Hogan's Alley

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Are YouTube and MySpace Enabling Narcissism Or Communication?

The ABC evening news the other night presented a story reporting on a new study that asserted that college students today are more narcissistic than preceding generations. One of the "symptoms" of this narcissism, according to the psychologists doing the research, was the wide popularity of YouTube and MySpace:

"Current technology fuels the increase in narcissism," Twenge said. "By its very name, MySpace encourages attention-seeking, as does YouTube."
Their thesis seems to be that this generation has been over-encouraged since childhood to see themselves as special. The practice of lavishing praise on all participants in sports, school activities, artistic endeavors, etc may have been well intended, but has now left us with a generation that is isolated and regards itself as undeservedly wonderful. Thus, sharing my every action and thought with the world via the internet is worth doing because all I do is inherently interesting. Anyone even quickly perusing these videos and sites available celebrating the self will discover vast quantities of pointless, irrelevant and stupid contributions. The same can certainly be also said for the blogosphere, present company occasionally included.

But, let me proffer an alternative view of the popularity of self-expression on the internet. America and much of the West has become a very disconnected society. We cling to our diversity-sanctioned subgroups. Neighborhoods in suburbia are partially defined by the planned play of our children. Parents schlep the kids to play groups, soccer practice, violin lessons, etc. Gone are the days of unprogrammed play via which children found each other, decided who they liked, invented their own play and came to know one another intimately. By the time kids arrive in high school, usually mixing for the first time with kids from other middle schools, they must try to socialize by presenting who they are to their new peers. This can be a very dangerous exercise in the highly stratified and cliquish adolescent high school milieu.

To survive this social environment, each young person will often withhold any part of their personality that could label them as an out-group member, subjecting them to potential banishment. Black raincoats and guns can become the only avenue remaining for some in that circumstance.

In a front page review of a first novel by Tom McCarthy, Leisl Schilliger reminds us of a valuable lesson from Jean Paul Sartre in "Nausea":

In Sartre’s novel, Roquentin keeps a detailed journal to convince himself of the singularity of his existence, taking care not “to let any nuances or small facts escape, even if they seem insignificant.” He argues that “in order for the most banal event to become an adventure, it is necessary, and sufficient, to retell it.” But if you get too caught up in the retelling, do you lose track of the reality? Roquentin decides it doesn’t matter. “Man is, above all, a storyteller,” he reasons. “He lives surrounded by his stories and by those of others. He sees everything that happens to him through these stories; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.” As for authenticity, he scoffs: “As if there could be true stories! Things happen one way, we tell them in another.” (Emphasis added.)

In this view, YouTube, MySpace and the Blogosphere are nothing more than attempts, often admittedly desperate, to tell the world our story, to proclaim our personhood. Equally important, these media allow us to hear the stories of others. In this exchange we can overcome the separateness imposed by an increasingly separated and dangerous world. The internet is the modern extension of the verbal storytelling traditions of ancient ancestors.

I don't see that as a bad thing. It is a necessary adaptation facilitated by the new technology.

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