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Does social media usage lead to an increase in narcissism? What happens when we empower the people who get the most likes and retweets? We speak with social psychologist Miranda Giacomin, who studies the fluctuation of narcissism across situations, and Alice Marwick, a new media researcher studying self-presentation strategies, attention and privacy online.

How do you view the relationship between social media and narcissism?

Miranda:

It has become a trend to look at narcissism and social media use. The data out there is mixed. In some cases narcissism does predict taking a greater number of selfies, having more followers and posting more pictures, but in some places we don’t see that relationship. Instagram and even Snapchat do play on people’s narcissistic drive because they’re based on what you look like, what you post, how you portray what you’re doing. That feeling of self-enhancement is one the reasons people post on social media.

Alice:

When we’re thinking about these types of behaviors it always comes back to what the platform itself is encouraging or discouraging people to do. There is a real tendency in the public conversation to conflate posting on social media and attention-seeking behaviors with narcissism. That’s problematic for a number of reasons. There’s a stereotype of the millennial woman or the teenage girl as a selfie-seeking narcissist who is desperate for attention online. What we ignore is that there are a lot of social structures, social values and media culture that are contributing to these types of behaviors, so they make them completely clear and logical for people to engage in. There is plenty of evidence that when people are able to command large audiences in their online lives, that status transfers to the offline world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are narcissistic; it means that they are using a very logical attention-getting technique. Social media has the potential to reverse some power dynamics via activism, but structural power is very pervasive. For example, we can use social media for feminist activism, but social media can also be used to spread sexism.

What are rewards for getting attention online?

Alice:

The most important thing to understand in the social media landscape is that attention is a currency and people who attract the most attention are often the ones who reap the most rewards. We have to recognize that the ability to attract attention is in itself a talent. It might not be a talent that you or I hold in particular esteem, but more and more it is required for a wide variety of careers. For example, for young journalists or anyone wanting to go into entertainment, or for musicians and increasingly for academics, the ability to create and harness attention can boost your career in many ways. When you’re working within an attention economy, you only have to look at someone like Donald Trump to see how valuable the ability to control the media cycle and what is written about you can be, when you are able to harness all that attention.

Is there a dark side to the idea that narcissists can excel in an attention economy?

Miranda:

One of the most adaptive components of narcissists is that they make really positive initial impressions on people, so we are immediately drawn to them. They appear very confident, charismatic, they are often attractive and they can be quite extroverted, so they are good at actually getting our attention. We like them when we first meet them. They are more likely to get hired. It’s later on that you start seeing negative interpersonal implications from narcissists. It doesn’t take us long to figure out that they are actually not nice people; they are not very caring, they tend to use people for attention and admiration rather than closeness and they don’t really develop close behaviors. They often become problematic leaders in the workplace. Up front, we tend to like them—that’s the adaptive component of it, where they can draw people in and get ahead faster, but they often struggle to get along well with others after some time.

Alice:

When you think about the types of behaviors that get attention, they are not the behaviors that make for a good society or a good public culture. You’re not going to get attention on certain forms of social media for being kind, empathetic or thoughtful. The dark side is that people are rewarded for behaviors that might not be for the public good. Do you think that Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton and Donald Trump are the people who should get the most attention in our country? No! They are people who are very good at gaming the system. As long as we have an attention economy, as long as there are economic incentives to try to get a lot of attention, then we are going to have people producing content with the only aim of getting attention. And the people who are the best propagandists are the ones who are able to get their message across. Which perspectives and role models and thoughts are we missing out on, since they’re not bubbling to the top of this stew of attention-seeking content?

Miranda:

Narcissists tend to be more helpful in public environments and less helpful privately or where they don’t get to post about it. People can be strategically helpful in situations that allow them to attain higher status. Posting videos of your good deeds or making it obvious to others that you are a kind, warm individual, leads to more likes or comments (on social media) or praise. This type of public recognition can make people feel more powerful than they would have had they privately donated. People may play up their helpfulness, but you have to wonder if that is actually altruistic or egotistic.

"Social media has the potential to reverse some power dynamics via activism, but structural power is very pervasive."

  • Words:
    Molly Rose Kaufman
  • Photography:
    Seokmin Ko
  • Words:
    Molly Rose Kaufman
  • Photography:
    Seokmin Ko

"Social media has the potential to reverse some power dynamics via activism, but structural power is very pervasive."

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