Chris Baraniuk wrote an interesting piece at the blog The Machine Starts a few hours ago and I wanted to offer a comment. I agree with much of the analysis about so-called “Facebook Narcissim,” but what I find particularly interesting is how one fundamental assumption –the existence of a true self– drastically alters the conclusions we might draw.
Baraniuk discusses how social media sites, like Facebook, are designed to promote more sharing through creating a generally positive vibe. Indeed, Facebook has stated explicitly that they do not have a “dislike” button because they want the site to be a fun place to hangout. In addition to the positively-biased valence, Facebook makes calculable social interaction which also serves to create an atmosphere that values and encourages more sharing. For the site more sharing means more profits. And for the user more sharing about our lives creates an inward-gaze that could be described as narcissism.
Lasch’s famous study of The Culture of Narcissism argued that an increase in the size and complexity of culture makes us, individually, feel small and insignificant. Our reaction is to turn inward and announce as loudly as we can that we exist. I am here and I am important. This existential crisis also plays out on Facebook. For many, especially those whose peers have a significant social media presence, to not be online is to be invisible. Thus, we document our lives, ideas, behaviors, friendships and so on to demonstrate that we exist.
Baraniuk describes the particular character of this narcissistic impulse, especially when taken to the extreme, as one of trading their “true” self in favor of turning themselves, disingenuously, into a posed brand.
And this is my fundamental disagreement with Baraniuk’s analysis: the assumption made without being discussed explicitly is that opposed to the narcissistic self there is a true self (that is being lost). While my goal in this comment is not to convince anyone that there is or is not a true self, I wish point out that one’s assumption on this matter is centrally important to what conclusions will be drawn. One’s stance must be made central instead of hidden.
We might look to thinkers such as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault or Erving Goffman who, among others, all describe self-presentation as a performance in various ways. The branding of the self existed long before the Internet and continues to exist offline as well. Performance is something we all do, not a pathology (as Baraniuk’s post hints towards). Facebook only makes clear what these thinkers have known that we all do all the time. Thus, those narcissists Baraniuk describes become reconceptualized as those who are not clever/savvy enough in hiding of their own performativity. What has been pathologized as a disorder is the failure to convincingly pass off one’s fiction as fact. And this pathologization implicitly assumes that there is some fact; some “true” self, an authentic being (a notion that has in its history the Christian concept of the soul).
Agreeing on the analysis but having a different fundamental view of the “authentic” self provides the two of us with precisely opposite conclusions: Baraniuk argues that this trend of narcissism as it plays out on Facebook “obscures” the true self, whereas I think it does exactly the opposite. Narcissism as it plays out on social media forces users to encounter, confess and become hyper-fixated on themselves, always with the intention of passing off their performative fictions as fact. The Foucauldian “so what?” that follows is that the hyper-fixation on the self, indeed the very invention of the self, is to keep people self-policing and self-regulating. To assume the self is natural precludes the sort of identity play that is possible and possibly transgressive.