On Facebook and Narcissism: When Crafting Your Own Self-Image Goes Too Far

Culture, Media, Social Experiments — By on August 14, 2013 at 7:00 am

I’ve always had an odd relationship with Facebook. I joined as a freshman in college, fresh out of the MySpace era, more concerned with who was in my Top 8 than whether or not I should “like” someone’s status. Back then, you had to have a .edu e-mail address just to join the mighty ‘like’ machine, but eventually everybody and their mother (and, in my case, grandmother) was on Facebook, talking about their lives.

Early on, I discovered the joy of self-referential experimentation in the form of ‘witty’ status updates. I wanted to play with the form of a status update, the way that we often used them, and how they may end up being perceived by others. My magnum opus, if I may be so narcissistic to refer to any status update of mine as such in a post about Facebook, was quite early on in my public online career:

[James Arnold is] off to breakfast. Then off to calculus. Then off to work. Then probably cashing his check and going to lunch. Then preparing for Don Rags, feeling stalkerish?

-James Arnold, Facebook status update, 2006.

Perhaps outdated now–note the bracketed language at the beginning, which Facebook automatically included at the front of each ‘status update’ in that era–the post is indicative of the sort of involvement many in my generation have with social media: we deconstruct, to some degree, but mostly we just play. Facebook had introduced a news feed, and many felt as though it was encouraging people to develop stalker-like tendencies. Similarly, when my brother joined Twitter, we had a conversation entirely built on hashtags. What was once meant to be searchable became a language all on its own.

A few friends recently shared a rather scathing article about Facebook usage. The article, which you can read here, fills out seven ways “to be insufferable” as you fill out that little “What’s on your mind?” box that Facebook really wants you to answer. The examples range from understandably frustrating (“Ugggggghhhhhh”) to the mild (“Finally finished my paper”) all the way to the stuff that keeps me coming back to Facebook (“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. ~Proverbs 3:5-6″; or, in the author’s words, “An unsolicited nugget of wisdom”).

While the article is filled with cynicism (“99% of the people on your Facebook friends list don’t love you”), it makes some good points. We could learn to moderate what we feel the need to put onto our social networks. If we are motivated by how others view us, entirely, then we can end up crafting our own self-image with a lack of authenticity; we’d become disingenuous.

But here’s the deal: everything you do changes the way people view you. You can live every moment consumed by your self image, or you can honestly express yourself. Just like some people are quick to speak and others take their time, so might some people simply have a personality that prefers to share, rather than prefer to reserve.

If you only post those status updates that will definitely endear you to your 800 friends, then you’ve fallen into the exact same trap: you’re catering to an audience, rather than being ‘genuine.’

I don’t think writing with an audience in mind is a bad thing. Neither do I think that writing to no one in particular is necessarily harmful or frustrating or annoying. You aren’t insufferable if the only things you post on Facebook have to do with what you ate that day; you just might be publicly boring.

If we value people, and I really hope we do, then what we find interesting should be broader than just personal intellectual stimulation. Much like we can learn to appreciate ‘pop’ culture in ways that are bigger than mindless consumption (and still entertaining), so should we remember that the people around us are intrinsically valuable; people are made in the image of God, and we should treat them that way. What my friends ate for breakfast might not be interesting–I’m not saying that the article above wasn’t without merit–but their thoughts on what is happening around the world ought to be. If this means I need to have a smaller friends list, just so that it can be digestible, so be it. But the point is simple: Facebook is just one medium where we interact with one another, and we ought to be showing each other grace.

My Facebook status updates may be about me, but I hope yours aren’t.


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  • David Gayman

    “Much like we can learn to appreciate ‘pop’ culture in ways that are bigger than mindless consumption (and still entertaining), so should we remember that the people around us are intrinsically valuable; people are made in the image of God, and we should treat them that way. ” Well spoken.