The Rise of the Cyber Narcissists

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.

Published here at Country Squire Magazine

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The Real, The Virtual and The Ugly

I’ve never pretended to be a massive gamer. I spend a few nights a week cruising Los Santos, frequenting strip clubs and mowing down unsuspecting members of the public, but let’s admit it, who hasn’t fantasied about doing at least one of the above, especially the latter? But a ten-year stretch in real jail because of some repressed disinclination toward the general public probably isn’t worth it.

There’s a lot of media hype about whether or not video games, like the one mentioned above, which virtually glamorise violence, actually inspire real hatred to one’s fellow man. The argument follows that violent games and movies inspire young people to go out and commit similar acts in the real world, just as they would in its virtual counterpart. True, the characters in GTA V are a bunch of psychopathic, fouled mouthed, sons-of-bitches, but that’s part of the attraction, especially in this age of unrelenting political correctness which saturates all other forms of the entertainment culture from TV to Hollywood, which the games industry seems to have escaped unscathed from.

Anyway, isn’t the whole point of gaming is to escape reality, not mirror it? It wouldn’t do, if a new release were entitled: The Convert: follow the trials and tribulations of Mohammed Whodehella (formally John Smith), radicalised over the Internet by boy band ISA (formally Individual Savings Account). From his suburban dwelling in Blackburn, we follow the ‘I can’t believe he could do it’ grade-A student on a soul-searching journey across the Turkish border to Syria, from the slaughterhouse blues of cavernous dwellings to the refugee camps of Christian minorities – an odyssey of pure discovery. Or what about Depression Quest: an interactive game where you play someone living with depression, tackling a series of everyday events such as the precariousness of your mental illness, relationships, jobs and possible treatments. (Actually I tell a lie, the latter is a real game not a virtual construct of this writer’s warped imagination).

Moving on, the point of games is to escape reality not to inhabit a surrogate virtual reality. It’s a generational thing, this obsession with micro-managing every minuscule aspect of our lives: from calorie intake to Facebook friends to our Curriculum Vitae, we have our ‘life paths’ charted and graded from birth to death, and this culture even transmutes into the virtual realm. Ask your self how many hours of your ‘precious life’ you’ve spent cooking or organising your ‘home’ in Skyrim? Or what about The Sims, which is practically an alternative life – with all the really boring bits – for those sad enough to play it. Even Football Manager feels like a full time job, with the charts, meetings, sackings and financial budgets; don’t we have enough of that prosaic banality in our real lives? Perhaps not, especially if you’re an obsessive compulsive, desperate for more.

So what is it that attracts people to living these bizarre and often tedious virtual realities? Who knows, maybe life really is that dull; but if it is, it’s only because we choose it to be. Are we all slowly being mutated into automatons; calculated droids unable to pass even a few minutes staring into space without catching a quick glimpse of twitter or some other alienating social networking machination, when even our leisure time (a supposed hiatus from all the life-tedium) is spent charting, organising, and budgeting – in the virtual? Think about all those hundreds of management-game Apps, played by millions of commuters on the way home from an ugly 8-hour stretch at the office.

So where does all this leave us? The late veteran gamer Robin Williams said that: “Reality is just a crutch for people who can’t handle drugs.” Quite, but for a lot of us the new drug is the virtual realm, whether it be our phones, tablets, consoles, dating sites or internet pornography; and no doubt in the near future we’ll be strapping some sort of contraption across our faces, sticking microchips in our brains, accessing the internet through our cerebral cortex or whatever it’s called, living in virtual ignorant bliss. But until then, I’ve got the real laundry to do, got to pay my real bills and really wake up to go to work; oh and need to arrange my virtual library in Skyrim. Where do I find the time?