Blog Post

Social media and narcissism

Jason B. Jones has posted an interesting response to Mark Bauerlein's comments concerning the role of social media in teen narcissism on his Chronicle.com blog. In his post, Bauerlein cites recent psychological studies that indicate teens are more narcissistic now than they have been in the past. While Jones points out that these studies provide "multiple causes for this" narcissism, Bauerlein suggests that it can be attributed to the tools of social media. Jones counters:

More generally, I think that this is a moment for education, not for condemnation. I??ve argued before that I don??t think students are as familiar with technology as grown-ups tend to think, and this is probably a good example. It may be the case that students turn to such tools as Twitter for endless self-validation or for mere self-expression--but I don??t think that??s the best use of such technologies. Merlin Mann gets at the crucial issue:

And, you know. Just since it bears repeating: If you think you know people from reading Twitter, you probably don??t get Twitter. Or people.

One of the things social media let us do is reflect in more sophisticated ways on self-presentation and on the differences, perhaps, between the self we present to the public and the self to whom all the meaningless events of a day happen. In other words, there??s no reason at all why Twitter, like everything else in a liberal education, can??t help us learn to get over our small shivering selves.

Of course, Bauerlein's comments are timely: in the U.S., the holidays are the traditional season in which we are reminded that adulthood is an alternating series of tragedies and disappointments which only serve to underline our ultimate insignificance. As Bauerlein notes, "maturity means outgrowing" the belief that "your life is, indeed, something special and different and unique and worth sharing." I, for one, agree, and the sooner are kids can be taught how little their thoughts will ever matter to anyone else, the better.

However, while I'm sure we can all support crushing the hopes and dreams of future generations, what I really wanted to comment on is the irony involved in Bauerlein's post. As a rhetorician, I would argue that all he has really demonstrated in this essay is that he is not a member of the target audience of teenaged bloggers, a fact that he then employs to criticize "MySpace page[s] and blog diar[ies]," all the while utilizing one of these very technologies to publicize said critiques. This merely serves to illustrate the paradox introduced by Walter Ong: critiques of high technology must always be made using that same technology.

I wonder if Bauerlein ever stopped to consider that, like those poor, narcissistic teenagers, he himself was composing a blog entry. Why did he think those thoughts were of more intrinsic merit than some teenager narrating his or her life to friends?

I, of course, have no access to Bauerlein's thoughts, but I imagine the reasons are these: he has a Ph.D. and is a Professor at Emory. He has published two books and numerous articles in respected newspapers. His blog isn't on MySpace, it's on Chronicle.com. In short, the (unstated) reasons underlying his assumption that his "opinion [is] just as valid as anyone elses"--or, at least, more important than anything a teenager could possibly write on MySpace--is deeply dependent on centuries old publishing processes that have served for generations as gatekeepers of what information should be considered important or significant. Since its inception, the internet has destabilized these processes and brought into question the assumptions of quality which they support. To borrow Jones's phrasing, the technologies that Bauerlein is criticizing help us to reflect in more sophisticated ways on information and on the different ways that information is imbued with authority and meaning by technological and cultural forces. What's more, these technologies have demonstrated that in some cases they are able to produce superior versions of the products of the publishing culture they are replacing (cf. Wikipedia, The New York Times Online, etc.)

So, having read Bauerlein's post, I wonder what is better: the tools that allow for Wikipedia, even if they also serve to convince teenagers that they might possibly have something special to say, or the traditional publishing establishment that places the authority of determining what is important to others in the hands of the few?

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7 comments

This is wicked good, John. I love it!

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Thanks; I'm looking forward to your MLA panel.

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Good points, John, and food for thought regarding the nature of adolescence and its use of technology. A few quibbles though:

1. There is a difference between using a technology to discuss issues and research and using the same technology to talk about personal experiences and private events.

2. Reminding teens that the vast majority of their personal experiences and private events are of no interest to anybody else is not the same thing as "crushing the hopes and dreams of future generations."  Instead, I would say, if reminded of that fact by an attentive mentor, it might help the teen translate adolescent hopes and dreams into adult hopes and dreams.

3. I grant that "the technologies that Bauerlein is criticizing help us to reflect in more sophisticated ways on information and on the different ways that information is imbued with authority and meaning by technological and cultural forces." The question is, for how many adolescents is it the case?  We all want all of them to use the tools in intelligent ways (indeed, we want every harsh judgment in The Dumbest Generation to be proven flat wrong), but from what I've seen and read, only a small fraction of the digital natives do so.

4. Finally, your point about gatekeepers and the "publishing establishment" is well-taken, and conceded (though your "two books" assertion is incorrect).  We sure don't want to equate the validity of an argument with the venue. 

Mark

 

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Mark,

Sorry to take so long to reply; I've been out of touch a bit during the holidays.

1. What is that difference? As I suggested in the blog post above, I would say that the difference is merely one of audience. In other words, there are some audiences that are interested in discussing issues, and others (perhaps smaller or fewer) interested in discussing and reading about personal experiences. In the case of teen bloggers, I suspect their audiences are generally small: just their individual friends and family, and perhaps a few others. I don't see how teens using media to write about their personal experiences to a limited audience is in anyway a dangerous or worrisome thing. Rather, it seems that they have merely introduced a new technology (internet, IM, blogs) to continue a common behavior: discussing their personal lives.

2. I'll concede that "Reminding teens that the vast majority of their personal experiences and private events are of no interest to anybody else is not the same thing as 'crushing the hopes and dreams of future generations.'" However, what the original post says is this:

To think that you can record the events of the day and week and have someone read and respond, to believe that what happens to you on the way to school might be meaningful to others, to realize that your life is, indeed, something special and different and unique and worth sharing . . . well, the new tools are the answer.

It’s natural for 17-year-olds to be and think this way, but maturity means outgrowing it, not indulging it.

This passage follows these selections from the opening paragraphs of the post:

Back in the 1950s, when the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) was given to teens, only 12 percent of them agreed with the statement, “I am an important person.” In the 980s, though, around 80 percent of them replied, “Yes.”

Recent studies raise the self-importance factor even higher. Social scientists Jean Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and many others have studied various personality inventories and come to a stark conclusion: “American college students score progressively higher on narcissism between the early 1980s and 2006.”

Additionally, they wonder about whether new technologies aggravate the problem.

Here it is suggested that it is somehow a "problem" for teens to think that they are "important," and that this problem is "aggravated" by social media. In the previous quote, it is said that these teens should "outgrow" the belief that the events of their lives might be "meaningful" to others or that it is in any way "something special and different and unique and worth sharing."

I would suggest that these statements are quite different--both in meaning and impact--from "Reminding teens that the vast majority of their personal experiences and private events are of no interest to anybody else." Telling teens that it is a problem for them to think they are important or that their lives are meaningful or special is much closer to "crushing the[ir] hopes and dreams" and nothing like saying those lives merely aren't interesting.

But let's suppose that the point really is that no one would be interested in these trivial events. This would, again, force us back to questions of audience. How can we say that no one is interested in these events? What about parents? Out of town relatives? Close friends? If there is an audience of three for a teenaged blogger, then, clearly, that blogger won't be putting the NY Times out of business anytime soon. But how can we say that it is harmful for the teen to write in this venue? Is it more harmful than writing a diary? Writing personal letters? These literate forms both have little or no audience, yet they are not deemed to be harmful to teens or to feed their narcissism. What is the difference with social media?

In other words, I don't see how it can be argued that just because a particular piece of writing wouldn't appeal to a wide audience, that writing is of no interest to anyone, or that it is somehow harmful to the psyche of the writer.

3. This is a question for a sociologist, and I am not a sociologist. However, from my perspective as a teacher of writing, I would say that helping students "reflect in more sophisticated ways on information and on the different ways that information is imbued with authority and meaning by technological and cultural forces" is an admirable goal for teachers and one that social media helps us achieve. Who knows how many teenagers learn this lesson on their own. But I don't really expect them to; I expect that educators will help them learn it using the tools available. I don't expect that my students know how to make arguments when they come to my classes; rather, I use the tool of writing to help them understand more about arguments.

If I may push the writing comparison a bit further, consider this: Only a small fraction of literate natives write novels, and very few of that number developed the skills necessary for long-form fiction on their own. Does this mean that all writing should be looked on with skepticism that is you are applying to social media here? That young writers--most of whom will never be published--should be discouraged from picking up a pen because what they write isn't very likely to be meaningful to others? Should we discourage diary writers because it is highly unlikely that what is being written will be "something special and different and unique and worth sharing"?

All media have particular affordances, and these affordances can teach us about how we as a species make and share information and what it means to learn and know. Few teenagers are able to pick up on these affordances and their meaning without help. If most teenagers can't properly analyze and reflect on encyclopedias and advertisements on their own, why should we expect them to properly analyze and reflect on social media on their own? And how does this lack of native reflection indicate that social media is somehow a suspect media?

4. I corrected the books reference in the original post. That was a sloppy error on my part (I saw the two titles listed on the CHE bio and I just didn't think about it).

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Hi, John, I'm not even going to add a comment here except to say how impressed I am by your thoughtfulness in parsing out implications in many of the assertions here, including such things is "I am an important person." What really does that statement mean and, since we know from all studies of surveys, bad surveys typically have "the right" answer embedded within them (and "right" is often culturally and historically specific) and those implicit right answers color the answers subjects give, it is not clear whether the "right" answer is "Yes, I'm important" or "No, I'm not an important person." Indeed, imagine what the pundits would say if suddenly this generation of anonymous, lemming-like social networkers were all answering "No, I'm not an important person."

[In case tone does not come through here, my tone is intended to be dripping with sarcasm. Needless to say, I do not hold with any of the silliness about "the dumbest generation" or technology turning kids into lemmings and on and on. Sigh. I've spent too much time studying the history of the book and the history of reception in the last great information age to want to buy the "Novel Reading, A Cause of Female Depravity" technodeterminist logic of today's pundits.]

 

No more! The point is thank you for such an acute analysis, John. Although you are an ardent social networker, you seem to still be awfully smart. How did that happen?

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Dear John,

Hello hello! I'm a student in Prof Cathy Davidson's class this year and a Duke senior. I wanted to let you know that I gained a new perspective into the phenomenon through your post last semester when I was studying 'narcissism on Facebook'. I ran a correlational analysis on Duke's campus measuring their level of narcissism vs. their daily usage of Facebook, and introduced a lot of interesting confounds that might explain the direction of their interaction in the end... and definitely remember taking a look at this post and citing this post!

Little did I know it was all a part of HASTAC and that I'd be participating in the community the next semester :) I actually ended up finding practically no correlation between the two variables, except with the number of one's photo count on Facebook & how much time they spend managing it... vs. their narcissism (positive interaction).. so I'm not too worried about Duke students (:

Just wanted to write and give you credit & thank you again for the help!

Lacey Kim

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Thanks for the note. It sounds like an interesting study. I'm glad you found this post useful.

Cheers,

John

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