There’s nothing cute about being obsessed with your own reflection. There is nothing endearing about obtaining your entire self worth from the opinions of others. There is nothing commendable about narcissism. I’m the furthest thing from religious, but I think pride was one of the “Seven Deadly Sins” for a reason. Yet we spend hours each week, perhaps even each day, looking at or posting self-serving images, videos, and announcements on the Internet. We reward each other for this behavior regularly with comments and “likes”…and the portion of our ever-shrinking time on this earth it costs to post them.
Although the phenomenon can hardly be called the most troubling characteristic of modern humanity, I still find it rather disconcerting. One of my favorite podcasters, Dr. Christopher Ryan, the author of a fantastic book called Sex at Dawn, recited an interesting story on an (old) podcast I listened to the other day. He described a friend who had traveled to Africa to live with a small village of hunter-gatherer/subsistence farmers. At his departure, he wanted to give a gift to the people. He took great care to select the finest ox for sale, inspecting it for all health aspects and spending a large chunk of change. However, he was devastated to receive nothing but ridicule from the villagers. “That ox is a bag of bones!” “We won’t have enough meat for the whole village, we’ll have to hunt still.” “You don’t know anything about buying meat, do you?” Seeing the friend’s disappointment, a man pulled him aside and told him not to be so offended. “This is just how we are” he explained “we can’t let you be proud of your gift, because when people get proud, they start telling people what to do and then they end up killing somebody!” Now as dramatic as this explanation may seem, take a second to really consider the man’s point and see it might not be so far from the truth. Pride can be the root of all sorts of nasty behaviors. Ryan went on to point out “this is the exact opposite of how our society works” in reference to Western, or perhaps more broadly to “civilized” culture as a whole. For generations, our society has been built on the hallmarks of “hard work” and “success” (instead perhaps on cooperation). The definitions of both these phrases are subjective, yet they are treated as defined, measurable qualities with certain sets of rules. As a result, people compete to meet these definitions and become proud of their accomplishments, especially as they triumph over others.
Though the tendency of individuals in a competitive, free-market, individualistic society to be self congratulatory is relatively long standing, it has become particularly apparent in recent popular culture. Announcing your accomplishments via small blocks of text directed at large groups of acquaintances (and/or strangers) is a part of the average person’s day now. Seventy-four percent of online adults use social networking sites* and there are now almost as many people on Facebook as there are in China.** The craze of announcing your presence to the world beyond your immediate, physical location became even more involved when people became obsessed with posting photos on social media. Vacation photos, baby photos, workout photos, yoga photos, food photos, “selfies”. Selfies. Let’s take a second to address the term. The term “selfie”, for those living under an html-based rock the last couple years is a picture a person takes of his or herself, generally with a phone camera, for no specific reason other than to share their physical appearance with their “followers” (be those friends, social media acquaintances, “fans”, or other). A recent study found the taking a lot of these photos to be linked with callous-unemotional traits in individuals such as narcissism and psychopathy***. Yet most perceive this behavior as a “normal” use of social networking sites.
I speak of this phenomenon as a participator, not an observer. I recognize the value in sharing my life and accomplishments with those not in close physical proximity to me and I too am guilty of the occasional “selfie”, albeit almost exclusively when I am in the company of my cat (because she’s just so CUTE) or have dyed my hair a shiny new color. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the competitive, self-congratulatory, “look how GREAT I’m doing” culture we’ve found ourselves knee-deep in isn’t doing more to our psyches than we realize. Is social media just dragging our species’ preexisting narcissist tendencies into the light or is it breeding a wicked new strain of egotism, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria breeding in the harsh landscapes of human bodies.
The argument for heavy social media use as a normal part of our interaction however has, in my opinion, large support from primate evolution. Humans have evolved to be highly social individuals, interacting with our peers to accomplish almost all daily tasks. It is imperative to our primate brains to consider the impression our actions leave on others. When you can no longer beat up the largest chimp in the group to gain respect, you have to prove yourself more worthy than him in other ways. That could include making it as apparent as possible that your life is important, your appearance is alluring, and your accomplishments are noteworthy. Perhaps instead of evolving to be cooperative and empathetic, we managed to take a page out of bird survival strategy and evolve to be showy. However, just because something comes naturally, does not mean it is positive. The consumption of fat-laden foods and infidelity come quite naturally for most as well.
Additionally, I believe there is a not-so-fine line between sharing your life with others and electronically shoving it down their throats. For example, if I could gather 50 of my closest friends and family members in one room, on one day and show them pictures from my most recent trip abroad or my new hula hoop tricks, I probably would! However, I think I’d be a lot less inclined to sit them down and demand they look at my face for no reason. “See my face? Isn’t it nice? Why don’t you all just look at it for a bit. I got new sunglasses or something.” This is how I see selfies and why I find them embarrassing and disturbing. You also probably wouldn’t show a room of 50 friends the meal you ate last Tuesday or tell them three separate times how in love you are. But you might tell them you’re moving to Chicago.
I think the take-home of all this is to maybe not spend quite so much time seeking or feeding praise. Social media can be a beautiful, convenient tool for keeping in touch with those who matter and sharing your life with them despite physical limitations. However, if this is truly the goal, feedback shouldn’t be needed and the information shared shouldn’t be shallow or mind-numbingly pervasive. Give credit where credit is due, but try not to contribute to a culture that puts people on pedestals for images that are not objective, but self designed at best and manipulative at worst. Just as they say don’t feed the trolls, don’t feed the egomaniacs. You don’t need to shit all over their choice of oxen…but please don’t like their selfies either.
Please do check out the sources/links below, they’re interesting!