Narcissus on Social Media

Here’s a passage from an Aeon article I recently stumbled upon, written by professor of communication Lee Humphreys:

Instead of social media merely connecting us, it has become a cult of notifications, continually trying to draw us in with the promise of social connectivity – it’s someone’s birthday, you have a Facebook memory, someone liked your picture. I’m not arguing that such social connectivity isn’t meaningful or real, but I believe it’s unfair to presume that people are increasingly narcissistic for using these platforms. There’s a multibillion-dollar industry pulling us into our smartphones, relying on a longstanding human need for communication. We share our everyday experiences because it helps us to feel connected to others, and it always has. The urge to be present on social media is much more complex than simply narcissism. Social media of all kinds not only enable people to see their reflections, but to feel their connections as well.

Well, sure. Most of us would say that we use social media to keep up with friends and family, not elevate our public image—and this impulse is relatively similar to diary-writing norms of past generations. And yet I am not persuaded by Humphreys’ case. As I see it, social media makes it extremely easy for narcissism to take root thanks to a unique and specific capability: metrics. With such features as “likes,” “followers,” “shares,” “views,” “clicks,” and all the attendant functions that let us count with fine-tuned precision how much attention we’re getting (or not getting, in comparison to our peers), platforms like Facebook and Instagram present us with far more temptations to narcissism than diaries ever have. There is also a much wider audience on social media than with diaries, and there is always the possibility, however remote, that something we share might go viral. What this amounts to is a subtle yet persistent encouragement to say and do things that will increase our metrics. When we add all this to the fact that internet-based social media never existed before the last few decades, and that we are still uncovering the effects that this new technology has on us, then it seems to me that the jury is still out on the narcissism question.

Meanwhile here’s a thought: what if Facebook and all the other social media giants stripped out or minimized their metrics-driven features? What if these platforms defaulted to hiding or disabling the number of likes, shares, and followers? As long as the bells and whistles of status remain at the forefront of social media—as long as so much of our online social interaction can be so readily reduced to a game of counting—I will remain skeptical that its impact on our vanity is negligible relative to more traditional forms of social interaction.

The Greek hunter Narcissus, gazing into his own reflection. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.