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BEYOND NARCISSISM: LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA 'PERFORMANCE'

BEYOND NARCISSISM: LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA 'PERFORMANCE'

Three years ago, the journal Emerging Adulthood moderated an academic debate between two psychology researchers surrounding this question: Are Millennials Generation Me or Generation We?

It generated enough heat that mass media picked it up briefly, but I can’t say as much about its light.

If my Facebook feed is any indication, a lot of middle aged and older adults would vote “Generation Me.” There’s a steady stream of social media chatter about how social media chatter (when it’s not the chatterer) is narcissistic.

The other day, one of my students came by to talk, and I asked her opinion.

“I think there’s a ton of narcissism on social media,” she said.

“Do you think social media is causing it?” I asked.

“Maybe,” she replied.

“When you use it, are you being a narcissistic?”

“Maybe,” she reflected, “sometimes.”

“So you only want their positive feedback, don’t care what they’re up to and would like to manipulate them?”

“No, I like seeing what other people are thinking and doing. So maybe it’s not narcissism. Maybe sometimes I’m just annoying.”

There’s the rub. Narcissism is real, can be debilitating, and is often mistaken in our cultural conversations for other factors.

But, to be clear, research appears to have confirmed certain facts:

  1. High scores on a questionnaire that attempts to measure subclinical narcissism does seem to correlate with greater use of social media (and perhaps addiction), more self-promotion and higher numbers of friends or followers. Specifically which social media gathers greater number of narcissists is not as easy to find.
  2. Some “normal” expressions of narcissism, certain researchers argue, can be positive (such as healthy self-confidence and assertiveness).
  3. There is not nearly enough research to show social media causes any of this. A few studies have attempted to find causation, including one on selfies, with interesting but not conclusive results. Another recent study found that those who score high in subclinical narcissism on Facebook receive less engagement (even with more followers) than users who scored lower for narcissistic tendencies.

We don’t hear as much about the other motivations for being on social platforms. For example, studies have shown loneliness, low self-esteem and the need for interaction predict higher use as well.

Plus, it is not all bad news.

Another recent study of Instagram identified positive motives, such as a desire to be creative and high levels of social activity (as in, going outside), for using that site.

So let’s recap: People with narcissistic tendencies use social media a lot. Social media might very well increase the levels of narcissistic tendencies in those people. There certainly is more to learn there, but underlying all of this social media use is a phenomenon far more ubiquitous than narcissism and, like it or not, it motivates you too: Performance.

Consider this quote:

“I assume that when an individual appears before others [they] will have many motives for trying to control the impression they receive of the situation.”

That captures the heart of what I believe my student meant when she says she was being “annoying.” Over the past five years, I have spoken with hundreds of college students, mainly millennials, about what they like and don’t like about social media life. What emerges each time is a brewing tension of being digitally “present” and, with that, both authentic and upbeat, both down-to-earth and admirable. They are feeling the pressure of impression management, or performance of the self, in this strange new world. So they adjust, or more accurately “manage,” because that is where the social conversations happen.

The quote, written by Erving Goffman in 1959, gets at a basic social reality that, like so much of our lives, has become magnified by the disorienting speed and ease at which information now travels. While narcissism might correlate with higher social media use, some aspect of impression management correlates with all social media use. (Including this post.)

So what?

I promise to answer that, but first let me add that much good researchacross many fields examine social media through the lens of Goffman, as well as through theorists of “performativity” (a different concept, but relevant) such as Judith Butler.

Among those who have extended Goffman into social media, danah boyd has especially influenced me, as she has many others. In her 2008 Ph.D. dissertation, Taken Out of Context, a 2.5-year ethnographic study of American teens on social network sites, she argues that social network users find themselves in a unique kind of public, which comes with multiple social and spatial and temporal contexts collapsed together. Thus, the line between public and private is blurred.

But rather than launching into these spaces unthinkingly, boyd found that teens use a myriad of sophisticated strategies to control their social digital environments, as much as possible, and to reinforce their offline worlds.

But this is a not an essay about teens. It is about us, whatever our age, if we use any social media. (Including this one.)

boyd writes, “The key is for adults, and society more broadly, to engage with these issues and help guide teens in making healthy decisions that allow them to leverage social media in positive ways as part of their everyday lives.

What of the italicized part does not apply to us?

This seems like a much more useful focus than trying to unravel social media as a narcissism factory. How we “enter” digital space through our words and images becomes an identity that matters. Doing it is not, in itself, narcissistic, nor is it social in the classic sense, but social in a new way. Out of these acts comes a digital self and a narrative.

It also comes with a responsibility, one most of us are used to carrying into offline social spaces. The human race is in its social media infancy. We need to learn how to act, appropriately, in digital spaces as they grow in importance.

It is tricky. A feed of nothing but our glossy shells is not a social space, it’s a gallery. An empty feed is not a performance of self-control, it’s an absence. A list of complaints about life is not vulnerability, it’s a lamentation. Flat characters bore us in books, they bore us in real life and, yep, they bore us on Instagram too. But, but, but I get 500 likes every time I post …

“Likes mean basically nothing,” a student recently stated bluntly. “Half the time I do them so the next face-to-face meeting isn’t awkward.”

Healthy humans have learned not to dominate conversations about all of our triumphs and tribulations, but to balance being available at times and a little vulnerable at others. We pace ourselves. We cherish real connections. We should anyway. All of that can be true here too.

I couldn’t decide whether to end this with a play on Michael Jackson (“I’m starting with the man in the camera”) or Gandhi (“Be the tweep you wish to see in the stream”) … and then I decided to scratch it all and sound smarter, but that ended after staring at the screen for too long. So I chose this as my ending, just a small confession that maybe sometimes I’m just annoying.

Thank you to Michael Humphrey for contributing this article. Michael Humphrey is a Ph.D. student at Colorado State University and a contributor at Forbes.com.

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