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Those of you who are not on Facebook can ignore this post and luxuriate in your non-dysfunctional psychological maturity and in your general being-at-ease-with-yourself-and-your-neighbour-and-your-world-ness.

For the rest of us, the hard question is: how often do we fiddle around on our Facebook page, not through an uncomplicated desire to share and communicate, but because we are subconsciously desperate to put ourselves at the centre of everyone else’s attention, to receive some kind of social networking version of approval, to be liked, and if not at least to be noticed?

Put more simply: is Facebook making us more narcissistic? Or – because we don’t know what is the cause and what is the effect – is our increasing narcissism finding a ready-made outlet in Facebook and other forms of social media?

Narcissus falling in love with his own image. Detail from a painting by John Waterhouse.

Damien Pearse writes about some recent research on the links between narcissism and social networking.

Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a “socially disruptive” narcissist, confirming the conclusions of many social media sceptics.

People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.

The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.

The latest study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, also found that narcissists responded more aggressively to derogatory comments made about them on the social networking site’s public walls and changed their profile pictures more often.

Researchers concentrated on the two socially disruptive forms of narcissism: ‘grandiose exhibitionism’ (self-absorption, vanity, superiority, exhibitionistic tendencies, a need to be constantly at the centre of attention), and ‘entitlement/exploitativeness’ (which includes “a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others”).

Carol Craig, a social scientist and chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, said young people in Britain were becoming increasingly narcissistic and Facebook provided a platform for the disorder.

“The way that children are being educated is focussing more and more on the importance of self esteem – on how you are seen in the eyes of others. This method of teaching has been imported from the US and is ‘all about me’.

“Facebook provides a platform for people to self-promote by changing profile pictures and showing how many hundreds of friends you have. I know of some who have more than 1,000.”

Dr Viv Vignoles, senior lecturer in social psychology at Sussex University, said there was “clear evidence” from studies in America that college students were becoming increasingly narcissistic.

But he added: “Whether the same is true of non-college students or of young people in other countries, such as the UK, remains an open question, as far as I know.

“Without understanding the causes underlying the historical change in US college students, we do not know whether these causes are factors that are relatively specific to American culture, such as the political focus on increasing self-esteem in the late 80s and early 90s or whether they are factors that are more general, for example new technologies such as mobile phones and Facebook.”

What is cause and what is effect?

Vignoles said the correlational nature of the latest study meant it was difficult to be certain whether individual differences in narcissism led to certain patterns of Facebook behaviour, whether patterns of Facebook behaviour led to individual differences in narcissism, or a bit of both.

But don’t worry – it’s not all negative. This is just one study, and the researchers are not denying that there are real benefits of social networking.

Christopher Carpenter, who ran the study, said: “In general, the ‘dark side’ of Facebook requires more research in order to better understand Facebook’s socially beneficial and harmful aspects in order to enhance the former and curtail the latter.

“If Facebook is to be a place where people go to repair their damaged ego and seek social support, it is vitally important to discover the potentially negative communication one might find on Facebook and the kinds of people likely to engage in them. Ideally, people will engage in pro-social Facebooking rather than anti-social me-booking.”

I suppose the most narcissistic response to this article would be to terminate your Facebook account in a blaze of online soul-searching and self-publicity, a final fire-storm of frantic pre-termination reflections, posts, de-tagging and emotional farewells. But that leaves you with a problem: what will you do to feed the narcissism tomorrow?

(And do you notice how silent I am on the links between Facebook narcissism and blogging narcissism! Perhaps that needs another post…)

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Why is it that some people, especially in the blogs and comment boxes, become so hostile on the internet? Is it the anonymity? The lack of self-censorship that arises when communication is instantaneous? The inability to un-post a spontaneous comment? The tiredness that comes with writing late into the night? Or is it simply that online communication is, in one sense, unmediated: you meet the real person sitting at their computer; you are plugged into their mind – and this is what our minds are like.

Alan Jacobs has a different answer. He thinks it is because we have an over-developed sense of justice, that is not balanced or tempered by the virtues of humility and charity. It’s too simplistic to say that people are just angry or rude or self-righteous. Maybe they are. But this doesn’t explain what drives their anger or rudeness or self-righteousness.

What energises them is a sense of justice: “I’ve seen something that you haven’t, something that matters, something that could be lost.” But this zeal for justice can drown out every other human virtue, especially the virtues that make it possible to communicate that sense of justice to others, or to question whether one’s judgements about this possible injustice are correct.

now-famous cartoon on the xkcd “webcomics” site shows a stick figure typing away at his computer keyboard as a voice from outside the frame says, “Are you coming to bed?” The figure replies: “I can’t. This is important. . . . Someone is wrong on the Internet.” I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.

Late modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in justice. This is especially true of Americans. When we look back over the past century, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women, the defeat of fascism, Brown vs. Board of Education, civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum, you might add the demise of the Soviet empire; if you’re on the other side, you might add the expansion of rights for gays and lesbians. (Or you might add both.) The key point is that all of these are achievements in justice…

As we have come to focus our attention ever more on politics and the arts of public justice, we have increasingly defined our private, familial, and communal lives in similar terms. The pursuit of justice has come to define acts and experiences that once were governed largely by other virtues. It is this particular transformation that Wendell Berry was lamenting when he wrote, “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” That is, it has become a matter of justice rather than of love, an assertion of rights rather than a self-giving.

This same logic governs our responses to one another on the Internet. We clothe ourselves in the manifest justice of our favorite causes, and so clothed we cannot help being righteous (“Someone is wrong on the Internet”). In our online debates, we not only fail to cultivate charity and humility, we come to think of them as vices: forms of weakness that compromise our advocacy. And so we go forth to war with one another.

This comes close to what Thomas Hobbes, writing four centuries ago, famously called the “war of every man against every man.” As he pointed out, such a war may begin in the name of justice, but justice cannot long survive its depredations. In such an environment, “this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. . . . Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”

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