From self-love to social media, the evolution of narcissism

Illustration by Cody Klyne/Joel McCarthy
Illustration by Cody Klyne/Joel McCarthy

By Jacey Gibb, Assistant Editor

The transition from traditional narcissism into a modern incarnation was as gradual as it was subtle. Since humans first discovered the reflective properties of certain surfaces, they’ve been in love with themselves—not in the conventional “hold a boom box outside of their window at night” kind of romance, but the type where the individual takes precedence over anyone and everyone. The kind of self-love that drives people to post videos of themselves singing on YouTube, desperate for comments and praise, or pull highly-publicized stunts for the media to gobble up and distribute for mass consumption. As the egomaniac Andy Warhol himself once said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

While old-fashioned narcissists still openly exist, narcissism itself can manifest in a variety of forms, with one of the most common labels for modern narcissism being social media. It’s nothing profound to say that platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram provide the perfect breeding grounds for people to showcase their narcissistic tendencies in an entirely socially-accepted manner.

But before I continue, I’d like to draw upon the theory of the “ego ideal.” Everyone has a vision in their mind of what the perfect person is: how they act, what they look like, what their strengths and weaknesses are. Whether they’re aware of it or not, many people use this invented caricature as a role model or as an example of who they would like to be one day. It doesn’t matter if this ego ideal is unattainable for the person to achieve; the image still exists.

This quest for the ego ideal is one of the reasons behind the rise of social media. Since the majority of activity on social media, ironically enough, takes place isolated behind a screen, a person is allowed more room to explore and fabricate a different personality for themselves, whether it’s one that’s funnier or flirtier or more opinionated than their usual self.

To draw upon my own personal experiences, I remember hearing the term “Internet funny” a few years ago and it stuck with me for good reason. The term is used to describe when a person isn’t funny in real life, but is a modern-day John Candy whenever they’re online. The reason why there’s such a disparity in hilarity is because real life doesn’t give you time to conjure up a comeback; when you’re trying to be funny online, you have an extended timeframe with which to either make up a humourous retort or even borrow something from the Worldwide Web.

The reason I’m expanding on the idea of a person being “Internet funny” is because of the culture that comes with having this deceptive, though heavily sought-after characteristic. A person can spend most of their time thinking up funny status updates or witty tweets, all in an attempt to create a persona for the online community to see and be impressed by.

What’s most troubling about the narcissistic tendencies currently being carried out through social media is that the majority of users are unaware that their actions are of such a nature. I’ve known people to delete Facebook posts if they don’t get enough likes or comments, but whenever I’ve called the person out on such actions, they’re usually unable to explain the reason why. What it comes down to is that the need for external validation is so high that when theses confirmations aren’t met, self-doubt ensues. By allowing the actions of the public to dictate what is worthy news and deserving of commentary, a person’s internal scale can be tipped in favour of what others believe.

But a person’s ego or need for peer-approval may not be the only factor playing into the surge of social media. Research has found that responses online lead to a release of endorphins for users. That means for every comment, like, retweet, message, or friend request, a person is treated to a release of endorphins, causing a reduction in stress and an ensuing natural high. Because this after effect is so desirable, people repeat the behaviour that initially led to this feeling, i.e. serial updating.

Does this process of developing a craving, satisfying said craving, and then enjoying the ensuing reward sound familiar? It should. It’s the same kind of system an addict goes through.

It’s hard to point the finger at a single social media outlet for being the worst offender of fostering modern narcissism, if only because they all encourage mass peer-validation. Facebook makes constant suggestions over who you should be friends with (if only because you share a single mutual friend); Twitter makes a status symbol out of how many followers you’ve amassed. The fact that Ashton Kutcher gained a morsel of fame from becoming the first Twitter user to have more than a million followers is a gag without a punchline. The emerging controversy over people apparently making money off of selling followers, along with the revelation that accounts with astronomical amounts of followers could be piggybacking off of fake accounts, is as sure a sign as any that this drive for people to immerse themselves within a virtual popularity contest causes irrational behaviour. Collecting followers for the sake of collecting followers? I’d say this is madness, but this is social media.

While social media is largely a promoter of narcissism, the cause behind the rise of overzealous self-love emerged accidentally from good intentions: in an attempt to foster self-esteem and help develop a sense of self-worth in people, an overwhelming sense of entitlement took over.

From our days as snot-nosed children through the pubescent, hormone-ridden years, we are told by our parents and surrounding mentors how “special” we all are. We’re led to believe that we will all grow up to pursue our all-important dreams, become wildly successful at whatever career we settle on, and go on to save the world—every single one of the seven billion of us is destined to change the world.

The American Freshman Survey, a study that has been completed by over 9 million young people since its inception almost 50 years ago, asks students every year to rate themselves on categories such as their drive to achieve, social self-confidence, and intellectual self-confidence. An analysis of the data collected in 2012 produced some troubling results: every year, there has been a dramatic increase of “above average” responses in each category that the study deems to be “individualistic.” The results have also established that there is a clear “disconnect between the student’s opinions of themselves and actual ability.” Young people of the world are floating around with inflated egos, without the necessary skills to prove, and it’s because of the way they were raised.

While I thought my idea to investigate the evolution of narcissism was rather inventive of myself (how narcissistic!), I was disappointed to find that a quick Google search revealed a world of similar opinions: that people are slowly becoming overconfident, more self-assured, and displaying the characteristics most commonly associated with narcissism. Sources, ranging from academic studies to simple blog posts, are mostly in agreement about the rise of narcissism, but I also encountered a viewpoint that I’d never even considered: that this isn’t an epidemic at all and that the transition into a society where self-worth has a higher GDP was inevitable.

There’s no denying that we’re a bunch of cocky, self-loving fleshbags, but there’s also not a lot we can do about it now. The idea everyone believes they are above-average, no matter how impossible that may be, has been engrained in each of our special nervous systems and will continue to have an impact on the way our society operates. Whether it’s placing an illogical amount of importance on something as mundane as collecting followers or laying claim to being the mastermind behind a video that’s gone viral, a sense of what’s important and adds to our self-worth will continue to be distorted. The best you can do in these narcissistic time is to try and keep a level head and remember what the wise philosopher Tyler Durden once said, “You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”