BY LAURENCE FITZGERALD
It’s 1968, Andy Warhol, skin taut and stretched like plastic wrap over his emaciated mannequin like face, is exhibiting his retrospective exhibition at the Moderna Museet gallery in Stockholm. The accompanying exhibition program contained the now famous phrase “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” This led to the concept of ’15 minutes of fame’ – the idea that celebrity culture, reality TV stardom, media hype, scandal and so forth would be ephemeral – a drop in the pond until the next sucker came along.
Naturally, then, Warhol’s ’15 minute’ morsel, his twitterish adage is seen as quite prophetic. It seems though, in retrospect, that Warhol was totally wrong – a more apt rendering would be: in the future everybody will be world famous but only in his or her own mind
We are living through the age of cyber-narcissism, the ’15 minute rule’ no longer applies as the Internet and its affiliated cohorts such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, continually expand the reach of narcissist traits to an almost unimaginable, limitless capacity.
The Internet has become a mass self-aggrandising public relations tool, which we employ to bolster our self-image, look important and special, very unique, while we strive to recruit new admirers and sycophants – via likes, comments, thumbs up and followers – as a source of narcissistic supply to sate our distorted virtual self.
Narcissus, then, in Greek Mythology, was the son of the river god Cephissus and nymph Liriope. He was a conceited arrogant arsehole who spurned all who loved him. And so in order to punish him for his haughty contempt the gods led him to a pool, where he saw his reflection and fell in love with it, not realising it was merely an image (an avatar in the modern sense). Unable to leave the beauty of his own reflection, Narcissus lost his will to live. He stared at his own reflection until he died – the flower Narcissus grows where he once loitered.
It’s a salient point that Narcissus fell in love with his reflection, not himself. These various virtual platforms – or digital reflections – are reinforcing people’s sense of their own importance to a pathological extent.
Consider the ‘grandiose exhibitionism’ and downright nuttiness that pustulates on social media – the ludicrous fairy tale weddings; those flattering close up selfies betraying a gut that’d make a bull dog blush; the deliberation that goes into selecting what photo to show to a world that doesn’t really care; the constant personal updates and carefully calibrated public profiles; the bizarre political rants, personal attacks and other myriad pretensions and delusions.
It is in the virtual realm that all forms of normal social interaction vanish and out crawls a subterranean beast writhing with delusions of grandeur, narcissism and impulsivity. It’s a fantasy amusement park where the rules of conduct no longer apply and the tyranny of the ego reigns supreme. The Twitter lynch mob – which claimed its latest victim Toby Young last week, in a relentless cyber campaign leading him to resign from some obscure educational quango – is essentially a cabal of virtual reflections, who will be heard, seen and listened to – whether you like it or not.
Indeed, nothing has done more to shape our culture and politics as social media – future elections may be won or lost; pointless online petitions that count for nothing (how is 200,000 people clicking on a button supposed to gave an accurate indication of public mood?); draping your Facebook picture profile in some country’s flag after a terrorist attack – I like your hollow display of empathy, thumbs up – and I in turn feel better and validated.
We could blame all this on Mark Zuckerberg when he invented Facebook – studies show that the more Facebook friends, the more you post and tag yourself in photos, the more likely you are to be a self-obsessed maniac: think of your Facebook friend count as your narcissistic personality score – the higher the count the bigger the ego.
Even on a more general, voyeuristic level, engaging with Facebook makes you more miserable. When users compare their average and, actually, quite normal lives, to the unrealistic fairy tale presented by friends, they are more likely to feel worthless and negative about themselves, their life and achievements. It’s all a case of ‘show rather than tell’ and Facebook is a platform where we project only the most idealised versions of ourselves.
It’s an addiction, and not particularly pleasant one, like, say, dunking your hand in a bowl of lentils or squirting squirty cream into your cakehole – it’s re-wiring our brains. Getting a like on Twitter is akin to drug-addict getting their hit or an alcoholic their drink. Every time we get a like, share or comment, we get a rush of blood to the head, a dopamine hit, which in turn makes us want more shares and likes, triggering an addiction like response in the brain.
The Internet was supposed to make us all more global and interconnected – but, in fact, the exact opposite has happened, it has us made more individualistic and self-obsessed.
The social aspect of social media doesn’t really stand as no meaningful connection is made. We are more interested in self-promotion (much less in listening to anyone else, unless, of course, they gratify our ego in some way), than having any sort of meaningful interaction or conversation – with terrible implications for our general mental well being.
Laurence is a writer, originally from Burnley. He blogs here about society, politics, food, culture and writes for a variety of publications. He has travelled extensively in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and South America. He lives in Manchester with a King Charles Spaniel called Winston.