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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How Social Media Breeds Assholes and Narcissists

Posted By on Tue, Mar 26, 2013 at 1:05 PM


There are several types of human behavior that social media tends to reveal in sharp relief, most of them negative. Basic assholery is the chief one.

If you judge by comments sections (especially on certain sites, like YouTube, but really just about everywhere), it appears that we're up to our elbows in assholes. I want to think that comments sections make this population appear bigger than it really is, but no matter what, it's obviously bigger than I had believed it to be.

Another is solipsism, which might or might not rise to the level of assholery, but is always worthy of head-shaking. This is one that I've noticed especially just in the past few years. I recently wrote something about the fact that very few adults use Twitter for news, and one of the biggest reactions was along the lines of "This is bullshit! I use Twitter for news all the time!" The finding was based on a scientific survey, but it didn't matter to these people -- it wasn't true for them, therefore it wasn't true at all.

You see variations on this all over the place. For instance, in the comments sections of news stories where there are hundreds or thousands of people talking about an issue, and somebody weighs in to declare that "nobody cares!" about said issue. Or the people who pronounce that "nobody thinks Saturday Night Live is funny anymore -- I haven't watched it since 2003!" And lots of lots of people seem to think their personal likes and dislikes (especially the latter) are just fascinating to complete strangers. "I hate the Smashing Pumpkins," they tell virtual groups of people engaged in a discussion, without saying anything more.

Other problematic types include: Twitter obsessives (people who tweet hundreds of times a day, or even more), flamewar-instigators (trolls who stick around for a fight), and "vaguebookers." The latter term refers to people who post something like "The worst thing that ever happened to me, happened today," and then bask in the glorious attention of their friends asking them what's wrong, all the time refusing to answer.

All of these behaviors have one thing in common: narcissism.

Author and venture capitalist Bill Davidow writes at The Atlantic that there is significant overlap between narcissism and social-media behaviors. What's more, he says, social media tends to make the problem worse. "In virtual space many of the physical interactions that restrain behavior vanish. Delusions of grandeur, narcissism, viciousness, impulsivity, and infantile behavior for some individuals rise to the surface."

"Just as members of a mob get swept along by others' emotions," Davidow concludes, "the same thing can happen to us when we get swept up in a virtual Internet mob."

One need only review the recent "Donglegate" incident to see that this can be true.

There's perhaps a thin line between everyday egoism and pathological narcissism. All of us who use social-media are probably guilty of using it in part to feed our egos. I like to think I use Facebook mainly to share news and make wiseass comments (actually, what I mainly do is read news shared by my friends and enjoy their wiseass comments, but nevertheless). Still, in every instance, I'm also drawing attention to myself, whether that's my conscious intent or not. There is a big difference, though, between Facebook and Twitter on this score. I have a couple of hundred Facebook friends, but when I'm sharing something, I probably have only about 10 or 20 percent of them in mind. On Twitter, the audience is the whole world, so the social pathologies -- including narcissism -- are much more apparent. As Lifehacker founder Gina Trapani tweeted this week, presumably referring to "Donglegate": "Realizing all the ways Twitter is optimized for harassment. The hate speech directed at women this week couldn't happen on FB or G+."

That's because Twitter is absolutely open, whereas on Facebook, at least we have some control over our with whom we can share things (which is not to say Facebook can't often be a platform for jerky behavior and harassment.)

That's one reason I don't tweet as often as I update my Facebook page, where at least I feel like I know the people I'm interacting with. I use Twitter mainly to read news, and in general, I find that the only tweets worth paying attention to are those with links attached, directing me elsewhere. The prevalence of Twitter obsessives and people who mainly like to pointlessly yammer and debate (yes, debate -- in 140-character increments, which is just as nuts as it sounds) now have me hesitating before I follow individuals. I increasingly prefer to follow media organizations and institutional accounts of various kinds. They tend to be interested more in providing information off-Twitter than in making themselves the center of attention within Twitter.

But while Twitter, if customized correctly, is a great source of real-time news, it's not good enough by itself, mainly because of its own troublesome denizens, who can't be avoided entirely. When Google announced that it was abandoning its RSS program, Google Reader, this month, lots of people cited the rise of Twitter for the supposed waning popularity of reading news directly through an RSS feeder. I hope that's not the case, because as Cnet's Scott Stein tweeted: "Google Reader is to Twitter as a well-labeled filing cabinet is to a bag of insane cats."

While opening up communication to the masses certainly has its benefits, we also need to have information to be disseminated dispassionately by sober adults, and free of the many pathologies that are always present when large groups of people congregate.

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Dan Mitchell


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