our digital culture of narcissism
For many (especially youths and young adults), attempting to quit or never start Facebook is a difficult challenge. We are compelled to document ourselves and our lives online partly because services like Facebook have many benefits, such as keeping up with friends, scheduling gatherings (e.g., protests) and so on. Additionally, and to the point of this post, the digital documentation of ourselves also means that we exist. There is a common adage that if something is not on Google, it does not exist. As the world is increasingly digital, this becomes increasingly true. Especially for individuals. One adolescent told her mother, “If you’re not on MySpace, you don’t exist.”
Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism argues that we are increasingly afraid of being nothing or unimportant so we develop narcissistic impulses to become real. The explosion of new ways to document ourselves online allows new outlets for importance, existence and perhaps even immortality that living only in the material world does not permit. The simple logic is that increased digital documentation of ourselves means increased digital existence. More than just social networking sites, we document ourselves on Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and even increasingly with services that track, geographically, where one is at all times, often via one’s smart phone (e.g., Loopt, Fire Eagle, Google Latitude, etc).
In this world where we can document our lives endlessly, we might become fixated on our every behavior. How it will appear to others, how it will help us with our jobs, friends, relationships, etc. Simply, self-presentation is a strategic game. Erving Goffman discussed this using a dramaturgical model where we are like actors on a stage performing ourselves. The new technologies described here mean that more and more areas of our life become part of this perforce because new parts of our lives are now able to be documented (e.g., our every-moment geographic locations). More and more areas of our life are lived subservient to the performance and identity we want to convey.
In this way, a hyper-fixatedness on our own subjectivity to create its own digital simulation (e.g., Facebook) can, to some degree, dictate how we live, becoming like characters on a “reality” show always performing for the camera, seduced by the importance and immortality that digital existence promises. ~nathan
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I believe that it’s true that “attempting to quit or never start Facebook is a difficult challenge” for many, especially when it serves a function that’s otherwise unfulfilled for its user.
For instance, facebook is fine and good, but it’s still never occured to me to use it. Not using it is no more difficult than not eating at a particular restaurant which doesn’t have a location that’s convenient for me. I already have a social network that exists through meeting face-to-face, talking by telephone, and writing by e-mail and letters. If I were to use Facebook, it would likely be a pleasant experience. *But*, it would be like having a perfectly functional Toyota and then acquiring a Honda in addition to the Toyota. Especially if the Honda has a pretty soft-blue and white hur to it.
Lasch (dear god, I remember that book taking me eons to get through) would probably also say that I document myself in other forms, like performing in public, printing written words, and sometimes writing e-mail messages that copy more than one person.
Still, doesn’t validating ones existence by documentation also goes far beyond just the digital culture of narcissism- isn’t it as old as the first cave paintings?
Your post has the gears cranking in my brain. In particular regarding Goffman– is the digital culture compressing the space of the backstage, or is it just presenting another front stage? And either way, how does the digital culture impact our backstage behavior? In the non-digital format–what about the popularity of scrapbooking? Thanks for a great post!
Keri – “how does the digital culture impact our backstage behavior?”
thanks for reading! your comment gets directly at what i was going for but didn’t spit out that well…
we like to think that our digital documentation (e.g., Facebook) is our own god-like creation (which is similar to what ‘avatar’ means), but what i want to submit is that the influence flows both ways. we are also created by and subservient to our own documentation. our material-world selves might, to some degree, be the avatars of our documented, simulated selves online (akin to Baudrillard’s theoretical move arguing that simulations come to dominate what they once signified). ~nathan