minu informantidest ütles, siis alguses oli tal sahtlis ravimtaimede kotike, aga nüüd on sellest saanud ruunikivide kotike,” räägib Renser. “Alguses planeeris ta Facebooki lehel ravimtaimede kohta postitada, aga kui temalt iga päev ruunidega ennustamist paluti, siis pidi ta selle lõpuks ära õppima.”

Suurem osa eestlasi on nõiausku

Nõidade populaarsus ei tule Berit Renserile üllatusena, sest tema sõnul usub Eestis ülivõimetega inimestesse 59 protsenti elanikkonnast. Nõidade menust kõneleb ka nende jälgijaskond ühismeedias: suurimas kohalikus nõiduseteemalises Facebooki grupis on üle 27 000 liikme.

“Kui olen suhelnud inimestega, kes nõia poole pöörduvad, siis jääb kõlama, et vähemalt vanematel inimestel on esimesed kokkupuuted nõidadega olnud juba üsna ammu ja Facebooki liikumine on lihtsalt huvi loomulik jätk,” kirjeldab ta.

Kõik nõidusest huvitatud inimesed ei pöördu aga nõia poole, sest kardavad näiteks kallist teenustasu või liigseid teadmisi oma tuleviku kohta. Siin toob ühismeedia nõiad Renseri sõnul abiotsijatele lähemale ning teeb nad kättesaadavamaks. “Mõnes mängulisemas formaadis suhtlemine, näiteks otseülekanded või GIFidelt ennustamine, on seetõttu tehtud väga lihtsaks,” ütleb ta, “kuid Facebooki Messengeris nõiale otse kirjutamine näib endiselt nõudvat teatud eneseületust.”

Berit Renser ja Katrin Tiidenberg kirjutavad nõidadest sotsiaalmeedias ajakirjas Social Media + Society.

Loe orginaalartiklit ERR Novaatoris