Narcissism and Individualism

This is the age of the selfie. Never before have so many people taken so many pictures of themselves and posted them on so many different media. They’re all the same, goofy smiles, funny faces, sexy poses. For something that is supposed to be self-expressive, they are pathetically predictable and unoriginal.

Some social critics say that this is an age of individualism run amok. But the selfie suggests quite otherwise. This is the age of rampant narcissism.

The narcissist craves the attention of others because she or he otherwise has no self, no means of affirming his or her existence other than through the attention of others. Narcissists love mirrors, whether of the conventional glass kind or the gaze of others looking at them. The selfie is a kind of mirror: it is focused on oneself rather than the environment in which one is situated (on me rather than the Bridge of Sighs barely visible in the background) and it is “shared” with others with the purpose of receiving a reaction. It not only announces one’s existence, it asks for confirmation of that existence. The narcissist depends on the confirmation of others. Today, narcissism is a feedback system–I will friend you if you friend me, I will “LOL” your selfie if you will do the same for mine. Narcissists are not so much antisocial as hypersocial, in the sense that they need social recognition as much as they need oxygen.

Narcissists are selfish, but they are not individuals. Individuals do not require constant affirmation to support their sense of self. They do not need to attract attention to themselves always and everywhere. They have private lives. They enjoy privacy as much as they enjoy socializing. They do not need to take pictures of themselves to verify they have been to Venice, nor to prove to anyone else that they have. They will take a picture of the Bridge of Sighs without their funny faces obscuring it, or they might not take a photo at all–they have the personal experience, an experience that does not need to be “socialized” to be real.

Narcissists will go on a talk show and reveal all to millions. Individuals can’t imagine doing such a thing. They do not watch such shows. Individuals believe in privacy, they believe that they have a right to their secrets. They believe that other people have a right to their own secrets as well. They do not conform, neither do they make a fetish of not conforming (which is a backhanded way of conforming, by drawing attention to oneself, as a kind of hypersocializing–see me, see me!).

A society of narcissists is a society of conformists, with everyone vying for everyone else’s attention. Such attention is not always positive–often it is negative, bringing down the opprobrium of the masses for transgressing the rules of proper self-revelation. This is why selfies all look the same–there is a right way of doing it. It is why talk shows follow the same format, whether it’s Dr. Phil or Jerry Springer. There is a right way to be a “selfie”–there is no right way to be a self.

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  • Amanda Petrona  On September 14, 2016 at 9:29 AM

    Insightful and straight to the point commentary on the selfie zeitgeist.

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