Facebook and the New Narcissism

If Facebook is a sort of externalized subjectivity, interacting with the site is a bit like sitting at the control panel of one's own personality -- not a responsibility I want.

This post has a rather grandiose title and will in no way live up to it. But anyway, I have been mulling over the possibility of writing a book, and one of the possible topics is the "new narcissism" -- this despite narcissistic personality disorder being dropped from the DSM, presumably because it is so ubiquitous, the diagnosis no longer distinguishes anything. Who isn't self-important and pathologically attention-hungry?

I certainly am, and maybe I am just projecting. This is obviously a serious problem if I would want to have any credibility on the subject; most likely I would have to write a sort of survivor memoir, a sort of Narcissist, Interrupted. One of the main things that has cued me to the depth of my self-centeredness is Facebook, but not in the ways one might expect. I may have fallen into the trap at times of calling the compulsive desire to share things online narcissistic, and perhaps that is, though I think it is perhaps better understood as a consequence of (1) changes to the labor market for certain kinds of information services that brings about a need for workers to present themselves as creative, adaptable personal brands, and (2) changes to social relations brought on by the intense competition for attention and the acute squeeze on time that follows from having so much media to consume. Social life now comes with much steeper opportunity costs, and social media is one tool for managing them.

What is narcissistic for me about Facebook is my intense aversion to it. I find it hard to encounter all this evidence that all these people who are purportedly my friends are enjoying their lives without making any reference to me. It's almost as if I am not at the center of their universe. This is hard to face. Most of the time I am so ensconced in my private world that I don't realize my friends are doing fun stuff without me. And when I see them in person, they generally appear interested in interacting with me, which is mollifying. But when their communications reach me but are not for me, I feel insulted and threatened. It is clear that they can go on perfectly well without me. I get an intimation of my death.

If I understand him right, Freud has a somewhat crazy and highly economistic view of narcissism (See On Narcissism [doc], which includes his classic admission in response to a question about a detail of his own theory: "I no longer recollect what it was I had in mind at the time") that involves various psychic drives achieving a more or less tenuous and workable equilibrium. This balance is a moving target requiring all sorts of repression and accommodation and adaptation, a variety of various mechanisms for venting the unconscious, for letting various drives exhaust themselves or replenish themselves and so on. If you accept that theory, then it's worth wondering whether Facebook and other social media have caused a sort of epistemic break that has rendered old strategies for managing the drives ineffective, overwhelming our psychic defenses. In fact, that is how I feel when I am confronted by the landing page of Facebook after I log in: defenseless. This will sound crazy, but I typically wince and sometimes I actually cover my face with my hands for a moment. (Does anyone else do this?)

Does social media give us a chance to pretend to manage those drives technologically, through well-designed GUIs? If Facebook is a sort of externalized subjectivity, interacting with the site is a bit like sitting at the control panel of one's own personality -- not a responsibility I want. I really, really don't want to consciously tinker with my psychic balance in lonely, impulsive moments, and have my adjustments broadcast immediately to everyone I know -- particularly when their evident ability to get along without me makes me panic. It all reminds me of the wizard of Oz sailing off in the balloon: "I can't come back, I don't know how it works! Good-bye, folks!" (Though perhaps the movie quote most appropriate to my Facebook dismay is this Lebowski standby: "Nothing is fucked? The goddamn plane has crashed into the mountain!") The sense that Facebook is making me see how self-centered I am -- not coincidental, since it promises to organize the web around you -- makes me wonder if should be sharing a lot more to get over myself. But them I'm afraid of effacing myself with each new attempt at self-definition, that eventually I will disappear over the rainbow into my own babble. I don't want my status update to be just another one among the many that confront me; I don't want anyone else thinking my life can be reduced to that mere stream of content.

One of my many suspicions is that social media use our guilt about our self-centeredness and our narcissism against us to provoke us to give them more free content. I can feel less an egomaniac by sharing, by liking, by reading others' comments and adding my own. Interacting in these prescribed ways can feel therapeutic and benevolent without becoming overwhelming. Thus sites like Facebook play both ends against the middle, intimating that our sharing will somehow negate our inner megalomaniac while simultaneously giving it full play. It whispers to us, "No one cares about you; everyone cares about you." The resulting dissonance is apparently pretty productive and eventually will be very profitable, if it isn't already.

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