Monday, October 01, 2007

Social networking: the new Narcissism

Christine Rosen has a fascinating new essay about modern social networking and the idea of “friendship” that arises within this new technological context. Her basic point is that online social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, among others, have become ways to broadcast our own egos (Rosen has an old article titled “The Age of Egocasting”). People flaunt themselves online, always adapting and even transforming their online persona in order to gain the most attention. Rosen has written a fair amount about this growing phenomenon. Past articles include “The Image Culture,” “Playgrounds of the Self,” and “Our Cell Phones, Ourselves.” Her basic theme seems to be the “new Narcissism” that pervades contemporary society.

This issue raises interesting theological questions regarding human identity. Christian tradition has always begun reflection on the human person with the doctrine of the imago Dei. Moreover, Christian reflection on the gospel of Jesus Christ has profound implications for our understanding of the human self. Alexander Schmemann writes of faith as an “exodus” from the ego, a movement away from the “I.” Karl Barth speaks of the human person’s identity as extra nos (“outside ourselves”). Christian faith has always stressed the importance of dying to oneself and bearing one’s cross in humble obedience to the cross of Christ. Christian theology thus rejects both the Delphic oracle (“know thyself”) and the MySpace oracle (“show thyself”). Christianity is thus a profound and radical rejection of what drives contemporary culture.

In this light, here is the “thesis” of Rosen’s article, as she presents it early in her essay:

Today, our self-portraits are democratic and digital; they are crafted from pixels rather than paints. On social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook, our modern self-portraits feature background music, carefully manipulated photographs, stream-of-consciousness musings, and lists of our hobbies and friends. They are interactive, inviting viewers not merely to look at, but also to respond to, the life portrayed online. We create them to find friendship, love, and that ambiguous modern thing called connection. Like painters constantly retouching their work, we alter, update, and tweak our online self-portraits; but as digital objects they are far more ephemeral than oil on canvas. Vital statistics, glimpses of bare flesh, lists of favorite bands and favorite poems all clamor for our attention—and it is the timeless human desire for attention that emerges as the dominant theme of these vast virtual galleries.

Although social networking sites are in their infancy, we are seeing their impact culturally: in language (where to friend is now a verb), in politics (where it is de rigueur for presidential aspirants to catalogue their virtues on MySpace), and on college campuses (where not using Facebook can be a social handicap). But we are only beginning to come to grips with the consequences of our use of these sites: for friendship, and for our notions of privacy, authenticity, community, and identity. As with any new technological advance, we must consider what type of behavior online social networking encourages. Does this technology, with its constant demands to collect (friends and status), and perform (by marketing ourselves), in some ways undermine our ability to attain what it promises—a surer sense of who we are and where we belong? The Delphic oracle’s guidance was know thyself. Today, in the world of online social networks, the oracle’s advice might be show thyself.

—Christine Rosen, The New Atlantis

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