Mass Media, Mass Murder And The Narcissistic Web

At the end of last year, Time magazine anointed their Person of the Year. Surprisingly, it was you (or us, or me, or whatever). In essence, the Social Web was Person of the Year. The collective community that is sharing ideas, photos, videos, thoughts, writings and such. It’s a bold and intriguing choice.
There’s an uglier side to this however. An ideal view of the Social Web has us thinking and collaborating together. A less than ideal view casts us as celebrities that feed on the attention and validation of being seen, read or heard. The Last Psychiatrist (a fascinating blog, by the way) said it best:

Being on YouTube, having a blog, having an iPod, being on MySpace– all of these things are self-validating, they allow that illusion that is so important to narcissists: that we are the main characters in a movie. Not that we’re the best, or the good guys, but the main characters. That everyone around us is supporting cast; the funny friend, the crazy ex, the neurotic mother, the egotistical date, etc. That makes reminders of our insignificance even more infuriating.

Youtube, Myspace, Flickr and blogging, they are, in many ways, a massive infrastructure that breeds and feeds an unhealthy level of narcissism. The result is an unquenching desire to be the lead in our own film, the star of our own show. The problem with promising narcissism is that, for some, the notion of not being recognized and acknowledged is nearly unbearable. It’s a slippery slope.
During his killing rampage in Virginia Tech, Cho Seung-Hui found the time ship a multimedia package to NBC. It’s a disturbing collection of writings, photos and videos that look more like a sliced-up movie trailer than a manifesto of some twisted ideology. It is the modern day Zodiac letters. Except this time, it isn’t an article in a local newspaper. It’s an all-out media blitz.
Cho knew full well where his media package would end up. This was his movie. Everyone else was an actor. With a bit of work, you could take any one of his photos and turn them into a movie poster. His desire to be seen, to be the star, spiraled to an extreme.
I’ll close with another, frighteningly prophetic quote from the same Last Psychiatrist post cited above:

If society chooses to make narcissism the default, it’s going to have to deal with society-wide narcissistic injuries – when we suddenly realize that it isn’t solely our movie and we’re really not the main character. And no one wants to see this stupid movie anyway. This inevitably leads to violence[…]

6 Comments Mass Media, Mass Murder And The Narcissistic Web

  1. Rachel

    Good post – and thanks for the tip on the Last Psychiatrist blog. Indeed, no-one wants to see that particular stupid movie, anyway.
    You can easily see how Twitter fits into this scheme – the idea that people are watching or even caring about our micromovements speaks to the culture of instant gratification.
    There’s a good article in The Nation from January that talks about the pitfalls of what the author calls the “democratization of fame”. I think that’s part of what made me disappointed with the TIME choice (well, I’ve been disappointed for a long while). By placing the emphasis on the individual as person of the year, they missed the point of technologies – it’s the hive mind and Social Web that came to light. But I suppose that’s too complex a concept for a magazine to get.
    I don’t think it was an extreme desire to be a star per se – I think Cho did want to be seen (or most likely heard) and knew the system of getting his message out. I think when we’re in a culture of extreme individualization, and the mainstream media has allowed people a path and the tools for affirmation. The question is at what cost does the culture consume us – and the wellbeing of the society as a whole.

  2. Richard Ziade

    As I was writing this, I was a bit worried that people would view the above somehow causing this nightmare.
    We all want to be validated. Whether acknowledgment at work or in school or from our parents. We are social animals after all. But when someone as pathologically shy as Cho seeks infamy, for the first time – he actually has a platform to get it in a very dramatic way.

  3. Jay Neely

    Rich, I respectfully disagree, especially with the statement “Youtube, Myspace, Flickr and blogging, they are, in many ways, a massive infrastructure that breeds and feeds an unhealthy level of narcissism.”
    Posting content online doesn’t make you a narcissist. Is it exciting to see something you worked on get large number of page views? Absolutely. Does that cause the person who created it to delusionally think that popular content somehow translates into personal popularity? Only if they’re already delusional. Every experienced user of MySpace knows that the number of ‘Friends’ they have is in no way an actual estimation of how many friends they have.
    I think the reason many people speculate about social media tools as being an outlet for narcissism is that they don’t understand that younger generations have different concepts of privacy, friendship, social interaction, and modesty than they did. Older generations would view any woman wearing a bikini as a slut, because she wasn’t modest, according to their standards. Consider that perhaps now older generations are mistaking younger people’s willingness to make more of their lives public as narcissism.
    I would strongly encourage you to use some of the tools you’re criticizing. I think you will find that far from encouraging narcissism, they encourage interaction more than anything else. Social networks aren’t any fun if you’re not keeping up with friends, old or new. Even if you ultimately disagree, I think experience using these tools will enhance your ability to discuss them intelligently, and critique intelligently others who are discussing them.
    For instance, from your quote from The Last Psychiatrist, “Being on YouTube, having a blog, having an iPod, being on MySpace– all of these things are self-validating”. This is a clear example of someone who does not know what they are talking about(or at the very least is careless with their examples). How is having an iPod self-validating? Where was the psychiatric concern when the Sony Walkman was the new hit tech? People being able to listen only to music they know they like. Oh, the narcissistic horror!

  4. Richard Ziade

    Thanks for the thoughtful response.
    I actually do use many of the tools mentioned. I blog. I use Flickr. I frequent Youtube a lot.
    Here’s the thing: I really like this stuff. But I’d be a hypocrite if I asserted that I did it for purely altruistic reasons. We blog. We put up pics. We make videos because we want to be validated, acknowledged and maybe even adored by others.
    What’s unique this time around is the massive platform that exists today. Sure, young people will always seek approval from others. But that used to be relegated to the school play and the occasional house party. What is different about today’s environment is the platform not only allows for a far bigger stage and arena, but also provides for a level of escapism that wasn’t with us before.
    Multiplayer online games and your alternative identity: the avater. As graphics and bandwidth has gotten better and better, these other worlds look all the more realistic.
    Again, I’m in no way insinuating that technology & the social web caused Cho to do what he did. But one thing is very clear: his thoughts were clearly shaped not only by the imagery he took in, but also by the impact he knew he could make. He sent videos, pictures and text – knowing full well that it would get much farther than Virginia.

  5. Rich Ziade

    Social networking sites are really just a mechanism to socialize and create an alternate persona. A 12 year old girl can design a Myspace page that makes her feel like a diva or movie star.
    And so, there really is no “clean” way to go about it. What’s important is to counter the magnetic effects of such experiences with a strong alternative that is based in the real world. A strong family. A good base of friends etc. It’s clear to everyone now that Cho was a pathologically shy, socially isolated person. He simply didn’t exist in our world. So he decided to become an action hero…


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