Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"Kids these days are so narcissistic"

I hear that every so often: that the way youth plaster their lives all over the Internet these days is a sign of their incredible narcissism. I suppose it's an easy way of fitting the way new media is currently used by youth into an understandable framework. It seems premature to dismiss it as just that though.

"Narcissism" implies self-indulgence: that the sharing of sometimes very intimate aspects of their lives with the entire world is an exercise in completely unnecessary ego-gratification. Ego gratification maybe, but unnecessary? Wanting a child so that your name might live on could be called ego gratification, but it wouldn't be called "narcissism" unless that's all that it was.

What else could be involved in youth expression on Myspace et al that would go beyond mere personal aggrandisement? I see three possibilities:

(1) Power. It's hard not to notice that in today's mediated world, media exposure and power in society are directly related. A person might readily conclude that amassing an audience could today lead to as much influence in society as amassing wealth has in previous years - assuming the audience likes what you have to say.
(2) Existentialism. Again a product of today's mediated environment, summarised by a quote I read somewhere describing the situation in high schools in the US today: "if you don't have Myspace, then you don't exist". Asserting a person's own personal life online might be seen as asserting their existence in a world which by and large doesn't care about them, or even know who they are, in an environment where they're surrounded by people who are asserting their existence, and validating the existence of others, through online media such as Myspace. Previous generations only needed to assert their existence to those relatively few people around them whose lack of validation might have led to existential uncertainty. Today's youth are connected to the entire world. Is it any wonder that they want the entire world to validate their existence?
(3) Identity formation. Tricky, this one. Premise: the process of growing up involves an adolescent defining their identity not just to others, but to themself. Premise: successful self-definition requires self-differentation: I am this, I am not that. Premise: successful self-differentation can only be done through reference to an external source which can describe to a person what certain aspects of their identity are or are not.

The peer group can be helpful here in determining whether someone, for example, is emo or is not hardcore, but the Internet offers new opportunities to ask more people the question "Who am I"?. In this approach the online exposure isn't asserting an identity so much as asking what that identity is: "here are my likes and dislikes in music, books and TV. Who does that mean that I am?", "In this blog entry I say I did this today, this is who I think that makes me, do my friends agree?". That's not the questions asked, but that's the subconscious subtext.

So there's more than one way to examine the embrace of "exhibitionism" online by modern youth without leaping to the conclusion that it's something negative like "narcissism", or for that matter, "exhibitionism".

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