But First, Let Me Take a Selfie: The Rise of Narcissism in Social Media
Look at me! Look at me! The desperate cries of the day’s Internet selfies echo through one’s mind while scrolling through the news feeds of various social media sites. No longer is a picture worth a thousand words, but instead, a thousand filters. The pose, the camera angle, the lighting, the pout, and of course everyone’s favorite, the filter, all seem to be key elements that must be taken into consideration before posting a picture. The selfie has grown from a simple Internet fad into a worldwide phenomenon over the past few years. In 2014, Techinfographics.com reported that over one million selfies are posted a day, and make up 30% of the pictures posted by 18-25 year olds (Selfie). In fact, it has become so popular that in May of 2014, Merriam Webster added it as an official word to its dictionary (Ross). At first the selfie may seem like a harmless Internet sensation, but upon closer examination, it reveals an unfortunate trend towards a narcissistic mindset of social media users, especially among younger generations. What may start out as simply posting a few pictures and statuses has become a nonstop flow of self-aggrandized material for some, and social media is enabling this to happen. Reflecting on the effects of social media in recent years, the trend towards narcissism is evident, causing many unintentional consequences for teens including placing an overemphasis on friends and status, developing an unrealistic view of the world, and most importantly, an increase in their insecurity.
A Brief History of Social Networking
Although social media exploded within the past decade, its origins can be traced back to the 1980s. Arguably the first sighting of online communication appeared when Ward Christensen developed Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) in 1973. As it grew in popularity, this system operator-run social site allowed users to exchange software, play games with others, send people messages, and participate in public chat rooms. Bulletin Board Systems reached their peak around 1996 and then fell into a rapid decline shortly after the introduction of the Internet. However in some countries such as Taiwan, they still remain extremely popular (Bulletin). Today we may consider Bulletin Board Systems to be the cavemen of social networking, but they still provide an important insight into our nature as humans to want to interact with others and share ideas.
Most would probably consider the beginning of the social media fad to come with the appearance of Friendster in 2002. For my generation who is only familiar with Facebook and beyond, Friendster was created by Jonathan Abrams and was the first popular social networking site during the dawn of the internet. Originally developed by the creator simply just to “meet attractive women” Friendster evolved into a way for users to connect with their friends in real life by asking them to join their network (Rosen). Friendster can be considered a far cry from the social media outlets of today because for the most part, it was safe; a user only interacted with the people they were familiar with and felt comfortable talking to. However Friendster still allowed for the worldwide network of communication that characterizes social media. What went wrong? The reason Friendster is such old news is very simple; it just was not large enough (Rosen). The likelihood of being active on Friendster was determined by the number of friends a person had. Someone who had only one or two friends, for example, quickly lost interest and quit, destroying the delicate balance of a network of friends that was so vital to the site.
This is where sites such as Myspace and Facebook began to thrive. Myspace, developed in 2003 by Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson, skyrocketed social networking. It was distinctive in that it helped to launch many gaming sites and was one of the main reasons for the pop culture phenomenon and increased sharing of music at the time (Rosen). However, no social networking site reached the level of success of Facebook. Developed by Mark Zuckerberg in 2008, Facebook remains the largest social networking site in history with 1.15 billion monthly users currently active on the site (Sophy). Although Myspace has since gone on a downfall, the impact that these two sites have left on social networking history is remarkable. One may wonder why these two were so hugely successful. What made Facebook and Myspace so unique is that they introduced the concept of the profile. After a few required pieces of information such as name, email, gender, and others, users could begin to develop their online persona. On Myspace for example, there is an “About Me” section where users could post things such as their zodiac sign, their sexual orientation, their religion, and their relationship status (Rosen). Also, under the “Who I’d Like to Meet” tab, a person could post their favorite celebrities or athletes (Rosen). Myspace became even more personalized when it allowed users to upload their favorite audio clips, pictures, and videos to their profile. Facebook operates in a similar fashion. In the most recent version, Facebook users have a timeline which displays various pieces of information from different stages in their life. There is also a section where users can post their hometown, education, and relationship status. The site includes a tab for your “likes” which can vary from anything about books to movies to celebrities to sports or others that you enjoy (Rosen). Myspace and Facebook laid the groundwork for creating a virtual “self”. Complete with a person’s likes and dislikes, friend list, and chat centers, it developed into a way for every person to essentially have a clone of themselves on the Internet.
Due to the popularity of sites such as these, even more social media sites have popped up and followed suit in more recent years. As if Facebook was not enough, many young teenagers today have an Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Vine, and Pinterest account. Although with different specificities and different purposes, all of these sites again put an overwhelming emphasis on the profile; a page that is the complete embodiment of a user except virtual. These sites thrive on the idea that our profiles are constantly updated; bringing in new information is what helps the site to stay relevant. Those who do not consistently provide new information to the whole may sometimes be labeled by others as boring and irrelevant. This is why many of these sites also have news feeds, so that users are always kept on their toes with new and exciting updates. Without this constant updating of a profile, people lose interest and get bored. Social media sites, especially within the past five years or so, have been using this mindset to their advantage by promoting the idea that our social media profile is a means of staying relevant and popular. Without it, a person would fall off the virtual map, and for many who have developed a complex social media persona, this is not an option.
It is important to highlight the change that has occurred in the design and functionality of these sites since the days of the BBS to the present social media era. Back in the 1970s, the emphasis of online interaction was on proximity, familiarity, and community (Rosen). The designs were very basic and were mainly centered around personal messaging technology. A user went on these sites to communicate with only those who they knew personally and had a reason to talk to. The technology was new and so the idea of interacting online instead of in person was thrilling enough. People did not need the glitz and the glamour of a profile. However, today this simply is not good enough. Social media sites are becoming more and more focused on the individual instead of the community. People no longer go on these sites to just bear witness to others’ lives, but instead to promote our own. They are becoming a means with which users can bond with strangers over our personal boastings and musings and somehow call that a friendship.
Self-Aggrandizing Features of Social Networking Sites
Besides the profile, many of the specific aspects of modern social networking sites are self-promoting in nature. The first involves the concept of the status. Many social media sites, especially Twitter and Facebook, center on an obsession with updating the rest of the world with our current state of mind. When a Twitter account is opened, for example, the first thing at the top of the page is a status box that reads, “What’s Happening?” Facebook asks a similar message, “What’s going on?” in its status box. It is as if these sites are people themselves, begging users to answer their questions. Because people feel obliged to do so, statuses are updated with every click of the refresh button, letting the rest of the world know how they are doing. In 2013, Facebook added an update to its status, now not only asking us what we are doing, but how we are feeling about it (Kanalley). This is done through its mood feature. The formulation of statuses on Facebook and Twitter has brainwashed many into thinking that the rest of the world cares about every miniscule detail of their lives. While statuses can be positive tools in bringing up important issues or notifying others of things that are truly worthwhile, many times status updates are used for disruptive purposes. Especially among young teenagers, statuses have become more focused on instigating drama, fishing for sympathy, and posting other useless information that is simply used to draw attention. Again, statuses are becoming less about the content, and more about provoking keywords that make people stop and listen to what a person has to say. While this may be less about the social networking sites themselves and more about the types of people who go on them, there are certainly a few features that promote these attention-grabbing moments. For example, Twitter requires that users describe a complete thought in only 140 characters or less. In other words, if someone has something meaningful to say, they have to make it extremely concise. Because it is so hard to create intelligent, eloquent content in such few words, it is often the case that users post simple, unintellectual content simply because it is all they can describe in a sentence or two. Status updates on social networking sites may be preventing insightful conversations from beginning, and may instead be promoting a dumbed-down version of ourselves.
With all social networking sites, there is also a huge emphasis on friend and follower count. While it should be noted that the ability to contact friends and family with whom a person has not seen or heard from in a while is a benefit of social media, many sites seem to follow the trend of promoting the quantity of friends rather than the quality. On sites such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter follower count is highlighted on a person’s profile. More followers are associated with greater popularity, and so for many young people, social media has become less about the content of their posts and more about the number of likes they can get from it. There even exists apps now (such as Instafollow for Instagram) that allows a user to track who is currently following them and who has unfollowed them. Although having more friends or followers means easy access to almost anyone a person has ever come into contact with, it begs the question, “What kind of friends do these people truly represent?” They differ from the types of acquaintances met in real life because when meeting in person, people are limited by time. Because of this, interactions are often thoughtful, interesting, and compassionate; people want to make the most of the time they have with those they care about. These types of interactions are more humanistic and are what develop true friendships that last a lifetime. On the contrary, many friendships that develop online have potential to be superficial in nature and do not develop into relationships of any real value. While of course there are exceptions to this, in general, interactions online do not accurately display our feelings. We cannot show empathy through a comment on someone’s status and we cannot show full agreement and happiness when we “like” a post. For the most part, this is because relationships online do not have a time constraint. Social networking sites encourage us to be constantly involved. Whether it is “checking in”, commenting on other people’s statuses, or poking friends, social media is all about being active 24/7. There exists this mindset on social media that if we are not constantly liking, posting, or commenting on other’s statuses, then we are missing out. While this is great for increasing the quantity of your social networking history, it really encourages self-promotion and a decreased quality in what we have to say online.
Besides the superficial nature of some of the interactions on social networking sites, another way in which these types of online interactions promote narcissistic tendencies is by encouraging competition. For the most part, social networking sites can be places of sharing ideas with those that we care about and using virtual communication in a positive way. However, especially with some of the newer forms of social networking, there are many instances in which social media advocates comparing ourselves to others. Because the lives of others are flashed before a user’s eyes on social media news feeds constantly, they are bound to come across an acquaintance who possesses something that they are jealous of. Whether it has to do with beauty, success, or wealth, people inherently want to post things that make them appear better online. When a user’s friends or followers see these things, it is easy to get upset or jealous of them because they have things that the user do not. On an Instagram profile called Rich Kids of Instagram, teenagers can send in pictures of themselves promoting their well-off lifestyle. If a person follow this profile, it is easy to get caught up the glitz and the glamour and think that this is normalcy. It is sites such as these that cause social media users to become extremely vapid and materialistic people. Jealously only feeds the fire and will often cause people to post even more superficial content in order to fit in. This creates a vicious cycle of constant self-promotion, ruining the original intent of social networking. The problem is that human weakness is never displayed on social media. Statuses are never posted about divorces, unemployment, body insecurity, etc. because it tends to be embarrassing for most people. When discussing social media comparisons, author of the book Flying Without a Net Tom Delong wrote, “No matter how successful we are and how many goals we achieve, this trap causes us to recalibrate our accomplishments and reset the bar for how we define success,” (Gulati). We only compare ourselves to the top 1% of our friends and followers, making it increasingly difficult to have self-confidence online and be completely satisfied with our lives.
Implications of the Narcissistic Trend in Social Networking
This lack of self-confidence can create a lot of complications when developing an online persona. It is bad enough that many young teenagers feel insecure about themselves because of puberty and other changes, but when you add in social media filled with images and statuses of the successful, beautiful, and wealthy, it can be extremely difficult for them to be comfortable in their own skin when online. This unfortunately forces many teens to portray an unrealistic version of themselves on social media in order to recreate their reality and become the person they wish they were. A nationwide study of conducted in 2010 by the Girl Scouts of USA reported that 74% of girls between the ages of 14-17 admitted to using social media as a way to make themselves appear cooler than they thought they actually were (Eldred). Of course social media is making it even easier for teens to accomplish this. If a person has acne, they can use Photoshop and filters to post a more flattering photo of themselves. If a person wants to make their friends think they are more of a hipster, they can like alternative and indie music on Facebook. If someone wants others to believe that they are in a relationship even if they are not, they can change their profile picture to a picture of themselves and their best guy friend. However these false impressions can create major problems because they only bury insecurities further and fuel the self-doubt of peers. Social media users develop the idea that if they portray themselves in a certain manner online, then more people will like them and they will have more friends in return. As a result, this causes people to develop security and confidence based solely on the number of likes or comments they get on a post. However, this once again creates a chain reaction because this kind of mindset ignites narcissism. Narcissism causes a person to get noticed and getting noticed increases their confidence. Once they are overly confident, they become narcissistic, creating a never ending cycle of false hope and frustration. This online narcissism can often spillover into our offline lives. Those who post a lot on social media sites probably tend to distance themselves from their friends and family and act shallower around those who care about them. Although it is certain that these were not the original intentions of social media use, over time the Internet has become a place of artificial love and supportiveness that can lead to many serious issues including feeling of inadequacy and insecurity.
Beginning with the introduction of online interaction in the 1970s until the present day, social networking has undergone many major transitions. In some ways, these transitions have been positive; allowing people to communicate on a more global scale, transferring new ideas, starting trends, and raising awareness of current events. However, the growing reliance on social media in the past decade has caused people to look at it as a stepping stone to develop confidence and create a virtual presence. While on the surface this is not entirely bad, the various mechanisms that have become an integral part of social media use are causing many to become narcissistic and self-centered. Social media has become less about actual interaction and more about self-aggrandizement. If this trend of narcissism in social media continues, people can expect to live in world driven by insecurity and falsification. Social media must be brought back to its original intent and used as a weapon to create change and make history. By taking the emphasis off of appearance, materialism, and self-centeredness, social media can be used to promote creativity, intelligence, and kindness.