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Narcissism?

Saturday, 21 March, 2009

In the wake of Facebook's redesign (which makes it look and act a lot more like Twitter), it's been interesting (and slightly irritating) to observe the reactions of both hardcore and newbie Facebook and Twitter users. In my irritation with those I snootily consider less technologically knowledgeable, I do concede that Facebook's practice of pushing changes forward without consulting their constituency and without giving them many options to customise their news feed is a little irritating; even though I do like Facebook's new layout (and I have a feeling I'm in the minority), I don't like it that every time someone does a quiz, it posts the results on my news feed and asks if I want to do the quiz too, and I'm sure the feeling is similar to Facebook users who are not used to skimming people's status updates in higher frequency.

However, one charge that has surfaced somewhat frequently is that those who like to update Facebook and Twitter more than several times a day are engaging in self-indulgent and somewhat narcissistic behaviour: they are navel-gazing, oversharing, inundating cyberspace with too much information, boring us with too much detail, etc. (This also irritates me, but I'm taking a step back and I've worked out why, and I realise they are perfectly entitled to their opinions on these matters.)

Let me present a response. Strangely, in the past couple of weeks I have found myself returning again and again to Clive Thompson's excellent article on Facebook, Twitter, microblogging and ambient awareness: “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy”. Among the plethora of insightful gems that caught my eye was this one at the very end of his article:

It is easy to become unsettled by privacy-eroding aspects of awareness tools. But there is another—quite different—result of all this incessant updating: a culture of people who know much more about themselves. Many of the avid Twitterers, Flickrers and Facebook users I interviewed described an unexpected side-effect of constant self-disclosure. The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you're feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It's like the Greek dictum to “know thyself,” or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. (Indeed, the question that floats eternally at the top of Twitter's Web site—“What are you doing?”—can come to seem existentially freighted. What are you doing?) Having an audience can make the self-reflection even more acute, since, as my interviewees noted, they're trying to describe their activities in a way that is not only accurate but also interesting to others: the status update as a literary form.

Laura Fitton, the social-media consultant, argues that her constant status updating has made her “a happier person, a calmer person” because the process of, say, describing a horrid morning at work forces her to look at it objectively. “It drags you out of your own head,” she added. In an age of awareness, perhaps the person you see most clearly is yourself.

It seems to me that this form of narcissism is actually quite helpful: to reiterate my post on the consolations of psychology, knowing and understanding yourself better can help you in the war against sin and in your dedication to serve God and his people. As Laura Fitton says, perhaps one of the beneficial side effects of Facebook and Twitter is that it forces you to look at things objectively—to see things outside the theatre of your own head the way that others would see them.

I'm not saying that people should use Facebook and Twitter in order to engage in existential philosophy; I'm just saying that it's rather nice that knowledge arising from self-reflection is one of their pluses. Does it mean that everyone has to read about it? Not necessarily, but then who reads absolutely everything posted on the internet anyway? The beauty of ambient awareness tools is that you don't have to pay that much attention to them. So if you don't want to read, don't read.

But I guess for Facebook users, the issue becomes the feed: at the moment, there are no options for turning off (or turning down) quiz results. There used to be the slider for story types, but at the moment, it doesn't cover every type of story. I'm sure, in the future, as more Facebook users get irate about it, they'll offer something like that to appease them; for now, let us bear with each other ...

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While I consider self-examination and self-knowledge to be vitally important (especially if you’re expected to integrate into a society), at the same time such constant self-examination can actually be psychologically harmful. Constantly perceiving oneself from an external position can actually cause one to become dissociative and lead to over-valuing the intellect at the expense of emotive portions of experience. Basically, if you examine and intellectualise everything you do, you have lost immediacy and intimacy in the way you experience life. On the other hand, if not taken to an extreme, self-examination is an important skill to learn.

It’s somewhat ironic that the internet should be creating such divergent reactions to things: a higher level of self-examination on one side while the anonymity of the medium encourages a lack of consideration for the people with whom you interact simply because of a lack of consequences if you treat them badly.

Rant to follow…

As someone I spoke to said, FB doesn’t charge you, it hosts your photos for free, it allows you to interact with people for free and so why do people think it *owes* them something?  I agree with his sentiment; I had to stop myself posting narky replies when every second person on my news feed was complaining about the new layout.

But you’re right too, everyone’s entitled to their own opinions about these things.

I personally like the FB changes, and I like Twitter.  I use them both differently - I would tend to update Twitter a few times a day, and FB less so.  But I have no problem with people updating both simultaneously; it’s different things to different people.

Side note 1: on the right hand side of every item in the FB news feed is a check box that allows you to hide that person or item.  Maybe people don’t want to completely turn off status updates from certain people, but there is the option.  I’ve used it to hide some people myself - that way I can read feeds from who I want to.  If I want to ‘unhide’ someone later on, I can do that too.

Side note 2: I thought this video from Twitter founder Evan Williams was interesting, looking at how Twitter has evolved through how people actually use it.

Basically the upshot is, changes to FB don’t equal the end of the world, despite what some people seem to think.  Sometimes change can be a good thing.

/rant

(apologies for the long comment)

PS and I realise my long rant wasn’t really addressing what you were talking about in your post.  smile

@Bec: It’s okay, you can rant on my blog any time! smile

And yes, the changes to FB certainly do not equal the end of the world. It’s interesting reading the first couple of paragraphs of Clive Thompson’s article and how people reacted when Zuckenberg first instituted the news feed.

Wow, this is fascinating stuff, that I probably shouldn’t be looking at while at work !
Anyway, I agree. It makes you self-reflective. And it provides comfort. On Monday I was in a really Sh**ty place with my job, and the comments, including speaking to my boss about it, have really helped. I have more resources now!

And Bec, I never thought about the “free” aspect of FB. Thanks for that. But what I found hard was that I don’t have time or energy to work out a new system. That’s why I found the change hard. I go on briefly and then suddenly it’s all changed. It’s like when I started this new job - there were just endless new things to learn… so it felt overwhelming.

And now, once I’ve been in the job for a while, I’m finally willing to let go of IE6 and move to the university supported browser (Firefox). Learning new stuff takes time and energy. I guess that’s the crux of my comment!



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