Compulsive Acts

A psychiatrist's tales of ritual and obsession.

Rise of the Online Narcissist

The Internet is more I-centric than ever and all about you.

Like the Judeo-Christian God, the "I" is omnipresent in cyberspace and in what is being called "personal media." From "I" Tunes to "I" Pod to "I" Phone, the entire digital world, and not just Apple, is at the disposal of the first-person singular pronoun. (Not to mention the "I" Pad, whose name brought up hyperpersonal hygiene issues for some women, and caused tweets like: "Heavy flow? There's an app for that!") This shift from e- to i- in prefixing Internet URLs and naming electronic gadgets and "apps" parallels the rise of the self-absorbed online Narcissus.

The Internet is more I-centric than ever and all about you. Yahoo!, for example, recently launched a global campaign that played up this very characteristic. It was titled "It's Y!ou," and it included ads such as: "Now the Internet Has a Personality. Yours."; "There's a New Master of the Digital Universe. It's Y!ou"; and "The Internet Is under New Management. Yours." EarthLink's ubiquitous tagline, "EarthLink revolves around you," makes the same point below the signature at the bottom of e-mails that its users send. So does the "Mi-Fi," a new gadget that brings you your own portable Wi-Fi bubble, a private hot spot that follows you wherever you go, like a cloud constantly over your head. As for the iPhone, downloading iBubbleWrap from your online Apple store can calm your nerves by giving you virtual bubble wrap to pop: "Unlike real bubble wrap, iBubbleWrap never runs out of bubbles to pop and you always have it with you." Even less useful, iCycle keeps a guy alert to the hormonal shifts of the woman in his life: "Enjoy peace and quiet in your relationships. Prevent arguments and unnecessary misunderstandings, save money, plan your dates, vacations, weekend trips and major discussions within her ‘best time period' of the month." Someone needs to get an iLife!

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More than ever, virtual and digital technology aims to satisfy our every last need and to put us in the driver's seat. Not only can we choose our online news source to read, we can modify it in dramatic ways. We can specify, for instance, which news topics we want on the "front page" and which ones we'd like moved to the end or filtered out completely. As one writer remarked before, instead of CNN, the Washington Post, or the Daily Oklahoman, we can sip our morning coffee reading "The Daily Me." Similarly, in the age of podcasting, live feeds, virtual music libraries, and iPods, it is now possible to listen only to songs that we know we like. Also, with Web sites such as Hulu and digital video recorders such as TiVo, we have more power than at any other time to watch only the shows we want, when we want to, even speeding through the commercials. Complaining about this culture of customization is slightly disingenuous-we all crave tools that save us time and that reflect our individuality and unique lifestyle. But two unintended consequences cannot be ignored. First, as we increasingly choose to expose ourselves only to the ideas, entertainment, and even people that appeal to us, we are undermining the common experiences essential to a sense of community and fragmenting ourselves along narrow lines of interest. This state has been called iSolation, when the Internet was supposed to broaden our horizons, diversify our interests, and help us commune with the world. The second consequence speaks more directly to the rise of narcissism: As we get accustomed to having even our most minor needs, such as the need to pop bubble wrap, accommodated to this degree, we are growing more needy and more entitled. In other words, more narcissistic.

Adapted from passage in VIRTUALLY YOU: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality

Dr. Aboujaoude is a psychiatrist and author based at Stanford University. His most recent book is Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality.

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