Time Person of the Year Mark Zuckerberg and the DSM -- making the world safe for narcissism
(Mark Zuckerberg - Paul Sakuma, AP)
I know why Mark Zuckerberg is Time Magazine's Person of the Year. It's not because of his achievements, although they are legion, or because of The Social Network, although it was an engaging two hours of cinema, or because of his habit of giving major press conferences in semi-tight gray t-shirts.
It's because of what he's done for us: the narcissists.
"We can't all be heroes," Will Rogers once wrote, "because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by."
Now, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, we know that's no longer true.
When I saw the announcement that Mark Zuckerberg was Time Magazine's Person of the Year, it all fell into place. No wonder they'd pick him. We're a nation of narcissists, and Mark Zuckerberg has done more to make the world safe for narcissism than anyone else on earth.
Before Facebook, there was an era when the thought never entered your mind that your friends and acquaintances would want to know that your water had just broken the moment it broke, or that you were drinking green tea, and it was AMAZING, or that you were Taking it One Day At A Time! Now this is commonplace. Forget friends. Try audience! No man is an island? That's because we're all continents.
I have to admit, I don't think I'm a very good narcissist.
You can tell immediately from that sentence. This is not the work of one of your master narcissists. Kanye West would never say a thing like that. That professional hand model who has been all over the tubes recently? She would never use her hands to type a sentence like that, but I bet she wouldn't think it, either. "He had ambitions, at one time, to become a sex maniac," Les Dawson wrote, "but he failed his practical." Replace "sex" with "ego," and that's me in a nutshell.
I do try, though. In the past week, I used well over one hundred I's, which the Arbiters of Narcissism say is a warning sign. Only one of them was math-related, and it probably wasn't real, anyway. And I admit it: I search for my own name on Google. Frequently.
If "Know Thyself" was written over the portal to the ancient world, then "Google Thyself," might be on the entrance to our own. And I've elevated it to an art form. Rembrandt painted himself. George Bernard Shaw quoted himself -- "It adds spice to my conversation," he noted. I Google myself.
But other than that, it's been an uphill battle. I was all set to date my own reflection, but it was worried I was settling.
I don't think it's inaccurate to say I have an inflated ego, but if this were the Macy's Day Grand Inflated Ego Parade, I'd be a small, sagging ego towards the back.
I tried navel-gazing, but then I stopped because True Blood was on, and I figured that someone else's navel might be more interesting.
I'm planning to invade Europe, but only a small area.
The definition of a narcissist used to be "someone better-looking than you," just as the definition of an alcoholic used to be "someone who drinks the same amount as you whom you dislike."
But I think that's changed.
Now it's "someone with more Facebook updates than you" or "someone who has more Twitter followers than you do."
The recent announcement that they were removing Narcissistic Personality Disorder from the DSM IV Statistical Manual caused quite a stir. But narcissism is no longer a disease. It's a lifestyle.
"To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance," Oscar Wilde once wrote. But this used to be a love that dared not speak its name. Self-love was a deadly sin. You were actively encouraged to shove your light under a bushel basket.
A mere 40-odd years ago, declaring that you were making the greatest album of the decade actually lost you fans! Remember when John Lennon said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus? They had to make Ringo sing in the hopes that people would be shellshocked into forgetting such a gaffe. Now it's par for the course. "I promise to give you the greatest album of the decade, just for you," Lady Gaga gushed to her Polish fans. Thanks, Gaga!
And look at Kanye West, who has more than a million followers on Twitter. "You have to balance ignorance with intellect! Can't have school with out recess! #Greatesttweetofalltime," he noted on Nov. 15th.
And this is a dynamic that the forms of social media tend increasingly to encourage. There's a reason people on Twitter are referred to as followers. The last guy to have that many followers used to refer to himself as the Son of God -- and he still only managed to attract twelve during his lifetime. And then one of them visibly unfollowed him, and it was really awkward for everyone involved.
Now, modesty is underrated almost to the point of being considered a non-adaptive trait.
"What's the point in being self-effacing? Be other-effacing instead!" our society suggests.
But just as science has found that, the more involved you are in telling a story, the less likely you are to remember who you told it to, the inability of narcissists to step outside our own perspectives for even an instant, lest we miss something, is an active handicap to our relationships.
Who needs relationships? Facebook is bringing us back to our roots. You scratch my back -- I'll scratch yours, but replace "scratch" and "back" with "like" and "status."
But as we transform into these outward-directed manifestations of apparently fascinating, endless,and divine uniqueness, we suddenly find less and less on the inside. We're like Christmas trees. All our lights and tinsel and ornaments hang on the side that faces everyone else. Diaries -- the private kind, with locks, where thoughts congeal out of silent rumination, rather than the online journal -- are becoming a lost art.
"How can I know what I think until I see what I say?" an E. M. Forster character asks. We're all like that. There is no pensive gap between the two. We discover our attitudes by presenting them to others.
But somehow we manage.
We're as self-absorbed as people without much in the way of selves can manage to be. We know less than we ever have. We lack the sort of mental furniture that used to allow people to be comfortably alone with themselves. Now our greatest fear is disconnection.
We love ourselves unconditionally, of course, because what other choice do we have? We're stuck. But just as in the classroom, students' impeccable self-esteem doesn't translate to their math ability, we find ourselves as a nation boasting about -- well, less and less. Our test scores are squarely middle-of-the-pack. "I don't know what this X stands for, so I just drew a sad mountain," we murmur, "but boy do I feel good about myself!" Our life expectancies are down. We continue saying we're exceptional -- and exceptionally excellent -- because, of course, we've always said so. But if we continue neglecting our internal gardens, that will cease to be true.
The trouble with narcissists is that they don't know how they're coming across. For people who place such a high premium on perception, it's a deeply ironic gap.
So as long as narcissism isn't a disease, maybe what we should do is encourage self-absorption -- the right kind. This is the kind of absorption that makes home owners embark on renovations and civic pride associations gussy up neighborhood parks. "Okay, we're the best!" they say. "So let's have something to show for it." This self-absorption leads to the kind of mental interior decoration that makes you feel that you are genuinely excited to be spending time with yourself. But first, it takes introspection -- something today's narcissists are notoriously lacking. What's in there? Is it worth getting excited about?
Self-knowledge? If only I could Google it.
| December 15, 2010; 11:47 AM ET
Categories: Only on the Internet, Petri, Worst Things Ever | Tags: Facebook, The Year That Was 2010, narcissism, twitter
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