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?