Narcissism & The Degradation of A Social Society?


Originally published August 19, 2016, TheThirdCitizen.Com

Welcome to the age of digital narcissism, a world of endless opportunities for ostentation, and unlimited bragging possibilities. Showing-off has never been easier and, ironically, celebrated. Until the 90s, the media provided an escape from reality by transporting consumers to the fictional universe of sitcoms, soap operas and series. Then came reality TV, which turned our attention back to ourselves by broadcasting the allegedly genuine and ultra-mundane lives of everyday people, upgrading trash TV to a cultural blockbuster: couch potatoes watching couch potatoes. In the past decade, social media has taken us to unchartered territories of egotistic adulation by enabling everybody to broadcast their life and be the star of their own 24/7 hour show: consumers became actors and consumable products at once.

It is noteworthy that digital exhibitionism and inappropriate self-disclosure have been at the core of every mega-successful app and website. It all begun with MySpace; a directory for wannabe pop stars and DJ's. Then came Facebook, the encyclopedia of common people. YouTube gave everybody their own TV channel, and Blogger and Tumblr made us all creative writers. Twitter brought in tons of followers and LinkedIn positive endorsements, because who cares about our faults? Instagram made Selfie the word of the year for 2014, while Tinder – the ultimate dating tool for narcissists – and Snapchat – the bastion of ephemeral sexting – make Facebook look intellectual. And if your concern is to remain connected after death, there is a whole movement, the digital afterlife industry, dedicated to the preservation of your narcissistic social media activity after you die. As Liveson's slogan puts it, "when your heart stops beating, just keep tweeting".

We are now more connected than ever, but also less interested in other people, except when it comes to finding out what they think about us. It is as if being closer to others made us more antisocial. Freud, who would no doubt have thousands of Twitter followers today (if he could sum-up his views in 140-characters), referred to this as the "hedgehog dilemma". That is, humans are like hedgehogs in the winter: they need to get close to each other to cope with the cold, but they cannot get too close without hurting each other with their spines.

Needless to say, most social media users are not narcissistic. Yet, social media is to narcissists what crack is to crack addicts: the more narcissistic you are, the heavier your social media use is. Studies have shown that the number of status updates, attractive selfies, check-ins, followers and friends, are all positively correlated with narcissism, as is the tendency to accept invites from strangers, particularly when they are attractive. The reason for these correlations is that narcissistic individuals are much more likely to use social media to portray a desirable, albeit unrealistic, self-image, accumulate virtual friends and broadcast their life to an audience. Clout is a better measure of narcissism than of social reach.

Sure, there's nothing wrong with seeking others' approval – I think a healthy identity actually depends on paying careful attention to what others think of us and the way we are perceived. Furthermore, the need to be appreciated is a cornerstone of both psychological wellbeing and living in civilization. When taken too far, however, the desire to be accepted morphs into a relentless quest for status, which undermines other people and impairs our ability to build and maintain happy relationships and successful careers. My point is, be present in the world. Make it mean something. This is my challenge I guess; trying to balance being someone IRL and URL, and fighting with all my might to make sure those are the same thing.