How Social Media Feeds Our Narcissism (By Jayson Bradley)

Today, I’m excited to share a guest post by Jayson Bradley, a pastor, father and writer who is quickly becoming one of my favorite reads. Wise, witty and thought provoking, I highly encourage you to spend some time over at his place (jaysonbradley.com). You will not be disappointed. I promise.

*****

narcissus

Renown for his beauty, Narcissus was vain and prideful. A child of the river god, Cephissus and a nymph named Liriope, he arrogantly scorned those who were drawn to him.

One spurned lover called on the goddess Nemesis for retribution and she led Narcissus to a pool where he became entranced with the beauty of his own reflection. Unable to pull himself away from his image in the water, he died beside the pool.

Is social media the pool of Narcissus?

As with most mythology, Narcissus suffers appropriately for his self-involvement. What’s ironic about this story is how life-giving like water would be used to ensnare him in his own weakness. Due to pathological self-absorption, Narcissus’ life was taken by something intended to give him refreshment and sustenance.

Less than fifteen years ago, the thought that we’d have such simple, accessible tools to connect us across continents, help us stay close to our loved ones, and foster community was too good to be true.

The rise of websites like Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram offered us an unheard of opportunity to be intimately involved in each other’s lives in ways we could never have imagined—and, like Narcissus, we obsessively use them to gaze at our own reflections.

Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero

It used to be that our mailboxes were stuffed every December with Christmas letters from friends and family, each one highlighting the major accomplishments and crowning achievements from the year. Now we’re inundated every moment with carefully worded, strategically packaged updates about lives that none of us are truly living.

  • We share stories about our children that slyly put our incredible parenting on display.
  • We post our Foursquare check-ins from the gym.
  • We plagiarize the sentiments and jokes of others to make ourselves funny and interesting.
  • We take hundreds of selfies for every heavily filtered one we share.
  • We craft updates highlighting every charitable act we do.

It isn’t just that we want mislead others; we, like Narcissus, are enamored with the glittering image of who we imagine ourselves to be.

This incredible tool, with the potential to connect us all, is turning us into a culture of Ferris Buellers breaking the fourth wall to converse with our imaginary audience—who, incidentally, turns out to be ourselves.

Playing to the imaginary audience

In 1967, David Elkind coined the term “the imaginary audience” to reflect how children tend to believe that they’re under constant observation by peers, family, and strangers—but this childhood stage is now becoming a perpetual condition.

We all live with this perpetual idea that we’re the stars of our own serial. Part drama and part comedy, we imagine our lives being watched by others complete with a laugh track and the perfect theme song.

Social media gives us the tools to craft a fable about ourselves that’s loosely based on actual events—and it allows us the opportunity to be both the stars and spectators of this remarkable tale.

Twenty-first century hypocrisy

When we use the term hypocrisy, we tend to think it means intentional duplicity. In our minds, it’s that guy who holds people to a standard he doesn’t keep.

But when Jesus used the term hypokrisis, it literally meant one who acts on stage. It was a person who put on a mask to perform for others. That’s why he talked about people who practice their righteousness in order to be seen by others.

A hypocrite carefully tailors an image that portrays themselves differently than they actually are. The worst part is the hypocrite is usually the first person to believes the false image is real.

Through social media, it’s easier than ever to create and spread a legendary version of ourselves, but because no one can truly build a relationship with an imaginary character, we pour our energy into fiction.

Life in an age of narcissism

Narcissism is diagnosed by certain behavioral tendencies, among them: a fantastical and exaggerated view of one’s own strengths, an elevated views of one’s opinions, and a cultivating of superficial relationships.

The intrinsic danger of social media is in the way it rewards narcissism. You can post ten selfies a day and, even though most of your friends think you’re ridiculously self-obsessed, you’ll get the inevitable positive reinforcement in comments about how attractive or buff you are.

Social media overcompensates us for self-aggrandizing behavior.

I often wonder how future generations will judge us as they comb through zettabytes of social media content. How will they sum up humanity in this era?

We need to be diligent about using social media’s incredible tools to connect to others, to build deep and valuable relationships, and to create open and transparent dialog. I’m afraid anything less ultimately devalues and poisons us.

*****

jayson bradleyBio: Jayson is a God-botherer, writer, sinner, audiophile, and Washington state’s worst pastor. He blogs at jaysondbradley.com. Find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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