Sunday, October 13, 2013

Me Media: Are Bloggers Turning Into Narcissists?


All you bloggers, especially you mom bloggers, this post is for you. I am also speaking to those of us, myself included, who have an online presence in other social media. By that I mean: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, MySpace, Pinterest, Youtube videos, etc.

Ever since I entered the world of blogging, which is a mere couple of months ago, that annoying little voice within has been tapping on my shoulder a lot, and I've been swatting it away while typing my posts, distractedly saying "not now, I'm busy!"

Today my persevering conscience finally got my attention by drawing my eyes to an article entitled "Raising a nation of narcissists" (Ottawa Citizen, Oct. 12, 2013 - unfortunately not available online). There, author Suzanne Harrington points out some very disturbing features of our society. She writes:
By definition, we are all narcissists now, entranced with our own every move.

We document everything we do. We photograph, record, upload, download, tweet our breakfast, Instagram our lunch, Facebook our dinner, Google ourselves, blog our every thought, leave comments, invite comments, review whatever bits of the culture we are into, post selfies...Got a cat that likes hiding in boxes? Film it and upload. Play guitar? Get yourself on MySpace or SoundCloud...

Every aspect of your life can be exhibited...We have gone from texting our friends that we are on the bus to minutely documenting every teeny aspect of our lives - ostensibly to share with everyone online, but really, is anyone interested? Apart from, of course, ourselves?

We'll never know because we are all too busy watching ourselves.
This article caught me like a kid with my paw in the candy jar because in fairness, I see that my blog has already started contributing to the problem of narcissism rather than helping to eradicate it.

Until recently, my Facebook account had been dormant for many months because of precisely this issue. Every time I went on Facebook, I couldn't help but find myself rather disgusted by all the cheerful, gorgeous photos and the five-miles-thick sludge of what appeared to be self-loving snippets. I just couldn't make myself "Like" them all, instead I just wanted to gag. It was a relief to ignore Facebook.
(This is a rather strong reaction to Facebook, I admit. If I had never had any adverse circumstances in my life, then perhaps I would just be joining the party and posting tons of photos of our three adorable dumplings. But my former struggle with infertility taught me many things, and compassion is one of them. Sometimes compassion means toning down our public display of personal happiness, out of respect for the difficulties of others.
Facebook is a great place for those with perfect, happy families. All of your enviable family pics will get a truckful of "Likes" and you can feel like you just won the Family of the Year award. But the attention-seeking exhibitionism can definitely get out of hand and feel like a crusty salt rub on the wounds of those who are less fortunate in their life circumstances.)

Then I started a blog. At first I thought I was doing something radically different. Having a website and blog appears to be a requirement these days for authors, as many agents will tell you. So I thought I would get on that, as someone who wants to publish one day.

But over the last couple of months, I've discovered that keeping a blog has the potential to turn into something far, far worse than the mild self-obsession of Facebook. A blog can very easily morph into your very own reality show, complete with all the agonizing self-interviews, the glossy photo shots, and daily close encounters with the minutia of your gloriously mundane and yet incredibly interesting and consuming life.

I have now seen many of these reality shows all over the blogosphere. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that "reality show" is the most prevalent and widely accepted template for the "mom blogger." I can't even count how many blogs I have come across where posts regularly consist of any of the following:
  • Detailed accounts of the blogger's (or children's) daily events or mishaps (readers seem to appreciate it when we spotlight our ordinary lives in an amusing and mildly self-deprecating manner); 
  • Tons of close-up photos of the blogger's children, as if every day were a National Geographic feature;
  • Long introspective monologues that pretty much resemble what people used to write in diaries and stuff under their pillows. Now such content is aired out for the public to comment on and "like".
Many bloggers seem to have slipped into roles where they are small-time entertainers, turning into Kardashians, Oprahs and Rachel Rays with their own "Keeping Up With" show or their own "O" and "Every Day" magazines.

Disturbingly, I see this phenomenon happening on blogs in every corner of the blogosphere, whether secular, Christian or even Catholic. And yet, we Catholics should know better, shouldn't we? We are taught a lot about the importance of humility, about the dangers of vanity, pride and self-love, about the sin of evoking envy in others. Why is it that many Catholic blogs also tend to veer in the direction of self-adulation? (and while we are on the topic, why are so many people drawn to these blogs as commenters and apparent readers? It appears that we are often happy victims of reality shows - living vicariously is seductive entertainment.)

Part of it may be the nature of the medium. Just like Facebook, blogs almost invite us to develop a sanitized, glamorized persona, and to weave together the best (if unreal) version of our lives, as much for our own pleasure as for public consumption. Blogging about an airbrushed version of our life perhaps helps us to believe that we actually do have that kind of life, and I have a lingering suspicion that there is some kind of doping effect going on here. 

It is so easy to fall into the trap, right? We have good reasons for blogging about our family life. We justify sharing the good moments of our lives for far-away relatives and friends, etc. But no one wants to share the crappy parts, or sometimes we just can't share them, because they involve the privacy of others. The result is that if we blog about personal and family matters, it is almost inevitable that our posts will become a collection of the best/cutest/funniest moments of our lives, seen through the pink glasses of our self-love. Hardly honesty in action. And hello, if you take a second look at your blog, it is now a classic example of the narcissist obsession currently prevalent in our society. How is this helpful to anyone?   

The fact that technology has allowed us to bring our natural inclinations towards self-centeredness to a whole new level has not gone unnoticed by psychologists. Dr. Karyl McBride, an expert on narcissism at Psychology Today, said in an article from 2012: “I do think we live in a very narcissistic culture today, with an ‘all about me’ mentality.  The new technology, the celebrity focus, and the on-going attention to ‘how we look’ and ‘what we do’ being strong messages."

How do we buck the trend while staying plugged in? How do I keep a blog or any social media account that is not just a gross Public Display of Affection with myself (and my children), a big smooch to my interesting personality, important thoughts, and wonderful life?

At this point, I'm thinking it is not possible to completely avoid the impression of self-absorption if our posts focus on ourselves, our families and our lives. As much as we may try to tone down the lovefest, it will still come across that way to others. Whatever good, important reasons we may have for posting about Dear Daughter's cutest moment or the most crazy thing that happened to us today, in the end we are also kissing ourselves in public and others might watch in fascination even as they are rightfully also grossed out.

The best way to avoid becoming a narcissist statistic is to avoid blogging about these matters altogether. If we want to keep our friends and family in the loop about what are essentially private matters, then perhaps the old medium of mass emails is the best way to send the information only to those who might truly care because they know us. That way, we are not seducing the public into wanting lives they do not have, thus contributing to public discontent and the phenomenon of voyeuristic couch-potato lives.

I do think it is legitimate to post our thoughts on public matters in order to contribute to the debate in the public square. Matters of religion, politics, even current affairs are fair topics. Parenting, cooking, crafts, and pretty much anything other than ourselves are fair topics too, depending on we handle these. If the subject matter is just a thinly veiled celebration of ourselves then we are still contributing to the problem rather than the solution.

We should approach writing posts like writing magazine articles or newspaper columns, because a blog is a self-published periodical, not a private space, and it should not be kept in the belief that is a mere record for ourselves or our friends and families. If you want to keep a record, fine, but keep in on a CD. If everyone in the whole world can see it, from the staff at McMurdo in Antarctica to the prison convicts in Australia, then it cannot possibly qualify as your family's private record of events and milestones!

So here are my tips. They may sound simple but they are not easy to put into practice:
  • Try to avoid placing ourselves and our cleverness into the spotlight;
  • Attempt to present information that will genuinely aid others in whatever subject areas we choose, without any ulterior motive;
  • If we do blog about ourselves, it's important to be honest and to have a benevolent motive, such as helping others deal with similar issues. This often involves blogging about the less glitzy parts of life, such as coping with depression, loss, life with a zillion allergies, parenting children with ADHD, or any other difficulty. I believe that this kind of blogging does have value because it can help others who are going through similar issues. Others may feel less alone as a result, and they might also pick up some tips on how to cope with these situations.
After all, if helping others is not the aim of our social media participation, then how social are we being?

More Reading
Am I just a grumpy and disgruntled party pooper?
Or is there really something to the idea that bloggers are narcissistic? To get at the bottom of that question I did what everyone who seeks the truth must do, and I googled it. Now I know that this post is not alone, and at least some people have observed similar things. Check out these articles and blogs:
Final Note

This post has a very strong viewpoint that may appear very black-and-white. The truth is usually far more complicated, and I acknowledge that. People blog for many different reasons, and many of them are valid and good. Blogging is a great way to make connections and gain or maintain friendships. Blogging is a good way to feel less alone in your own struggles. There are many other reasons to blog, and many of them are good.  Blogging can be a really great thing. It can be like having your own magazine in a very positive way. It's great to build a connection with an audience.

But intentions are one thing, and public perception is another. Even good intentions can produce results that look to the world like an exhibition of narcissism. So we bloggers should continually check ourselves, because it is far too easy these days to go overboard in the wrong direction. People might not tell you what they really think, but it might still be true.


photo credit: Lotus Carroll via photopin cc 

7 comments:

  1. And THIS is why I don't have a blog! hahaha. I actually always thought most blogs/bloggers were a bit self-obsessed (especially when it became the hip thing for medical students/residents/doctors to do...more self-worship, yes, that is what the world needs! (groan).)

    But honestly, Lea, you should keep up the writing because you are giving Matthew and me something light, refreshing and often comedic to enjoy reading when he comes home very late at night a bit beleaguered, and we just need to have a good laugh about something innocent, like Hannah's birthday suit, hahaha...Perhaps it is a bit of escapism from the very heavy realities of hospital life (after all, isn't most entertainment some form of escapism?)...Still, beyond escapism, good wholesome entertainment also gives us a bit of hope that perhaps better things lie ahead... =)

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  2. Very good article because sadly, it is very very true

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  3. Very well-written post indeed! Thanks for the pingback to my post (Narcissism and Blogging. Connected?)
    http://dshenai.wordpress.com/2013/04/27/narcissism-and-blogging-connected/

    Happy 2014!

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  4. Love this post. I struggle with this every time I write a blog post. It is so easy to fall into the trap of looking for validation and approval. I'm reading "Strange Gods" now by E Scalia and she has a great chapter about this very subject. Thanks for writing this and saying what needs to be said.

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  5. I heartily agree with your observation here. I gave up Facebook for Lent and now I have no stomach for it. Except to really and truly keep up with extended family and see pictures of my grandson.

    Your post made me give some more thought to why I blog. Your third bullet point,-- "If we do blog about ourselves, it's important to be honest and to have a benevolent motive, such as helping others deal with similar issues. This often involves blogging about the less glitzy parts of life, such as coping with depression, loss, life with a zillion allergies, parenting children with ADHD, or any other difficulty. I believe that this kind of blogging does have value because it can help others who are going through similar issues. Others may feel less alone as a result, and they might also pick up some tips on how to cope with these situations" -- is at least what I think I do. I find I have to keep reminding myself of the goal I began with, and that is to tell candidly what a rocky, messed up life I have lived and still managed to become Catholic. How there is a place in His Church for people that have lives like that.

    I do talk about my family sometimes, and post pictures. I always have one or another reasons for why I do that, not the least of which is just to have record of it somewhere! And still, to show how my mixed up (spiritually and otherwise) family still manages to love each other and get along.

    Anyways! Thank you for the springboard to reflect on my motives and goals for blogging.

    Wishing you a blessed Holy Week.

    Kelly

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  6. Thank you for articulating what I have been thinking and struggling with about blogging. You said it well about blogging the mundane, becoming an online reality star and putting oneself in the spotlight too much. I was once an active blogger but now have toned down because I don't want to become a self-proclaimed celebrity that is prideful and too focused on self. I also notice some sense of nihilism among the parenting blogs (not all) which I find disturbing. If I want to teach my children humility, self-sacrifice and a sense of the extraordinary and the spiritual, then I have to I have to set an example for them.

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  7. Jason, thanks for your comment. It sounds to me like you have made a very good decision about your blog, and I commend you for your honesty and humility in sharing your experience.

    That said, I think it is time that to add a new dimension to this post, because my views have shifted to some extend as I have become more familiar with the blogging world.

    When I wrote this post, I was very new to the online world and just discovering the many blogs that are out there. I had stumbled mostly across parenting blogs, and my first reaction to a lot of the content was to recoil at what struck me as shameless self-focus and self-celebration, including the many posted photos of their children and the lengthy descriptions of the mundane thoughts, events, trials and tribulations of individual lives.

    But to be honest, today I take a more temperate view. I still believe that there are many blogs out there that either cross the line or teeter precariously at the edge of narcissism. On the other hand, I also better understand why there are so many bloggers out there who are sharing their daily woes with strangers across the globe. What seemed like narcissism to me at the time is now, more and more, looking like the face of loneliness in a culture where some people might have few other ways of creating human connections. It is also looking to me, to some extent, like the new face of human solidarity and friendship.

    The online world, whether we like it or not, has become for many a way of seeking out and creating a community of like-minded people. People who are strangers can and do become friends online today, and those friendships may actually carry over into the “real” world. I was surprised by the many different accounts I found online, of bloggers who have formed actual friendships through their blogs, friendships that seem to continue offline.

    So part of what I saw as “oversharing” is, I now believe, a way of reaching out, sending out tentacles that might create that bond of friendship with like-minded readers. Because after all, to become a friend, one has to open up and share about oneself. And when I looked at many of the comments on these parenting blogs, it became evident to me that indeed, many readers react very emotionally and feel like kindred spirits when they read about the daily woes, mundane details, and lives of the children of the bloggers.

    The trouble with “living one’s life online” is that everything you write is visible not only to those who might want to be your friends, but to absolutely everyone everywhere, from the mechanic who changed your oil to your mother-in-law to your potential employer (not to mention billions of strangers). You might as well post online, verbatim, every conversation you ever had with your best friend. And of course, once you post these things, they will be there potentially forever - your children will one day grow up and read your posts too. So is it really wise for us to go that route?

    I suspect not, but there is no doubt that this experiment will continue playing itself out until we have seen all the consequences.

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