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Fomenting narcissism

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Sunday, Sep 28, 2008

A few weeks ago, a NYT Magazine article prompted me to speculate about the implications of microblogging, but I thought I should at the same time, try to use Twitter in earnest and see what it was really like. At first, I had a really hard time writing anything. I had a strong inclination to lie, basically because I didn’t want to be frank about whatever it was that I was doing. Then it struck me to not mention what I was doing but instead transcribe random half-baked thoughts I may have had and use the space constraint Twitter imposes to transform them into gnomic, oracular pronouncements. This was sort of fun for a few days, and I started to get a sense of what might prompt someone to Twitter obsessively. I started to take my half-assed asides seriously. For the day or two that I was into it, I started living my life in search of snappy sentences, and this seemed like a life being lived poetically for about 24 hours, and then it just seemed totally contrived. But before that, I began to believe that I owed a report on my important thoughts to the world, that it was imperative that I share. I had this notion that people were out there eager to have bite-size pieces of my mind, and I was anxious to be consumed this way, as if my ideas were like those little Halloween candy bars. In other words, Twitter started to stoke my egomania (even more than mere blogging already does).


It may be that I don’t have a robust enough online network, or enough online-offline confluence to make Twitter work as anything other than a chance for me to try to make pithy, oblique observations. I’m not, for example, going to Twitter my whereabouts in the hopes that someone will find me in the real world, and I am not going to Twitter some personal dilemma I’m confronted with and expect someone out there to suggest solutions. And I am not interested in reading anyone else’s Twitters. I have too many blog posts to catch up with as it is, and yes, I know they are short and easily consumable, but it just seemed pointless. I would only be interested in the ones that were cryptic, and then these would take time to decipher that I could be spending reading up on, say, the bailout follies instead.


But the main reason I quit twittering is because it made me feel like a phony; I found myself trying to think of clever ways to describe what I was “doing.” Being honest seemed beside the point, and the more I twittered the less representative my posts were of who I actually think I am, and I started to think that some new dangerous personality I could become was starting to manifest. I didn’t want to get stuck there.


Anyway, I was reminded of this by this recent study about social networking and narcissism, which found “Narcissism predicted (a) higher levels of social activity in the online community and (b) more self-promoting content in several aspects of the social networking Web pages.” The main upshot is that one might be able to indentify narcissists through their online profiles. As one account of the study describes it:


Some researchers in the past have found that personal Web pages are more popular among narcissists, but Campbell said there’s no evidence that Facebook users are more narcissistic than others.
“Nearly all of our students use Facebook, and it seems to be a normal part of people’s social interactions,” Campbell said. “It just turns out that narcissists are using Facebook the same way they use their other relationships – for self promotion with an emphasis on quantity of over quality.”
Still, he points out that because narcissists tend to have more contacts on Facebook, any given Facebook user is likely to have an online friend population with a higher proportion of narcissists than in the real world. Right now it’s too early to predict if or how the norms of online self-promotion will change, Campbell said, since the study of social networking sites is still in its infancy.


I wonder, though, if maintaining online profiles doesn’t foment narcissism. If narcissism is a matter of privileging quantity over quality, then online networks—which are mainly a means of processing friendships more efficiently and with less spontaneity and more command-and-control through personal press releases on profile pages— would seem to provide fertile ground for narcissism to bloom. They encourage us to regard the pseudo-reciprocity of frequent updating for the actual commitments of friendship. This seems like the slippery slope to full-blown self-centeredness, in which sharing oneself seems an acceptable substitution for the ability to listen.


By providing the illusion of a world out there waiting for you to upload new photos and provide an urgent update about what you are doing right this instant, it certainly prompts self-aggrandizement. When I was Twittering, the imagined audience prompted me to post when I had nothing to share and encouraged me to invent something. And sometimes I log on to Facebook and feel jealous of all this activity logged there that my “friends” have been engaged in. I wonder if I just started dumping stuff into my Facebook page, it will make me feel more important, more connected, more interesting. I think that making a broadcast makes me register in some indelible way on the universe, and I suddenly have the moment of illusory control over my own fame, my own significance—and it seems so easy. Just cough up a clever line, or post an ambiguous photo, and just like that, I have (in my own mind, imagining the minds of others) intriguing.


Social networks and microblogging allow us to always have a stage on which to perform our personality successfully, and the allure of making that performance instead of engaging life more directly becomes pretty powerful—spending time thinking about what to Twittter instead of actually doing things that one might report about.

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