Digital Self-Examination

I came across this essay about narcissism (see how I started the sentence with “I”—woops), and while most of it is strange and love-columny, I love the first paragraph:

THE NARCISSIST IS, according to the internet, empty. Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you. No one knows what it is, but everyone agrees that narcissists do not have it. Disturbingly, however, they are often better than anyone else at seeming to have it. Because what they have inside is empty space, they have had to make a study of the selves of others in order to invent something that looks and sounds like one. Narcissists are imitators par excellence. And they do not copy the small, boring parts of selves. They take what they think are the biggest, most impressive parts of other selves, and devise a hologram of self that seems superpowered. Let’s call it “selfiness,” this simulacrum of a superpowered self. Sometimes they seem crazy or are really dull, but often, perhaps because they have had to try harder than most to make it, the selfiness they’ve come up with is qualitatively better, when you first encounter it, than the ordinary, naturally occurring selves of normal, healthy people. Narcissists are the most popular kids at school. They are rock stars. They are movie stars. They are not really rock stars or movie stars, but they seem like they are. They may tell you that you are the only one who really sees them for who they really are, which is probably a trick. If one of your parents is a narcissist, he or she will tell you that you are a rock star, too, which is definitely a trick.

Like I said, the rest of the piece veers off into what-it’s-like-to-date-a-narcissist territory, which is almost too personal to be taken seriously. But this quoted section hits on so many points I routinely think/write about: the age of facebook, searches for meaning, education/parenting, and social validation. I think it’s demonstrably true—because I’m guilty of it myself—that people seive the positive bits of their days or weekends or even years to project a “better” (i.e. “fitter, happier, more productive”) version of themselves to the world. And thus it’s almost certainly also true that people internalize their own projections. Who hasn’t scrolled through their own photos on facebook?

The question is why people feel the need to (and then become addicted to) creating meaning in this echo-chamber way. As a frequenter of bars, I am reminded of this description of facebook as a bar that never closes. The difference with a bar, though, is that you also see people at their not-so-best (and they see you). You see boredom. You see conflict. You see terrible first dates. And yes, you see people on their phones. But the point is that you see lives uncurated, and amidst the cacophony you can hear laughter.