Amusingly, you can find students staring and staring at photos on the library computers- and they are photos of themselves. The pics are being evaluated, I presume, for the standards of Facebook publication. Yet this "narcissism" isn't begot by offerings such as Facebook, is it? I recall seeing a pretty girl in high school studying her own small picture in the (print) year book for an entire class hour.
In a recent essay titled "Hiding Behind the Screen", philosopher Roger Scruton carefully thinks through how we should conceptualize "the ease with which images of other people can be summoned to the screen to become the objects of emotional attention." It is a very thorough and thoughtful reflection on our use of the internet today. He attempts to point out the pros and cons of this new way in which humans can relate to each other.
A pro? It might be very good for the shy, he offers. On the other hand, he worries that even if obstacles for the shy are more easily overcome online, the experience might encourage "a kind of narcissism, a self-regarding posture in the midst of what should have been other-regarding friendship."
I'm not so sure Scruton is right to worry about this in regard to social media. I was once one of those people who wondered at how anyone could create an online ad for herself, which is what I assumed social media required. "You have to brag, right? You have to choose a picture, one that everyone knows you carefully chose?" I was just bewildered by the acknowledged vanity in the pictures people would take of themselves, amazed people would fill in sentences that could begin with "I'm the kind of person who..." The whole thing seemed so embarrassing.
And then time passed. No one cared that I wasn't on Facebook but I was beginning to feel like a jerk for staying off. As I slowly adjusted to it, I began to see its merits. Let me try to describe one and suggest a second.
For me, at least, and the friends I have, it used to be that if an old classmate or acquaintance was mentioned, "oh, how is old so- and-so?", the conversation would end with an awkward silence when it was all good news. Bad news would come with that dramatic intake of breath and that faux tsk tsk to connote "poor thing". It never felt good to check in on people that way, yet we still cared and still wanted to know.
What has Facebook done for me and mine? The information we used to trade, we now get first hand. We can hardly gossip about anyone we ever knew now. Yes, Facebook allows us to put our best face (glamour shot, even) forward, but where Scruton worries about the "ultimate control" we retain over our "avatars"- I find it humanizing. My Facebook friends admit their failings with frankness and humor, and I cannot imagine gossips having much fun with the material when presented that way. Thin gruel, it'd be.
Facebook must be torture for those with habits of looking down on others. The guy you want to think isn't well paid- look how good his weekend was! The woman you thought was so uptight? There's her living room, kid toys all over the place! I imagine people with interests in Schadenfreude can't even handle Facebook. (And I admit, even in a bad mood I stay far away from that cheerful place.)
Facebook has brought about norms I find really helpful: no snarky, angry, or bitter commentary. Scruton doesn't point out these benefits, but they've been very direct for me.
Of course, Scruton's other cautions I take to heart. He expands his worries to more than social media and concludes by inveighing against all things passive. Self-development requires risk, he explains, and "life on the screen" involves less risk across the board. Watching, playing, commentating, dating, and "friending": these are all made safer, more predictable when they are online. If we do not take complex chances out in the world, with missteps and wrongheaded predictions -- how can we really test ourselves? If we become accustomed to the easiest ways of biding our time -- won't everything else lose its appeal? Television, he points out, "for a vast number of our fellow human beings, destroyed family meals, home cooking, hobbies, homework, study, and family games." Oh, do I agree! I find this tragic!
But at the same time, unlike Scruton, I'm thinking, "wow, you'd have such boring Facebook posts if you just watched TV all the time..."
What if further attention to one's self (and one's self among others) is the cure, not the disease?