Generation (all about) ME: Is Social Media a Foundation for Narcissism?

Millennials are often referred to as “Generation Me,” which is a term coined by Jean Twenge, saying that young americans are self-absorbed and entitled and these are main reasons for their unhappiness and a rise in narcissism. However, Keith Hampton, a media professor at Rutgers, discusses how narcissism and social media are not directly related in his article in the New York Times Opinion Pages section. He argues that the correct description would be more fitting as “Developmental Me, Not Generation Me,” which highlights and refers to a study conducted by W. Roberts. Grant Edmonds, and Emily Grijalva. This study found that narcissism was apparent in young people in general, not just in people born after 1980. But narcissism is a word with many meanings, and it is difficult to put boundaries around it and “measure.” Given the many definitions narcissism could take, I am referring to it as simply meaning an excessive admiration of oneself and self-centeredness, where actions are done in sole benefit of the self.

However, when it comes to SNSs, I think that the correlation between the two are nuanced. Narcissism can definitely result from usage of social media platforms depending on level of usage and content, but at the same time, just because someone is a heavy user of social media does not mean they are, or will be, narcissistic. Characteristics of narcissism are also varied, and dependent on the person, environment, social status, economic background, and technological affordances SNSs provide.

Marwick and Boyd would probably agree that authenticity is a big aspect of narcissism (What kind of narcissistic person would openly admit they’re fake or a fraud?), and would use Twitter as a platform to enable that. Some twitter users say that they “tweet for myself” or “I just do it to do it,” but this brings up various issues, because as the authors stated in their article, they aren’t simply tweeting into a blank space, they know they have followers and follow others as well. This brings in aspects of narcissism, for in an attempt to seem authentic by disregarding acknowledgement of an audience, they are implying that they are tweeting about themselves for themselves. This then brings in the complexity of  the imagined audience, where “the ideal audience is often the mirror-image of the user (p.7),” which could be seen as narcissistic in its own way. But Twitter is not just “a personal space where other people’s reactions do not matter (p.6),” rather, our authors would argue that  the user’s want to be authentic online is extremely difficult to achieve because authenticity is a social construct. Therefore, it is not only difficult to embody what is exactly authentic and to have clear definitions on what authenticity means (as they believe authenticity varies based on community), but it is also difficult for someone to tweet without complete inconsideration of their audience, due to the inevitable construct of context collapse in SNSs. There is no formula or clear definition of what authenticity or narcissism are. They thrive according to context and perception.

I think Papacharissi summed it up well in his article when he said that Twitter is dual faceted, “personal and collective at the same time, sustaining the sociality forms of a networked individualism.” This networked individualism is an interesting concept to explore here, especially in regards to narcissism. Individuality via means of SNSs doesn’t necessarily mean those identities are always authentic, which ties back in to the complexities of users attempting to define what is ‘authentic’ to them. The idea of performance that Papacharissi dives into, is one that he rightfully explains as a way of “expressing the self and managing its complex webs of relations.” Because of context collapse, and the reliance on others for self-image, the variable of narcissism is thrown in various directions. On one hand, people have the ability to express themselves and can revel in their achievements, self-absorption (#selfies, #me, #cute, etc), and humblebrag(for example: “I have no makeup on and hair’s a mess but i still get hit on, UGH!”), but on the other hand, they need to be reciprocal to others and to manage a network– people need to be in connection with others in order to create their identity online. So in this sense, maybe achieving full narcissism is debatable, but instead it is probably better to say that narcissism is conceived through specific behaviors and context on SNSs and varies by perception.

I think Hampton has valid arguments, and he provides studies and credible sources, but I don’t think he can simply jump to a conclusion that states all heavy social media users are not narcissistic. Making a generalization like saying “Narcissists are by definition self-centered and disengaged, and this is not the profile of the typical or even heavy user of social media” is dangerous because there are always exceptions– and especially with a topic like narcissism that is so difficult to define, there really can’t be a solidified conclusion that favors just one side. I think he presented a strong argument, but i think he could have presented the opposing side and weighed both sides and the pluses and cons of each.

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