Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook vice president for user growth, voices concerns about social media platforms. He says that “The ability to connect and share information so quickly — as well as the instant gratification people give and receive over their posts — has resulted in some negative consequences” and goes on to say “We compound the problem. We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection, because we get rewarded in these short-term signals — hearts, likes, thumbs up — and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth. And instead, what it is is fake, brittle popularity that’s short-term and leaves you even more, admit it, vacant”.
A study by the University of Würzburg found that social networks are an ideal stage for narcissists to showcase themselves. Accordingly, a lot of people with narcissistic traits are drawn to these platforms as a new study conducted by psychologists.
Clinical Narcissism is characterized an excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, an inability to handle any criticism, and a sense of entitlement. The study did not conclude that social media creates narcissism, but instead bolsters narcissistic behavior in those susceptible to it. We are obsessed with our own social media profiles. Chloe Metzger reports for Marie Claire, “We are living in an era where humans are putting forth these edited and inflated versions of their lives, this ‘idealized self,’ and then they are, quite literally, falling in love with themselves.” Our avatars are better than us. This self centered behavior is increasing social pressure and anxiety. “Vanity is not something new, but has become accepted, even applauded, thanks to regular people like Kim Kardashian getting famous for taking attractive selfies and looking good. Technology has democratized the celebrity and sent a message that normal people can achieve fame just by putting together the right look. We are groomed to be a generation of self-obsessed humans looking for validation. And, when you examine the psychology behind the phenomenon, it makes sense as to why iGen became one so quickly. People psychologically crave social affirmation.” Emotionally, narcissism is a form of self protection and survival.
Self love highlights and expresses the reciprocal nature of social media relationships which lead to superficial communications and gestures. There is a form of self aggrandizing in which some users and service providers equally exploit major tragedies as a way of promoting themselves and their own interests. It is difficult to measure sincerity through online messages, even tone in email can be loss or misinterpreted. I have no doubt that this type of insincerity exists, but proving intent and measuring how much is there is very difficult. Exploring intent touches on the deepest darkest corners of the human condition, places that even the worst offenders are not honest about…even to themselves. Advertising tactic or social awareness is irrelevant and perhaps could be both. What we can determine is how these actors affect their followers. Every life event, however irrelevant to their social media audience, becomes a source of self-promoting content. If in turn there is an exchange of false validation, the reciprocal cycle serves to perpetuate itself.
Aleks Eror, contributer to the online magazine Highsnobiety, rants of his real cynicism of how human tragedies have been converted into content for Facebook and a promotional opportunity for the people using it. “Others would dismiss as normal human behavior what people have always engaged in: conversation, collective mourning, the voicing of opinions. The only thing that separates it from a post-funeral wake, they would have you believe, is the medium. Superficially, yes, they are correct, but there’s a fundamental difference here: before the digital era these were behaviors we engaged in discretely with people who have direct relevance to our lives. Social media is a very public forum. Facebook users aren’t simply voicing their condolences for the people who die or affected in horrible events, they are placing themselves within the context of the tragedy”. Of course there is much heartfelt response to these events, there is no doubt that through these networks people feel empowered to voice real concern. However the feeling of empowerment is false if it supplants real action. Actor and comedian Louis CK, painfully points this out in his satirical skit “Thank You Scott” during his appearance as host of Saturday Night Live.
Ironically, Louis CK, later himself becomes a a media pariah as he is caught up and condemned for his own bad behavior and alleged sexual harassment by the #metoo outrage fueled by social media.
In the Netflix series Black Mirror, a science fiction series in the tradition of the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits explores the dark side of technology. “Nosedive” is the first episode of the third season of the anthology series is set in a world where people can rate each other from one to five stars for every interaction they have, and which can impact their socioeconomic status. Lacie played by Bryce Dallas Howard is a young woman overly obsessed with her ratings; she finds an opportunity to elevate her ratings greatly and move into a more luxurious residence after being chosen by her popular childhood friend as the maid of honor for her wedding. Her obsession leads to several mishaps on her journey to the wedding that culminate in a rapid reduction in her ratings and a terrible failure. Viewers intuitively understand the meaning and metaphor of social capital in this story. We feel the desperation and awkwardness of this young woman as she seeks this “perfect” existence and feel trapped when we realize it can only be provided through the approval of others.
Despite the extremity of the situation depicted, I included this reference to the science fiction Netflix series “Black Mirror” in this post because in many ways it captures the feeling of anxiety one can feel when attempting to present a “perfect” version of themselves. We care what strangers think of us, we care when we apply for a loan or a job, when we meet strangers and know they will look us up online afterwards or even right in front of you. Our self consciousness whispers: How do we look online? In our photos? In our video conferencing app? Sometimes, other people’s judgments do have real effect on our lives. Science fiction and horror are often projections of issues we currently face in society. It often telegraphs or forecast visions of a future we then proceed to realize such as Dick Tracy’s watch or a visual based society stuck in the superficial moment such as Fahrenheit 451.
But this depiction of social media’s impact on our lives is not that far from what teenagers experience daily in reality. In her article “13 Now, what it is like to grow up in the age of likes, lols and longing. Jessica Contrera applies a micro-sociological perspective by following a thirteen year old girl coming of age and her relationship to her smartphone. The writing style of the article captures the fragmented attention experience of the girl. Providing an insider’s view to challenges presented by the complex landscape of connecting to others, maturity, content such as pro-anorexia and self mutilation websites, flirting with boys, social standing and the need to keep up. The article provides unfiltered access to a vocabulary, culture and mores that would be hidden from and misunderstood by adults and outsiders as a young teen girl navigates her inner emotional landscape and its relationship to the outside world through her devices. Here too we see parallels to “Nose dive”, the way in which she learns from other girls how to solicit likes. The importance of exchanging tbh. “It kind of, almost, promotes you as a good person. If someone says, ‘tbh you’re nice and pretty,’ that kind of, like, validates you in the comments. Then people can look at it and say ‘Oh, she’s nice and pretty.’ ” This seems unhealthy and statistics regarding teen depression support that view.
Living only in the moment, deleting anything that is negative or ugly in an instant is a perfect storm for superficiality. As Clive Thompson explains: Modern media was changing our relationship to time. It gave us “an obsession with the immediate… a criticism of the moment at the moment,” Stop paying attention to last week, or even yesterday is a format that “inevitably shrinks time down to the present, to a one-day world of the immediate and the transitory.” It made us creatures of “present-mindedness.” A culture or people that is stuck in the present is one that can’t solve big problems. If you want to plan for the future, if you want to handle big social and political challenges, you have to decouple yourself from day-to-day crises, to look back at history, to learn from it, to have a healthy perspective. You have to be usefully detached from the moment. An inability to move past the moment makes any emotional turmoil critical and intolerable. Like Lacie, locked up because her rating was so low she was deemed unfit to be around others and participate in civil society, she finds herself in a symbolically self constructed prison. Without depth, we become slaves to our egos, believing the false images we have curated of ourselves …..prisoners trapped under perfect pressure.
Shawn is an Information Technology manager in Washington D.C. and a graduate student at Quinnipiac University pursuing his masters in Interactive Media and Communications.
Scenes from the Black Mirror “Nose Dive” episode:
Introduction to society driven by social media ranking.
When life happens and things go bad – airport scene.
Wang, Amy. (2017). Former Facebook VP says social media is destroying society with ‘dopamine-driven feedback loops’. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/12/12/former-facebook-vp-says-social-media-is-destroying-society-with-dopamine-driven-feedback-loops/?utm_term=.5fe7b38b54ee
Thompson, Clive. THIS → Social media is keeping us stuck in the moment. (2018, September 30). Retrieved from https://this.org/2017/11/15/social-media-is-keeping-us-stuck-in-the-moment
University of Würzburg. (2017, April 18). Narcissism and social networking. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 30, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170418094255.htm
Metzger, C. (2018). I’m in Love With Myself: The Age of Digital Narcissism. Marie Claire. Retrieved from https://www.marieclaire.com/culture/a16767138/social-media-narcissism
Eror, A. (2017). Social Media has Created a Generation of Self-obsessed Narcissists. Highsnobiety. Retrieved from https://www.highsnobiety.com/2017/03/14/social-media-narcissism
Contrera, J. (2016) 13, right now: This is what it’s like to grow up in the age of likes, lols and longing. Retreived from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/style/2016/05/25/13-right-now-this-is-what-its-like-to-grow-up-in-the-age-of-likes-lols-and-longing/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.2864fedc863b
Nosedive (Black Mirror) – Wikipedia. (2018, September 29). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nosedive_(Black_Mirror)
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