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Facebook, the Projected Self and Narcissism

When I first wrote about online friendships for this blog, I felt like the biggest point I had to make was about agency. Online acquaintances, though referred to simplistically and uniformly as 'contacts' and 'friends' may serve a variety of emotional or professional functions which are often prefigured by the medium. Naturally, various sites have evolved to more efficiently accommodate specific networking objectives.

In this essay I want to talk about the lingering issues which impact identity construction on what is still, in the West at least, the most recognisable social network of all: Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook. If you agree with me that the design and functionality of each social networking medium directly influences or dictates content posted by users, then you must also agree that such media actively define methods of self-presentation. Neither of these points is particularly provocative. However, things get interesting when one considers the overtly negative or positive effects of these social structures. Today, I want to discuss a possible negative: narcissism.

"If the design of each social networking medium directly influences content posted by users, then such media must also define methods of self-presentation"

Narcissism is a word everyone thinks they can define, but the list of potential definitions for it is very long and very diverse. Many of us will be familiar with the Greek myth which relates how the beautiful hunter Narcissus, so captivated by his own image in a reflective pool, is unable to drag himself away and dies there, staring into a quivering impression of himself. On, the entry for Facebook narcissism is a wonderfully confused array of embittered-sounding criticisms of certain Facebook faux pas:

"Dead giveaways are: (1.) Adding hundreds of random strangers of the opposite sex. (2.) Cussing somebody out on Facebook but not talking to anybody in real life. (3.) Having over 50-75 pictures of themselves, alone, where it was clear they were taking pictures of themselves and have no shame in it. (4.) Updating every single thing they do {I.E. Sittin' on the toilet, ;) haha}"

The 'definition' includes this further example: "Also exhibited if the person says things like "SEXY" on their own picture comments." This imprecise rant only gestures at the reality of what a psychologist might term 'narcissism', but it at least indicates one important factor: certain Facebook activities are considered excessively egotistical and there are roughly established guidelines (which differ among certain demographic groups of users) as to what those activities are. There is, indeed, paranoia over whether one might already be a Facebook narcissist. This Teen Vogue article entitled, "Are you a Facebook narcissist?" seems, ironically, to sum up that fear of self-obsession in a magazine which heavily stresses the importance of superficial factors in self-presentation. What is certainly clear, however, is that there are some slightly variable but intensely sensitive unspoken rules about how much self-gratification is permissible, even though the line between self-confidence and arrogance is sometimes quite difficult to see.

Psychologist Alexander Lowen provided his own definition of narcissism in his 1985 text, Denial of the True Self. A publication about self-construction in schoolchildren recently summarised Lowen's use of the term like this:

"According to Lowen (1985), narcissism refers to a syndrome characterized by exaggerated investment in one's own image versus one's true self and in how one appears versus how one actually feels. [...] Adults diagnosed as suffering from the narcissism syndrome often complain that their lives are empty or meaningless, and they often show insensitivity to the needs of others. Their behaviour patterns suggest that notoriety and attention are more important to them than their own dignity."

I will explain why I feel that Lowen's definition is particularly interesting to think about in relation to how certain Facebook users manage their profiles, but to get to that point I want to introduce one other assessment of how narcissists tend to dominate society.

Lee Siegel recently brought Christopher Lasch's seminal work The Culture of Narcissism to contemporary attention in an article in the New York Times. Lasch developed his ideas about narcissistic Americans in a post-WWII society which favoured celebrities, idolised attractive politicians and repeatedly told its children that they could achieve anything. As Siegel notes, to Lasch, "the narcissist, driven by repressed rage and self-hatred, escapes into a grandiose self-conception, using other people as instruments of gratification even while craving their love and approval."

This is a more aggressively conceptualised idea of the contemporary narcissist as a Machiavellian figure, whose psychological insecurities fuel his ambition and self-obsession. To me, Lasch's theories seem to apply best to a series of high-profile individuals rather than the members of less publicly visible social groups. Indeed, as Siegel's article points out, Lasch was attempting to deconstruct America culturally and politically, rather than investigate localised psychological phenomena.

However, to best understand what I want to sketch out as my own definition of the Facebook narcissist, and why the very medium of Facebook helps give rise to such a thing, it is important to keep both Lowen and Lasch in mind. To me, the Facebook narcissist is an individual who, with regard to his digitally projected self, has begun to strongly emphasise that same portable identity as essentially formulaic. By that I mean an identity which is repetitive, self-confident, eager to be funny/shocking/pre-emptive and overly fastidious in the maintenance of his or her profile. This is a person whose online identity becomes less an honest, if simplistic, version of an imagined notion of 'true self' and more a marketable brand. This is someone who enjoys constant affirmation of their ability to be entertaining or socially influential via public displays of 'personality' on Facebook. It is an individual encouraged by friends who regularly supply amused comments, frantic clicking of the 'Like' button and mentions in wall posts and notes. If we are talking about genuinely narcissistic behaviour, then these consensual actions will come across as largely disposable, sycophantic gestures.

This kind of exchange is self-destructive (or rather, self-obscuring) in subtle, slow-burning ways. But Facebook of course encourages the stimulation of narcissistic mentalities by plying users with reminders of positive comments made by friends in the past, suggestions of who to add to one's friend list and opportunities to Like practically anything. What is really significant about Facebook is that it is the kind of zone in which disliking something, or trolling (what used to be called "flaming"), is unacceptable. The platform has not yet evolved a system of honest assessment and for that reason Facebook lacks some of the functionality which exists in traditional social scenarios, instead offering an ecosystem which panders to the narcissist's deluded ego.

"it is not clear what sort of response might judiciously be made to a friend 'disliking' something you posted"

Even a 'dislike' button would not really solve this issue. This is firstly because it would continue to reduce discussion and debate to a simple form of binary agreement or disagreement and secondly because it is not clear what sort of response might judiciously be made to a friend 'disliking' something you posted. Negative criticism is more difficult to express and digest than positive criticism. Go to YouTube and find a video of a musician, marvel at the 448 'likes' versus the 12 'dislikes' and also the top comment which quips, "12 people here don't know what real music is!"

Reaffirmation of already acknowledged values is very much in fashion online and consequently, provided no truly outrageous gaffes are made, Facebook is really a very safe medium. Indeed, there are few if any awkward silences on Facebook. If silence greets a status update rather than a flurry of comments, the instinctive feeling of embarrassment in a room of uneasy people does not have to surface. Facebook is therefore very unlike traditional forums where users would invest great amounts of time and energy in order to gain recognition and replies. That system also has its problems, but self-esteem was generally more laboriously cultivated by participating individuals.

Extreme examples of narcissistic bean-counting are made possible by the mechanics of the media we choose to project our identities through. Josh Harris, whose extraordinary personal reaction to the arrival of the internet is documented in We Live in Public, developed a project where he and his wife were watched constantly online via webcams positioned in every room of their house. At one point he said, "If there are 1,000 people watching you one night and 10 the next night, that's the basis of your personal self-worth." This was an intensely intimate projection of the self, without much opportunity for interaction except on the level of text chat with viewers. The imbalance in such a transaction is probably plain for most people to see.

It's critically important to understand that I'm not saying that Facebook will turn you into a narcissist, or even that self-promoting behaviour is inappropriate. Although I wouldn't claim to have an exemplary attitude towards social networking use, I do try quite hard to separate promotion of my productive self (particularly in the form of my writing on this blog) from the presentation of my nominal social self, which actually does not have a very visible role in cyberspace at all. Naturally, those two things aren't completely separate, but they are different enough to consider as such - especially when it comes to deciding what to broadcast and what not to broadcast.

However, I would maintain that a Lowenian theory about the subconscious erosion of personal dignity coupled with that Laschian concept of quantifiable social achievements, albeit on an absurdly pixelated scale, threaten to combine in the unfortunate form of the modern Facebook narcissist. That is the essence of what I have been trying to say here, and it comes down to the fundamental idea that the culturally diffuse idea of narcissism exists in order to keep certain pathologies at bay - it is a socially evolved safeguard against too much competitive behaviour. But if we choose to channel ourselves through communications technology in ways which emphasise our self-indulgent habits, then opportunities for self-discovery are actually limited rather than opened up. The key element in the Narcissus story for me is that moment of being transfixed by the reflection, actually an inversed, intangible presentation of a self. It seems to me that a Facebook narcissist is someone who prioritises that distorted reverberation of their own utterances over interaction with others. In Stendhal's novel Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), a brilliant description of the impact a narcissist makes is to be found.

"She looks at herself instead of looking at you, and so doesn't know you. During the two or three little outbursts of passion she has allowed herself in your favour, she has, by a great effort of imagination, seen in you the hero of her dreams, and not yourself as you really are."

Facebook, as I indicate above, goes a little further in allowing sycophancy to take place. There are many functions available to encourage the narcissist, but no tools to dismantle him. The narcissist outside myth therefore no longer has to rely on reflections in still pools - he blithely sees in all of us the representations of himself he most desires. And it is that fundamental dissonance, that dangerous fracture, which seems always to have plagued human society - and which, it appears to me, Facebook does little to redress.


Since posting this essay, I have received a public reply from Nathan Jurgenson at the fascinating Cyborgology blog. Read it here. I have also written my own reply to Jurgenson's comments here.


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