A couple of weeks ago, a study came out of Toronto’s York University about Facebook and narcissism that suggested there was some kind of link between the social network and the psychological trait in which people are too concerned with themselves.
The media ran with it. CBS said that “Facebook users were more likely to be narcissistic”. The Daily Mail suggested something even more extreme, by simply saying FB users were “narcissistic and have low self-esteem”. Even the university’s own press release “Facebook fiends tend to be narcissistic”.
Trouble is, that simply isn’t true.
Social Media Doesn't Create Narcissists; It Attracts Them
Unfortunately, the study itself no longer seems to be publicly available online. But even a quick skim of a summary reveals something a lot of media outlets missed – “that individuals higher in narcissism and lower in self-esteem were related to greater online activity as well as some self-promotional content”. Put another way, it’s not that using Facebook or other social media makes you overly concerned with you yourself. It’s that people who were already narcissistic or had low self-esteem are attracted to social media.
That’s a small but crucial point.
After all, so many people writing in the tech world and general press seem to take it as fact that ‘we live in a narcissistic age’. But what does that even mean? That people are selfish? That people like to look at themselves? What is it that all these people are taking about?
Technology Has Always Changed How We See Ourselves
Ultimately, those who argue that technology has made us narcissists think that we live in an age when people are too wrapped up in themselves and their own self-promotion.
But what if what people think is ‘narcissism’ is actually something else? That instead of an exaggerated concern with ourselves, it’s simply part of an ongoing change of how technology changes how people see themselves.
Why do I say this? Well think about this: in his important book Orality and Literacy, scholar Walter Ong talked about how the invention of writing changed human consciousness. One of the most fascinating things he describes is that people who know no writing whatsoever have a really hard time describing themselves. Because their ideas only existed in speech, when asked about themselves, their response is often “well, how would I know that? Ask someone else about me”.
What writing as a technology – i.e. a tool that we use and that also shapes us – does to us is that allows us to consider ourselves at a distance. When we’re used to the idea that we can record our history, we can think about “okay, I’m a good person” or “this is how I want to represent myself to the world”. When you can write about someone, you can describe them as you see them – and you can do the same thing for yourself. Strangely, by putting ourselves outside of ourselves on paper, writing allowed us to become internal and think about ourselves.
Social Media is a New Kind of Writing About Ourselves
So social media is like a new form of writing – except instead of allowing us to describe ourselves to ourselves it allows us to describe ourselves to the world.
What’s the cliche complaint about Twitter? That it’s about some dude writing a sandwich, right? But we share the basics of our life with those we’re close to all the time. Social media, as a new public form of writing, allows us to share ourselves with the public.
Humans are inherently social. In fact, when you think about it, you cannot become human without being social; it’s how we learn language, culture, and everything we know.
So social media is a way of connecting individual action to the social. It’s a way of knitting a link between an individual person and the public sphere.
Don’t we all seek out affirmation from others? When you get good news, isn’t calling a loved one or friend the first thing you do? We do that because we want recognition from others and connection with them. This is basic, fundamental stuff that basically exists in all cultures.
So, no, social media does not all by itself make us narcissists. It extends a long-held tradition in which technology helps us express things to ourselves and others, allowing us to describe ourselves and connect ourselves with the social. And in the long run, just like writing, I think that social media – at least as part of the broader trends of the web – will be as revolutionary and profoundly different as the invention of writing thousands of years ago.