It’s become a commonplace to say that the widespread use of social media has inaugurated an age of narcissism. Forbes has weighed in. So has Psychology Today. So have The Atlantic, Wired, and just about every other think-piece site going. Google Scholar turns up over 50,000 results for “social media narcissism.” Last year, Kristin Dombek published a book called The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism (FSG). Dombek is interested less in narcissism as a cultural-diagnostic tool than in our current use of the phrase as an anathema – as in the articles linked above.
The story of Narcissus first appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Narcissus is a beautiful young man. Out hunting one day, he stops to drink from a pool. Catching sight of his reflection, he falls in love with his own image, and wastes away, until all that remains of him is a flower.
It seems to me that “narcissism” is not a useful way to think about how people behave on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. are not reflecting pools or mirrors. They are not designed to allow us to admire ourselves, but rather to persuade others to admire us and the lives we seem to be leading. More pertinently, Facebook, Twitter etc. are not neutral media. Every social media site is owned and run by an enormously wealthy corporation. Anything we post on social media immediately becomes the legal property of that corporation. When you type a search into Google, or send an email, or a Whatsapp message, or post a picture on Instagram, or a photograph to Facebook, powerful algorithms convert these activities into information that is sold to advertisers. In his book The Googlization of Everything (2011), Siva Vaidhyanathan spells out what this means. “We are not Google’s customers,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “We are its product.”
When we post pictures or accounts of ourselves or our amazing lives to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, we are not being narcissists. We are being commodities.
One of the first people to understand the implications of all this was a research analyst named Carmen Hermosillo. Hermosillo was an early and avid user of chat rooms and message boards. She posted long essays about her experiences, sharing private information with friends online (you can read about Hermosillo’s life and death here). Eventually, however, Hermosillo came to feel that by disclosing intimate details about her life on message boards run by corporations like AOL-Time Warner, she was transforming herself into a commodity. In 1994, she published an essay entitled “Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace” (available here), in which she wrote:
i have seen many people spill their guts on–line, and i did so myself until, at last, i began to see that i had commodified myself. commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money–value. in the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories, which karl marx called ‘the means of production.’ capitalists were people who owned the means of production, and the commodities were made by workers who were mostly exploited. i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. that means that i sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit from the sale of my soul. people who post frequently on boards appear to know that they are factory equipment and tennis shoes, and sometimes trade sends and email about how their contributions are not appreciated by management.
as if this were not enough, all of my words were made immortal by means of tape backups. furthermore, i was paying two bucks an hour for the privilege of commodifying and exposing myself. worse still, i was subjecting myself to the possibility of scrutiny by such friendly folks as the FBI: they can, and have, downloaded pretty much whatever they damn well please.
Hermosillo’s analysis of online discourse was published 23 years ago. We have not heeded its message. Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying have proved Hermosillo correct about “such friendly folks as the FBI” examining what we post online. Nor have we fully grasped the fact that Google, Facebook, and Twitter have turned us all into commodities, and that we have no control over how our freely-shared information is sold, analysed, or stored. Busily fashioning polished versions of ourselves online, we fail to notice that in the process, we are selling our souls.
In other words, we are not narcissists. We are suckers.