Have you ever found yourself reading over your Facebook feed over your morning coffee (or after dinner, or when you’re supposed to be working, etc.), and wondering to yourself, “What inanity has possessed the human race? Why do all these people think we want to read their banal witticisms, their soapbox pontifications, or their semi-daily log of what they’ve been doing for the past few hours? Of course you have. And no doubt you have also found yourself, as I have, blinking at my Facebook wall seconds after posting an update and asking, “Why did I bother to post that banal witticism, or soapbox pontification, or pointless revelation about my recent activities?”
A recent study helps answer the question for us by translating into scientific precision what we all already know deep-down. We like to talk about ourselves. We get a real kick out of it. In fact, we get a little chemical high from it, a spurt of dopamine, the same thing that gives us a buzz after delicious food or sex, or after vanquishing a foe in a game.
Dopamine, in fact, is virtually programmed into the internet, since dopamine thrives on novelty, the sense of perpetual discovery and accomplishment. As we click our way through link after link, our tiniest effort is rewarded with a new array of images and information, and our brain celebrates each “discovery” with a little dopamine party. Since dopamine circuits have a strong tendency to become addictive, it is no wonder that the internet has proven so dangerously addictive, whether it be pornography, RPGs, or just mindless browsing. Such addictions are troubling enough, but perhaps even more urgent is the need to reflect on what we may be doing to ourselves by subjecting our social lives to the constant influence of such stimuli.
Let’s go back to that inane status update, that banal witticism. We may get a little wave of satisfaction simply from posting it, simply from speaking our minds to the world, but that satisfaction quickly evaporates if our utterance goes unacknowledged. We get a kick out of talking about ourselves, yes, but not (usually) by simply addressing an empty forest, but by addressing another human being, one who appears to be listening to us. We crave, in short, affirmation. We each play the starring role in our own mental narratives, and we desperately want to see that role acknowledged. How often have you posted that status update, or that cool link, or made that clever comment, and found yourself randomly checking back in on Facebook later in the day, hoping to see notifications announcing that someone else “liked” what you said, or commented on it? Maybe never. Maybe it’s just me. But if it is just me, I doubt Facebook would be that successful. The “like” button was a genius idea. Every time someone likes your status or your picture, it’s a little pat on the back. The reward circuits in your brain purr with satisfaction. Well done, me, they say. You have achieved something, however petty, and it has been recognized as worthwhile. Perhaps we even find ourselves subconsciously keeping score with ourselves—”Ha! 12 likes this time. Last time I only got 8.” To be sure, comments are great too, especially when they function (as they often seem to do except when responding to a controversial opinion) as just a glorified “like”—”Oooh, what a lovely picture!”; “Hahaha! That was hilarious!” Even when we tell ourselves we really don’t give a darn about the stupid world and its stupid Facebook (as I tend to do), we are not immune—we can’t resist feeling gratified at that little icon of proof that someone is listening, and someone is interested.
And of course we can’t. We’re social creatures. Narcissism may be the product of sin, but a desire for community, for relationship, to love and be loved, is quite natural. But sin (and I should point out that I see no necessary contradiction between identifying something as sin and identifying it as a physiological proclivity of the brain) means that we are terribly prone to distort this desire for sociality, preeminently by letting the desire to be loved take charge, at the expense of the desire to love. In other words, while a need for affirmation is natural, it can readily become pathological. Indeed, we recognize unhealthy sorts of relationships in just this way. It is perhaps most glaring in young boys, who will do the most absurd and obnoxious things just to get attention, just to get recognized—even negative recognition can seem like a victory. In teenagerhood, we’re a little more subtle, at least in our eyes, but to outside observers still shameless in our pursuit of recognition and acceptance. The different sexes may do it somewhat differently, but they have plenty in common—we want people to laugh at our jokes, listen to our stories, invite us to parties (even if we don’t want to go to the stupid parties!). At this stage, most of us no longer get a high from negative recognition (and when we do, that’s usually a sign that we’re really starved for recognition), and so we try to groom our self-presentation so as to get as many signals of positive recognition as possible, to get real-world “likes,” demonstrated through words, gestures, and privileged seating arrangements.
Hopefully, we become mature enough to recognize before long that this isn’t the ideal form of sociality, that the temporary highs of this kind of recognition are followed by inevitable lows, as we worry desperately whether it will be repeated. It doesn’t actually make us feel affirmed, or happy. This kind of sociality, based heavily on narcissism, is not the opposite of loneliness, but usually simply another path to loneliness.
What we really need to be happy are relationships that are so close, so firm, that we do not need to receive constant indications of affirmation. In our superficial relationships with “the cool people,” we want to always be told that we are cool too. But from a really good friend, we want criticism as well as affirmation. I want a friend who knows me as I really am, rather than merely the facade I try to present to the world, who is willing to tell it to me like it is, to talk to me about my faults, and about his faults. From such a person I won’t require constant tangible proofs that he finds me interesting, and so I won’t need to always say something clever or brilliant to elicit approval. These friendships are truly healthy relationships, the kind of sociality that we should strive for, but alas, they are rare indeed. Now, what is my point in all this? I have already admitted that the unhealthy kind of sociality, the projected facade hoping for recognition, is perhaps most common in most of our lives. What does Facebook have to do with this?
Well, the thing is that there are real limits as to how much we can ensure a constant stream of positive feedback in the real world. Even the coolest of the cool people do stupid things. And when you do something stupid in a social setting, the self-image you wish to project is broken, you are laughed at not for your wit, but for your foolishness; you receive negative recognition. And indeed, rarely are we indulged with such self-enclosed cliques of mutual affirmation that we do not have to face criticism and questioning, people disapproving our actions whether than approving, all of which only the most self-deceived can ignore. Our daily social lives, then, can never be a narcissistic dream come true. We might still aspire to be the life of the party, the guy with all the great jokes, but we generally learn to settle for less. We adopt strategies of self-deprecation and goofiness to make the best of our social shortcomings and faux-pases; we train ourselves to maintain a certain detachment both from praise and criticism so that we are not constantly lurching between psychological highs and lows. In short, the unyielding reality of the real world of social interaction places great constraints on our narcissistic indulgence, and may indeed eventually condition us to be well-adjusted, psychologically stable inhabiters of the social world, able to love and be loved in due measure.
The online world is not like that. Stephen Marche draws attention to the temptations it poses in an intriguing recent article for the Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely”:
“Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.”
What the online world, and Facebook perhaps best of all, enables us to do is to curate our own self-presentation, our own terms of social engagement, largely free from external interference. Sure, there can be disorienting moments, such as when someone else posts and tags a picture of you doing something embarrassing (though you can then at least remove the tag), or when someone makes an obnoxious comment on your wall (though you can delete it if you wish). It’s far from perfect—indeed, to be perfect, it would have to be so removed from the real world as to cease to be a genuinely social medium. But the possibilities are certainly tantalizing. I can post only the pictures of myself in which I look most attractive, and when I’m doing the coolest activities; whereas in real social interaction, people see me from unflattering angles and at unflattering moments all the time. I can choose which interests and hobbies to list, to make myself out to be a very intelligent, fun, and well-rounded person indeed. But all of this is simply the canvas and the palette. The real power of the medium is its freedom from the awkward give-and-take of conversation. Perhaps I am almost incapable of making a witty rejoinder on the spot, but give me a few minutes on my own to think one up, and I might as well be Shakespeare. To be sure, most of us are still not as responsible with the medium as we would like to be. We still stick our foot in our mouth on Facebook (though again, we can delete the comment if we do). But never before have we had such a platform for fine-tuning the persona we wish to project. In Marche’s article, one scientist worries “I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process,” and Marche goes on to observe,
“Curating the exhibition of the self has become a 24/7 occupation. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the Australian study ‘Who Uses Facebook?’ found a significant correlation between Facebook use and narcissism: ‘Facebook users have higher levels of total narcissism, exhibitionism, and leadership than Facebook nonusers,’ the study’s authors wrote. ‘In fact, it could be argued that Facebook specifically gratifies the narcissistic individual’s need to engage in self-promoting and superficial behavior.’”
But all this is not the worst of it. Let’s get back to that “Like” button. Have you ever heard someone complain “There ought to be an ‘unlike’ button too. That status/picture/link/etc. is just stupid, and someone needs to tell that person”? Probably. I know I have. It’s only fair, isn’t it? If someone’s going to put up a stupid piece of Republican propaganda or whatever, and get 37 “likes” for it, then the rest of us ought to at least be able to register our disapproval. Why not turn Facebook into a 24/7 voting booth, where everything is constantly subjected to a popularity contest of likes and unlikes? After all, Youtube does this. I think Facebook’s programmers are too clever for that. That would destroy the delicate psychological-chemical ecosystem they have designed. We want to see that notifications button light up and know we’ve gotten something positive, some kind of affirmation. When we see it, our brains release dopamine. When we view it, and see the comment or “like,” dopamine again. But if at every moment we faced the fearful possibility of an “unlike”? That would cast an unhappy shadow over the whole user experience.
To be sure, people can always make negative comments, but again, these are generally confined to disagreement on matters of controversy, like politics, in which the person posting often expects and perhaps wants to provoke disagreement. But just as people will almost never tell you to your face that you look unattractive, or your baby has a stupid name, or your conversation is uninteresting, your jokes unfunny, your tastes frightfully gauche, your ignorance appalling, etc., people very rarely have the gumption to go and say these things on a Facebook status, either. “You named your kid what?”—”Um, please tell me that wasn’t supposed to be funny”—”Are you trying to look like a slut in these pictures?” How often do you see those comments? Hardly ever, of course. Most people don’t like to rock the social boat too much. But didn’t I just say above that in real life, there are constraints on narcissistic indulgence, because of the negative feedback we can get? Of course. But most of this feedback doesn’t take the form of direct critical comments. We have developed a thousand and one ways of manifesting skepticism, disapproval, or contempt without saying a word. We have any number of social cues that say, “Dude, that was a stupid thing to say. You’d better sit down and retreat to the corner so you don’t make a fool of yourself again.” These cues are essentially lost in the online world. In a medium like Facebook, then, we have a self-curated social space in which positive feedback, usually so ambiguous and evanescent in the real world, can be quantified, can be experienced as a direct chemical stimulus, and in which negative feedback, so crushing in the real world, can be muted almost altogether. In short, we have a world where we can become increasingly insulated from criticism, from the brutally honest give-and-take relationships that actually make us mature and experience genuine fulfillment, and it becomes increasingly possible to live out our fantasy of being the hero of our own narrative of the world.
None of this is inevitable, I should hasten to add, and certainly the solution is not repudiation of all social media, especially as these tendencies are not unique to Facebook, but in blogs, email, chat, and almost everything about the internet. As Marche’s article argues, those with otherwise healthy social lives can use Facebook effectively as a means to enrich them further (though I am skeptical that this is as easy as the article suggests; it still requires a good deal of discipline). Our technologies are tools, which we can use for good or ill. But we would be foolish to pretend that they are mere tools, in no way shaping us even as we use them. Rather, they are intrinsically predisposed toward certain uses, and toward creating certain habits in their users. We must not be heedless of the ways in which these “social media” may in fact erode the very foundations of healthy sociality, particularly in the young, the lonely, and those who have not yet formed healthy patterns of social engagement. If these technologies are tools, we must remember that any tool is fit for only certain purposes, and only if we retain a clear sense of its purposes and limits can we continue to profit from its use.