Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Narcissists on the internet?

The Internet is creating an entire generation of narcissists. That, at least, is the conclusion of a professor at San Diego State University. But is this science, or just another round of generational stereotyping?


Eric Gwinn of the Chicago Tribune reports on the findings of Jean Twenge, who maintains that "Young people born after 1982 are the most narcissistic generation in recent history." We know this because, among other transgressions, they're flaunting themselves shamelessly on MySpace and You Tube.


The bulk of Gwinn's piece concerns the dangers of young people divulging personal information without safeguarding themselves, which is a legitimate concern. But the scholarly commentary that frames the issue consists of a very old puritanical theme, that every new medium or new art form releases the latent vices of whatever generation embraces it. It's the same argument, dating back to the 1950s, that claimed rock music had made my generation shockingly libidinous, and that watching Howdy Doody on television turned us into fuzzy-thinking Marxists. It's the same argument that blamed MTV for spawning a generation of iconoclastic hedonists, the likes of which the world had never seen. It's the same argument, still current today, that claims video games are responsible for youth violence, in the schools and on the streets, which had never been a problem before. So why shouldn't MySpace turn the young people of today into narcissists?


Besides being puritanical, the argument simply misunderstands the medium it's criticizing. YouTube and MySpace, two of the social networking sites that Twenge singles out, are part of the Web 2.0 development of the Internet, which encourages user participation and user creation of original content. In each case, the "content" consists of text and images about the users themselves -- but in the construction of a social network, not as an isolated platform. An individual "all about me" website, unlinked to anything outside itself, would be narcissism, the narcissist alone in a room with a mirror up to the self. MySpace is an open party, where each guest arrives in an interesting outfit and strikes a pose to draw attention.


Social networking online is not much different from networking in person. It involves the conscious creation of a public image, a persona, selecting aspects of the personality, some heightened and others downplayed. The persona isn't the true, full personality, but rather a somewhat artificial projection. The healthy, integrated individual recognizes it as such, and doesn't confuse the projection with the core personality, the construct "out there" with reality.


In addition, educator Andy Carvin has pointed out how Twenge misconstrues the "ethos" involved:


She also makes too much of the fact that some of these tools have brand names that embrace the first-person, such as MySpace and YouTube. Twenge equates these tools with being “all about me.” They are about me, but not in the way she thinks they are. The vast majority of people who use social networking sites aren’t in on it to become famous and have hordes of adoring fans. Sure, some people are there for vanity or proto-celebrity purposes, but most people are there for us, not me. They’re communities where people come together to find each other and bond over likeminded interests. They’re communities where people reinforce interpersonal relationships through sharing and creating content. The names MySpace and YouTube are merely references to the fact that they’re an experience built around your interests and creative abilities - and the others who share those interests and abilities. Just as Time Magazine botched it when they declared “you” as person of the year, Twenge misunderstands the ethos of social media, not recognizing that users of social media do it because they care about the notion of “us” and want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

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