Oh Déjà Vu: On Social Media and Narcissism [Redux]

#hackacad [Originally posted on Never Neutral on 2009/08/27].

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Panel crop from Geek and Poke

"STUDY: Social Media Is for Narcissists” reads the headline. Symptomatic of a culture of intellectual laziness obsessed with simplified notions and easy solutions, the article summarizes an already-summarized news release from the San Diego State University, which concluded that “social networking sites enhance self-centered traits of young people.”

Unavoidably, there’s the feeling that we have been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. "Narcissism" is a term with a complex theoretical history that is often used very liberally, especially in word of mouth about blogging and social media. Self-centeredness and narcissism are, of course, not necessarily the same thing. The days we live in facilitate the fast distribution of ideas through headlines and catchy phrases (I found out of the study in this way) and rarely is there time for in-depth critical reflection. Without reading the full SDSU study report it’s hard to reach a clear conclusion, but certainly the declaration “Social Media Is for Narcissists” is transmitting the wrong message. The study in question is publicized a few months after the publication of the study’s director’s book, titled The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. According to the Mashable.com post I quoted above one of the questions used in the survey read:

Question: How much do you agree or disagree with the statement “People in my generation use social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace) for self-promotion, narcissism, and attention-seeking”

I find it hard not to see a bias in the way the question is posited, especially knowing that before the study was publicized by SDSU the study’s director had already published a book with a particular take on the question of narcissism. Here I’d like to go back to 2004, when American psychoanalyst and poet Nick Piombino posted a series of articles on "Blogging and Narcissism" which are still relevant for the debate.

Much of what is being said about “social media” was said about blogging before, as it was said of "traditional" literature and art before that. It is ironic that in a culture that embraces, encourages and demands self-sufficiency and autonomy recent representational methods (such as social media) are being accused of propagating “the narcissism epidemic”. (Susan Sontag would have had a lot to say about the pejorative medical metaphor). As Piombino brilliantly explained,

At this moment in time, blogging, as a writing movement, is blessed with an opportunity to evolve a writing tendency that can combine self-sufficiency with empathy in a way that can be advantageous to the individual writer, and at the same time to the writing community, the local community, the nation, and the world. Blogging is quite capable of allowing individual writers quite a lot of space to take a place on the continuum of community involvement and sustain quite a lot of automonomy. This is largely because of the technological advances inherent in html linking, and the fact that, at the moment, it is being made available free of charge.

We can easily substitute “blogging” in Piombino’s writing for “social media” without betraying its message. Blogging and social media are representational methods which allow the design of “profiles” which are an online extension of ourselves. Social media and blogging do not have to be more “narcissistic” than a good resume or CV. The average professional job advert seeks extraordinary qualities that strictly speaking only pathologically narcissistic individuals would truly believe they honestly possess.

The demands of offline social life and “networking” are based on a self-sufficiency most people struggle to build, and the freedom to design appealing digital profiles is unprecedented. I would dare to say this can be positive in the development of a healthy personality. There is an important contradiction between an understanding of social media as promoting self-centeredness and the phenomenology of social media because the latter is supposed to enable the opening of the self towards the Other. “Linking” and “networking” are the key words here, which short-circuit with a notion of a self which only cares about itself. Moreover, it should be noted that those who think that social media promotes or enables negative attitudes (because there is no doubt that “self-promotion, narcissism and attention-seeking” are used pejoratively) do use social media.

The tensions between a culture that encourages a highly developed sense of self-esteem, popularity amongst peers and competitiveness and a contradictorily conservative and hypocritical condemnation of those same values is enhanced by social media, which in a way is just an online public version of “old media” self-representational methods such as business cards, demos, CVs, statements of purpose, fashion styles, publication lists, etc.

Reading about this study also made me reflect up to what extent academic studies have an ethical responsibility to seek knowledge and ask more open-ended questions rather than looking to confirm previous opinions or the researcher’s academic career (it seems to me the study wanted and needed to prove that social media is “narcissistic”; this study quite conveniently complements the book almost like a media tie-in). One wonders if narcissism is not in the reflecting eye of the researcher. Not that narcissism is a bad thing…

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