Digital narcissism: We are digital mammals

Do you google yourself?

I saw a documentary untitled “I am the Media” directed by Richard Rassat that discusses the question of digital narcissism. It shows how the Internet has become a way for us to exhibit ourselves more and be more narcissistic. The documentary begins with the question “Do you google yourself?” and in fact this is the question asked to all the people interviewed and almost all of them answer yes.

Narcissus

Narcissus (by Caravage)

As mentioned in the documentary, people used to like looking at themselves in the mirror, now they like “googling” themselves. The documentary showed many examples of self exhibition (some of them were really extreme) such as personal web tvs that broadcast someone’s life in a live video blog, compulsive bloggers and famous youtubbers. I have to say, I don’t use much social media and I mainly use the Internet to share information but I feel ill at ease to share things about my person, indeed I am one of those reserved dinosaurs. But since there is so much enthusiasm spreading online to get the most followers, subscribers, friends through any way possible, it seems that the Internet has invented a new sport : the self marketing. This new hobby of the modern homo sapiens itched my curiosity and obliged me to study the question of digital narcissism.

Why do people share all their life openly online? Why do they reveal what they ate at lunch?

I am curious, is it really only about self mirroring through the Internet? Even me, I had to open a blog about my interest for technology. Is it narcissistic to share my point of view? Is digital narcissism a bad thing and did technology encourage it? Or is it society that is becoming more narcissistic? What is the role of the Internet in the expansion of narcissism?

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For me, that question of digital narcissism is not about narcissism only,  it’s really about what it reveals of the human nature. Digital narcissism is only an expression of our natural behaviours. This question is interesting because when it comes to designing technology, human nature is crucial to understand for it determines the consistency of any system : a consistent, and therefore viable, system adapts to human nature. So before diving into the subject, let’s observe how we interact with technology now and what we expect from it.

Technology and us

Inspired by the documentary, I extracted this little video from the movie “Wanted” to illustrate the “googling yourself” act. In the movie the character is feeling low, and seems to be looking for some comfort in the results of Google after searching for his own name. He realizes that there are no results corresponding to his name and feels even more depressed, or at least that is what we understand from the scene, as if no result in Google meant being not important in real life.

I like taking this scene as an example because the fact that it appears in a movie is already a sign that technology has reached the wide audience, it’s part of the common culture.

First, this illustrates how Google and technology in general have become so powerful to us personally that we don’t doubt the Google algorithm and assume it’s a truth teller, we trust technology and assume it’s an accurate reflection of reality. Second, it also shows that we expect more from technology now, as it could realistically be a personal helper like in science fiction. We use it to satisfy some of our emotional needs just as we would use it to check the weather. We want instant validation. So, do we now consider that our emotional needs are similar to tasks or impulses that can be satisfied in a click as easily as basic needs, like eating, or has technology evolved enough that it can now emotionally serve us? I think it’s a little bit of both.

Naturally, humans want to satisfy their needs, emotional or else, and this motivates them to create or use any tools that will let them do that. For now, technology is the only tool that we can both control and, more importantly, interact with. It gives us feedback on our actions, and even sometimes provokes an emotional reaction in us. So  it’s natural that we begin to have expectations from it. Isn’t the possibility of relying emotionally on an algorithm quite interesting and odd? I like that possibility and I would like to explore here how technology can fulfill our emotional needs.

Of course, that scene in the movie is quite impossible since the character is an account manager and as so, his name should be listed in his college records or in social media networks or elsewhere. No results to his name is not highly likely if we assume Google is really a truth teller. Still, typing your name in google is strange, “why do you CARE that your name appears?”. Yet, I bet you did google yourself already. Did you? You, narcissist ! Well… I did as well.

Why do we care? Why digital narcissism?

Self expression

According to my own experience, I see many reasons for self exhibition, it’s not only about the Internet, it’s rather much more about human nature. We could ask first why do we express ourselves? I would just answer, because we can. This is true in real life and so on the Internet too. In real life, we are social creatures, we use voice to talk, gestures to communicate, writing to express thoughts, face expressions to express feelings etc. And if we observe well, kids think out loud most of the time, they just naturally express themselves, they’re not inhibited. Inhibitions come as they grow up with education and culture imprinting their minds. We express ourselves constantly because we are social. It is only natural that we reproduce this behavior online, we express ourselves online because more and more we are able to.

For example, before tools like youtube, it was not possible for people to easily broadcast their life. Now, it has become easier and easier to express ourselves through text, photo, sound, and video online. We have now microblogging with Tumblr, Twitter, we have Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, we have many tools to post our thoughts online. Why make it all about us? We take ourselves as the subjects because we view the world behind our own subjectivity, it takes learning to start seeing the world outside of our subjectivity and not talk about our perception all the time. So, now with a simple click, anyone can basically share their mind. But why share it?

Narcissism defined as “excessive self-love”, starts when someone focuses his or her activities on him/herself only and I would say that narcissism can only be if there is also an audience to perceive that narcissism. So why share every little detail of your life? I agree, we need to express ourselves, it’s just natural, but why do some people make a web tv out of their life? We don’t share every thought we have in real life, so why do it online? Again, because we can. No one is going to ask us to shut up on the Internet, whereas in real life the natural censorship prevents us from broadcasting our every thought to our neighbours.

I was surprised of reading someone’s comment on a blog telling the author “your blog is so boring, and so are your pics, sorry”. I loved the author’s answer “Then don’t follow, that simple.” On the Internet, it’s simple, you are not subject to other people’s thoughts, you can chose to follow or not follow, nobody is shouting their thoughts at you. So if you are annoyed by someone’s web tv then simply don’t watch it. Narcissism exists because there is an audience. And it is not so much narcissism as just self expression.

Need for attention

But we share everything also because of our basic need for attention, it’s embedded in our brain. Again it’s an expression of our human nature. From the beginning our brain learns to recognize faces, our mirror neurons activate and we start learning everything from others by imitating, we are fundamentally social creatures. Thus, because of our social nature, we are used to interact with others, we communicate and in return we get feedback. That feedback is what we search for in self exhibition, it’s like communicating, we implicitly expect some reaction, and that will comfort us, make us feel part of a community.

Would we share if nobody answered? or more extremely would we share if we knew nobody out there could understand us? I don’t think we would, at least not massively as some do when they create their own reality web tv ! So, self exhibition is a social activity, not like Andrew Keen asserts when he says that you desocialize by being a narcissist. I agree that you desocialize when the only thing you do is exhibiting your life like in a gallery without expecting or allowing any feedback to what you post. But when what you post whether it is about you or something else engages a discussion, then you are socializing. When people on Facebook share what they ate at lunch, it is just self-expression as a mean to communicate.

Self expression becomes narcissism when it is perceived excessive by an audience. So, that notion of digital narcissism implies self expression and an audience to judge it, both achieved with the Internet. Of course the reasons for sharing are multiple and not obviously narcissistic, but what you share is always fundamentally attached to you, you want to get credit for it, to assert yourself and your tastes, to help others, to be admired or for something else related to you. Digital narcissism is nothing more than self-expression with an audience to witness and record it.

The Internet, a beta version of our minds

So I have explained my view on why we have this compulsive need and urge to update our status, blog, tweet etc. to share our mind : we are social and human, we need attention/feedback/credit/admiration,etc.  Technology doesn’t stop us from being human, we still have the same needs online that we have as humans offline. We are digital mammals! But why more narcissism on the Internet? Why does the Internet especially increase narcissism?

In my view, it feels like that because the Internet materialises our thoughts. If you think about it, we are already the media to ourselves. We listen to our own thoughts in a continuous stream. If this stream became public, we would be called a narcissist, whereas we would only be sharing our perception of life. When we meet a person in real life, that person is a media, a continuous stream of information, but we don’t know that, we don’t read that person’s thoughts. The Internet makes thoughts public, available and concrete.

I see the Web as the beta version of our digital minds. So being surprised of narcissism on the web, is like being surprised of meeting and knowing someone in real life. We become our own person on the Internet because the Internet becomes more and more transparent and easy to use. What we say, what we share, our very own expression of ourselves, becomes a collection that defines our online self. Our identity “perspires” on the Internet. The Internet digitizes our projected self. In that perspective, the perceived narcissism is just the essence of a person imprinted on the Internet.

So is it a bad thing?

From today’s point of view, the main danger is security because you reveal yourself to an audience you don’t know, there are always risks, but how does that weigh compared to the opportunities offered to you because you shared and made yourself known?

From a philosophical point of view, as the web evolves, there is a risk that our digital self becomes so precise and accurate that it is mistaken for our real self. The real individual will then be replaced by his digital self, starting in administrative institutions, and be most likely subject to automatic categorization. Indeed, the risk of having a digital self is to expose ourselves to the power of algorithms. The individual’s life could be decided by an algorithm making the choices for him based on his digital self’s parameters. Populations could consequently be organized by algorithms, creating different kinds of segregation, enabling or disabling privileges depending on accepted criteria. This could result in the loss, conscious or unconscious, of freedom. If the consequences of such guidance by the algorithm provokes harm, the loss of freedom would be conscious, if the consequences benefit the individual, the loss of freedom would be unconscious. In both cases, deprived of his ability to choose for himself the individual would lose his freedom.

This problem is complex and we can’t predict all the implications of a digital self. But as a start, to avoid this, I would state that technology should always remain a choice for the individual and never an obligation. The algorithm should operate on demand of the individual and never on demand of an authority to influence/control the life of the individual. The algorithm should act on an individual scale, not on a population scale. The digital self’s data should ideally belong to the real self only. But since the notion of data property in the digital world hardly exists realistically and never risk-free, to prevent any risk of generalized exploitation of identities, a digital self’s data should be distributed among several databases and not owned by one and only entity (other than the real self). To not lose his freedom, I believe it’s also highly important that the individual makes considered choices and stays always active and critical about the information he receives. He should never be passive and accept information he didn’t ask for. As long as individuals keep their inner drive unique to them, they will not act as mere followers. That simple awareness of being a unique self is important to keep control over our lives. Technology is a great helper, but it can turn into a tyrant if it becomes an obligation.

Now, since technology is becoming more and more pervasive, making it an option might be difficult to achieve. So as an alternative to making it optional, I suggest that technology should always be diversified. Different kinds of algorithms, reflecting different modes of thinking, should be allowed to exist, and ideally easy to implement. In that way, an individual could choose among algorithms that most satisfy him. Thus, an individual would not have to chose a technology because it’s the only one available, which would be synonymous of making that technology an obligation. Diversity is a sign of healthy technology. We could even bring in the notion of  ”democratic technology”. The choice should always be given to the individual.

Finally, it is very important to remember that our online self will always be only a projection of our real self. In the absolute sense our identity is comprised of everything that constitutes us, from our analog self to our digital self. Thus, because of its discrete nature, the web cannot capture all our identity : we fundamentally exist beyond the media.

All that said, the implications of a digital self are far from being all covered in this article, so this is an ongoing reflection.

Is the Internet responsible?

So the Internet eases the process of expressing our perception of things and therefore our narcissism, but is the Internet the cause of more narcissism? I believe  no. Rather, it’s a mix of context and evolution of society. We live in a time where fame is worshiped, where brands mean more than the product. This analysis of our cultural time deserves to be fully developed in another article, but the bottom line is that the sign has become more important than the reality it represents. So in the continuity of this tendency to put symbols and appearances on top of everything, the Internet is just another mirror of how people are already concerned with their self image. Other mirrors include fashion, products (cars, bags etc.) and everything that help promote one’s self image. The Internet is just another portal to broadcast one’s thoughts, values and tastes. The Internet is another place for symbols and signs.

The Internet makes narcissism more perceivable and therefore emphasizes it because it records every self expression. Any self expression becomes trackable, permanent and always perceivable at all time by everyone.

To pursue on this subject you can view BBC’s The century of self which is a great documentary to understand this cultural context we live in, and read “Passwords” or “Simulations and Simulacra” by Jean Baudrillard a French philosopher who explains how reality is covered by a layer of symbols we take for the real things they represent. “Passwords“ summarizes his philosophy, it’s a very short and very interesting book.

Conclusion

So digital narcissism is only part of the global expression of selves that the Internet eases more and more. It becomes narcissism when you can’t escape from one’s excessive self expression.

Clearly, the Internet is transforming into our digital minds because our human nature demands it. But we should never forget that we fundamentally exist beyond our digital self projection, our digital self should not replace us but rather help us. We need to express ourselves and we use the tools that let us express our human nature and our personality. The easier those tools become to use the more we will use them.

Having realized that, we can predict that in the context of the web, any web application that will invent new ways of self expression or that will ease self-expression will 1. have users 2. be successful depending on the ease of use, effectiveness, experience, true usefulness and luck. Self expression on the Internet becomes then a UI problem. How can we design effective and compelling systems for self expression? I call such web applications “self portals“.

When those “self portals” are designed, it is important to take into account the “emotional” dimension users expect from technology. To design a good application and not an evil one, we should always keep in mind that the goal of the application is to improve the user’s life.

Webapps

I listed here some existing “self portals” that already exploit this notion of self-expression (I keep this list updated). I think more apps like those will appear in the near future and the difference between them will mostly occur in the UI and UX they offer. The more compelling and effective the UX and UI will be, the more successful the app will be.

http://www.broadcastr.com/ or http://www.beta.broadcastr.com/ if not released yet
http://facto.me/
http://www.thefancy.com/
https://about.me/
http://www.facebook.com
http://formspring.me
http://www.twitter.com

Sources:

I put here articles I find that are related to this article and that confirm points made in this article.

[1]http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2010/11/self-expression-matters.html

[2]http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/science/15scibks.html?ref=science Dr. John Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard who believes people can be physically addicted to e-mail.

[3]http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2041714,00.html Who would have known that a little red light on the BlackBerry — that doesn’t even say who a message is from, but simply that you have a message — would drive people crazy?