‘I Tweet, therefore I am’

With Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the stage is set for unbridled narcissism.

by Allison Fingerett

When I get home from school, I allow myself 30 minutes of unadulterated Facebook time. It makes me feel important, especially if I see that an older post has been commented on. Clearly, this person took the time to peruse my âÄúwall,âÄù and IâÄôm touched. But this same person has invited me to become a âÄúfanâÄù of them. Not a friend, but a fan. And not a fan of their band, or their art, or their blog, but of their self in the holistic sense. I was offended but not at all surprised; itâÄôs the next logical step in the age of digital narcissism and the idea that a life not broadcast (or commented on) is no life at all. Technology is advancing much faster than our social mores. Web sites like Facebook and Twitter have undone most of what we know about social interaction and self presentation. There are many people I havenâÄôt spoken to in years whose daily lives I know a great deal about. But only in the context of a mass advertising campaign that turns everyone into their own sniveling publicist. It used to be that reputations were largely confined to high school. Now, our social value is neatly wrapped and packaged on Facebook for everyone weâÄôve ever known. People are reduced to items on a newsfeed, chattering about causes, parties and time spent abroad. You can âÄúhideâÄù them, but you donâÄôt dare delete them; theyâÄôre your âÄúfriends,âÄù after all. But social networking is redefining the concept of friendship and what it means to be connected. And itâÄôs led many of us to believe that everyone wants to know what weâÄôre doing right now. ItâÄôs hard to remember a time when my life was not fodder for a stream of updates. And if I cease to âÄútweetâÄù or narrate my thought process on Facebook, will anyone remember I exist? It seems like a ludicrous question, but itâÄôs what drives the phenomenon of âÄúlifestreamingâÄù and mistaking a sea of self-promotion for a welcoming community that defines your self-worth. As the âÄúeveryoneâÄôs a winner!âÄù generation grew up, hard reality left us in search of new ways to feel special and garner attention. The popularity of social networking suggests that people do care about the mundane details of each otherâÄôs lives. But why? âÄòThe great paradox of âÄúsocial networkingâÄô is that it uses narcissism as the glue for âÄòcommunity.âÄô Being online means being alone, and being in an online community means being alone together,âÄù said author Nicholas Carr on his blog. The Internet is an attractive form of communication because it affords the opportunity to make the private self public. And when our private thoughts are rewarded with comments or page views, we feel perpetually validated for âÄúbeing ourselves,âÄù destroying tendencies toward humility or censorship. People talk aimlessly into webcams and post it on YouTube, attracting thousands of viewers who sing their praises. Facebook status updates that convey sadness are met with virtual hugs and good news with congratulations. We barter in the currency of attention paid. If I comment on your photo album, youâÄôll look at mine, and my exhaustive self-presentation will suddenly have merit. Identity and self-presentation are muddled elements in social networking. I interact differ ently with everyone, but it all bleeds together on Facebook. This is referred to in academic communities as the âÄúmultiple audience problem âÄù and is characterized by the need to express multiple messages to a diverse audience that holds an array of values and expectations. I have a dark sense of humor and have forgotten several times that I am Facebook friends with extended family members, ex-boyfriends and rabbis. Many status updates are written with particular people in mind, but they are broadcast to many more. Facebook continues to update their privacy settings and reset things. I took a look for the first time in months and discovered my profile was available to almost everyone, which was not how IâÄôd left it. There are more settings and options, which allow you to filter yourself out of searches or group people according to how much youâÄôre willing to share with them. While this is worth taking the time to explore and an overall good thing, I canâÄôt help but feel uneasy about literally sorting people into categories. But itâÄôs become a necessity. We are different things to different people, and itâÄôs important to maintain those distinctions so we donâÄôt lose sight of ourselves and become our own personal hype machines. Social networks are cultural question marks with great power over our lives. Just because youâÄôre able to share your every whim with the world doesnâÄôt mean you should. The most convincing advertisers are your friends, and they may affect you in ways youâÄôre not aware of. As personal branding extends to everyone, we start to promote particular emotions. Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a social scientist at Harvard Medical School, told The New York Times, âÄúThe traditional perspective on human emotion is that emotions are an individual experience. But we donâÄôt just have these emotions, we show them. Other people can read them, copy them and internalize them.âÄù Understand that your banal status updates carry subtext that affects each one of your friends differently. And ditto what you read of theirs. Constantly pandering to an audience is bound to destroy your sense of self, lest you employ others to become a âÄúfanâÄù of it. But mind the messages youâÄôre sending, especially if they reek of your need for social acceptance. I may be a fan of yours, but your ego doesnâÄôt need to know that explicitly. Allison Fingerett welcomes comments at [email protected].