Social Media and Digital Narcissism

This evening I gave a speech at Media and the Inner World about Social Media and Digital Narcissism –  a topic I may be overqualified to talk about. It was fun. Surreal and disarming, but enoyable.

There were three of us speaking: Me, my friend Galit, who invited me to speak in the first place  and then bravely stepped in when someone else cried off sick, and a psychotherapist called Dr Jay Watts. I was speaking neither as an academic nor a psychotherapist, but as a “social media user”. I went first and read my piece. It seemed to go down well, and after we’d all spoken, there were questions. I fielded quite a lot of them, in the same manner that Homer fielded questions at the press conference in the Simpsons episode in which he’s an astronaut. Amazingly, most of the time I knew what I was talking about. Some of the people in the audience were my age. Some of them were older and clearly had no idea how Twitter worked. (“is that your Twitter? It’s much bigger than I thought it would be. Can I touch it?”) I thought it would be funny to have Tweetdeck up in the background during my speech. I told Twitter this and they responded as I’d hoped by filling my Twitter with swear words and innuendo.

Anyway, for those of you who are interested, here’s the text. If it seems familiar, it’s because lots of it is bastardised from a blog I wrote a few months back. Recycle, recycle:

I should state first of all that I’m not an expert on social media, other than the fact that I use it a lot. And I’m not an expert on the inner mind, despite my mother being a psychoanalyst. But I thought it would be interesting to share my experiences of Twitter and how I use it, first of all as a writer and second of all, as a human being. I suppose it is a basic introduction to social media, identity and how they relate to me. If this speech seems unfocused and lacking in structure – don’t worry, this is a particularly effective illustration of the effects of Twitter.

I always assumed I would become a writer of some kind, although the idea of writing a manuscript in a lonely bedroom and sending it off to some publisher or agent just for it to sit in a dusty drawer for months on end. So when the internet turned up, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to bypass the normal conventions and write directly to whatever audience was out there.

When I first got a PC, there was no broadband. There were no blogs. There was no facebook. There was no Twitter. I used a dial-up modem and my website was built entirely in HTML. It would take me hours to write  a page, and when I’d finished it, it just sat there on the net. This wasn’t web 2.0. There was nowhere for me to announce that a new page was up, aside from the website itself. There was no way for people to leave comments, aside from a rudimentary guest-book that rapidly filled up with spam. Once every few months I might get an email from someone who liked my website.

So, when I wrote a page I was dimly aware of an audience, but they weren’t in the forefront of my mind. And as such, I didn’t pander to them. When I wrote a page of fiction, I would allow the ideas to coalesce and gestate in my mind before I uploaded the finished article. If I disliked what I’d written, I would go back and amend it. In terms of the creative process, it wasn’t too different from the old-fashioned process of writing a book. 

Then I got a messageboard on my website, and I found that every time I’d written a new page or chapter, I would alert the messageboard members and they would swoon and flatter me and tell me how funny it was. In fact, it was more fun just writing to my messageboard friends than actually writing fiction. 

Time passed and web 2.0 crept up on us. I got a myspace page and a blog, and soon I found myself writing less and less fiction on my website, because it was easier to write about what I had for dinner or what I’d watched on TV and get feedback (comments! Praise!) straight away. I liked this. It fed my ego immediately. No wait. Instant delivery! Still, despite these distractions, in 2006 I managed to get my first novel published.

Then along came Twitter. And I’ve made good use of Twitter. I’ve befriended celebrities, I’ve done live coverage of Masterchef, I’ve done sex surveys, I’ve been stalked by the ex-wife of an England player. I’ve been blocked by Richard Madeley. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. But if facebook or myspace are cocaine, then Twitter is crack. It is the ultimate distillation of social media. Instant, open, with a global reach, yet also personal, intimate and tightly structured. It turned out I’d been waiting all my life for Twitter and that I was really, really good at it. Suddenly I didn’t have to write fiction. I didn’t even have to compose proper blog entries. I could just bang out reams and reams of tiny messages and before I’d even started writing a tweet I’d be getting a response about the previous one. A constant, unending stream of attention and feedback. Of course, the way I use Twitter, there’s no time or space for ideas to develop in my mind. Bang! One idea! Bang! Another idea. No editing, no thinking, just a constant stream. In some ways this is no bad thing. Twitter is particularly suited to my mind. (As my ex-girlfriend and I discussed, different people use their brains in different ways. Her brain fermented over time, like beer. Mine fizzed and popped like coca-cola). Twitter is a brilliant place for me to spit out a hundred different ideas a day. Of course, the problem is that it stops me doing other things: it prevents me playing the long game. Why bother crafting away in silence, waiting weeks or months for feedback and approval, when I can get hundreds of messages a day, all about ME, ME, ME. 

In the four years since I wrote my first novel, friends and peers have finished their second and third books. They have stepped away from the pits of instant self-gratification and immersed themselves in things that take time: plot, character, imagery, visions, revisions, editing, correcting, polishing. And it’s something I find almost impossible to do. Aside from work, this speech is probably the longest thing I’ve written in months. And even now, my brain hurts.

This is, I think, the real danger of social media and Twitter. Not that the internet is full of pedophiles or rapists, or that social media users become pallid ghouls unable to have a conversation in real life. Just that it changes the inner landscape. First of all, it changes the way I process information. Or to be more precise, I no longer process information – I merely consume it. I speed read hundreds of bits of articles a day, absorbing lots of information, but rarely actually thinking about it. Instead it is simply instantly transformed into a series of rapid-fire punchlines and pithy one-liners. I find myself refreshing pages over and over again, waiting for more news, desperate for change, for a status update. I find it harder to concentrate. When I’m watching football or a film, I find myself checking Twitter on my phone or looking at Facebook.

There was an experiment years ago – I can’t remember the details, but it involved a mouse. The mouse had a chip implanted into its brain, and when it pressed a certain button in its cage, the chip stimulated the mouse’s brain and gave it a hit of pleasure. And eventually, the mouse just pressed the button all day, without doing anything else. Inevitably, the mouse died of starvation. In slightly less melodramatic terms, that’s how I approach the internet and social media. The buzz of interaction and feedback – of approval – overrides all my other needs and everything else, friends, relationships, family is allowed to wither. And of course, the vagaries and ambivalence of human relationships are never as instantly gratifying as a random stranger on the internet bestowing unqualified approval. The wonderful and terrifying thing about social media is how ruthlessly quantifiable it is. Followers, fans and mentions can all be counted. It’s rarely about the quality of relationships, only the quantity. 

The other way in which my inner landscape has changed is that I no longer have any inner monologue. Instead, I have Twitter. If I have a thought, before I am even aware of it, I find myself editing it down to 140 characters and reshaping it, lopping off the messy parts that don’t fit neatly with my established online brand identity. Rather than having a thought and passively reflecting upon it, turning it over in my mind, examining it, I find myself packaging it as a product: a tiny parcel of characters to be consumed by my hungry followers. Which begs the question: what happens to the other thoughts of mine? The difficult thoughts, the ambivalent thoughts, the repulsive thoughts, the thoughts too complicated to be reduced to a tweet. They are labeled low priority and sent to the back office of my mind. And I’m not sure I like that. 

Of course, nowadays, Twitter like so many other things, is mobile. I don’t have to be at home, in front of my PC to tweet. No, I tweet from buses and trains, from restaurants and offices and beaches. I can take my brand with me. Which means that if I find myself on the top deck of the W7 bus and ask myself where I am, the answer, of course, is “on Twitter”. In other words, I can insulate myself from the real world. Wherever I am, I don’t really have to engage with my surroundings. I am not on the bus, I am on Twitter. I might  be tweeting about the man on the bus who is wearing a stupid hat, but more importantly I am creating a wall of narrative between myself and the external world. I am like an agoraphobic who has realised that one way of dealing with the outside world is to take my room with me. I never have to leave the comforting womb of Twitter. 

The other question of course, is “when” I am. Existentially speaking, I’ve never quite felt comfortable with the here and now. I anticipate or reminisce but I rarely live in the moment. And Twitter very conveniently allows me to deepen this mode of thought. Often, when I am doing something I should really be enjoying, whether it is getting drunk with friends or watching a film, I am already actually tweeting in my mind. Rehearsing, editing, preparing my tweets. Whatever I am doing, the event – the moment of truth, whatever it may be – is not when it is happening, but when I report it on Twitter. The event only becomes real when it has been shared online. If a tree falls in a forest and I’m not allowed to tweet it, can I really enjoy it? 

As I mentioned at the start, it turns out that I’m really good at Twitter. Within the limited structure of replies, mentions, tweets and retweets I can be witty, topical, offensive, poignant, cogent, lucid. I can polish my brand. I select only the photos of myself looking half-way handsome. I am never flustered or missing a one-liner. If someone annoys me I can block them. If I say something particularly good, it is retweeted by Charlie Brooker or Simon Pegg and hundreds of thousands of people get to read it. Because unless you protect your tweets, which very few people do, Twitter is open to everyone. Whatever you say, no matter how banal or innocuous, there is a potentially limitless audience. Which is quite exciting. I am in my element. Of course, that makes real life interaction seem pallid in comparison. Whenever I meet a load of people from Twitter in the pub or at an event, I can’t help but feel disappointed. These shiny, glittering pieces of the internet turn out to be human beings. Meat. Flesh. Bad hair and bad breath. With all the attendant awkward silences, drunken laughs and all the other horrendous byproducts of real life interactions. And I’m no better. Instead of a stately, iconic avatar, I am a short, balding man, getting drunker and drunker, and making weak jokes before making my excuses and leaving. And if I do happen to say something witty or profound, the only people who hear it are those in my immediate vicinity. It can’t be endlessly retweeted to an audience of thousands. It just evaporates into the ether. Increasingly I see Twitter itself as the ideal form of communication. I can envision a day when everyone turns up to the pub together, but instead of talking to each other, we all sit in separate booths, tweeting away in silence. 

So, as I’ve said, Twitter takes over. But there are still those moments when Twitter betrays me. When I find myself tired and bored on a Saturday night, at home in front of Twitter, bashing away at the keyboard. But everyone else is out. I tweet something. No replies. Only one retweet. I tweet something else. It dies. And I start thinking: I must try harder. I must be funnier. I shall draw a clever picture. I shall say something provocative – it might be my sex life. Or I may go for the sympathy vote and post a childhood photo. I panic. Because when you’ve migrated all your emotional touchstones over from the real life to Twitter, what happens when Twitter no longer cares. Fortunately, I still have some perspective – finally the small part of my brain that hasn’t been colonised by Twitter takes over and tells me to go to bed.

19 thoughts on “Social Media and Digital Narcissism

  1. Brilliant. Probably the best synopsis of Twitter I have read.

    I have met you in a pub and I have bad hair. Interesting. I think I’d better eat a mint.

    You do yourself a disservice though – you are quite funny in real life too.

  2. Seriously, it was as if I was reading the inside of my brain. Only you had written it. At least I’m not the only one. I thought I was the only complete twitteraddict. Bonus! *sigh* and that is why I was fired. Everything is twitter. Damn! You’re bloody good!

  3. I’m very new to Twitter and social media and I want to laugh and cry at its impact on my life. And your insightful comments on it all made me want to shriek with empathetic fervour and cry all the more. I have an apocalyptic view on where it is taking us all but I am compelled to join in nonetheless. Maybe it is worth it just to have a hitherto undiscovered extrovert thick-skinned persona.

  4. Very good, you seem so suited to twitter, the immediacy and the brevity. I remember you on the PB msg board – and forgive me for saying, but having only 140 characters to play with, means you (and all of us, for that matter) do not ramble so much. Thanks.

  5. What a lovely collection of words. I’m nowhere near famous on Twitter, so I can’t really relate, but I can understand the allure of being famous online. In fact, why do we all ‘do’ Twitter? I think, maybe, a component of the human condition is that we’re all recognition addicts. As you’ve quite clearly pointed out, Twitter makes it easier than ever to garner such recognition.

    This social media thing is a bit mad. Your speech reminded me specifically of one thing: relationships. I’m sure we all have friends who are experiencing new-found romantic entanglements, but they never amount to anything until the relationship is ‘Facebook official’. I think that says it all, really.

    Oh. In fact, I may have lied. Your speech also reminded me of the recent Windows Phone 7 adverts. They’re really quite good, in my opinion. I think you’d enjoy them. Here’s my favourite:

    Happy trails.

  6. As I have said before, twitter is the first human hive mind. Those of us like you (and me) who are allowing it all the way into our psyche are experiencing the mutation of our thought process so as to fit up against it nicely. Is it a bad thing or a good thing? Well just have to wait and see but your comments chime so perfectly with my own experience. The game is changing. I guess we are the modern equivalent of the intrepid few heading out west to California. I hope it’s all worth the journey.

  7. I won twitter once. The perfect tweet, timed to go out at just the right moment and retweeted over and over again. And now it’s gone. I can’t ever tweet it again until people have forgotten about it. I feel your pain, but you do get twitter right.

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