I am one of those people who starts complaining when people get out their smartphones and sit messing around on Facebook or whatever, bringing out the usual cliches about people not taking the time to interact with each other properly in real life and the like.

I saw a lot of this in Korea. They have a very strong smartphone culture, continually uploading photos and videos of themselves eating food, it seems. Over there it goes all the way up through the age groups with middle-aged parents uploading banal pictures of their activities just as teenagers do.

My usual thinking is that the problem is people failing to live in the moment, to use a slogan: failing to give all their attention to what they’re actually supposed to be enjoying. Instead they are more interested in people far away knowing about what they are enjoying or their future selves being able to look back at the pictures. Even if you’re not actually messing about on your smartphone, you’re thinking about it, it’s taking up mental space as you listen out for the ping of a new message.

I have recently experienced a little of this myself. I don’t own a digital camera and my phone doesn’t have one so I went out and got myself a disposable camera for my trip to Korea, with about 30 exposures. Buying this camera had no political overtones, being a purely pragmatic choice of what seemed to my slightly outdated mind the most sensible way to get hold of a camera for the trip. Surrounded as I was, though, with people snapping away photos of themselves and their surroundings every few minutes, I began to feel anxious that I wasn’t capturing enough, selective as I was forced to be with my 30 exposures for a whole month.[1] And this is the point. Anxiety is exactly what you get when you stop living in the here and now, and I was receiving a dose by worrying, along with my peers, about whether or not I was capturing enough on film. I am now very glad that I didn’t buy a cheap digital camera instead because I would have likely found myself caught up in the snap-snap-snapping, and would have had less opportunity to take in the sights around me.

I got my photos developed today, and some of them I am very pleased with. Almost none of them have people in them, which is refreshing. I am very very fond of the idea of group photos at the moment. Photos of people (that are not attempts at art) are mostly pretty trivial and we take far too many of them, but of course a photo of the faces of the people you spent time with in the past is very valuable, and group photos are a great way to achieve this.

Further to the above, I found myself actually getting into Facebook for the time I was in Korea, and for first two weeks or so back in the UK. By this I mean that I became more than just someone who occasionally logs on to send a message or respond to a wall post: I actually posted a status update (!) and joined the sharing of photos and videos that went on between tutors and students during the camp, and for a few weeks afterwards. It’s mostly dried up now and while I am sure that I will be communicating with my students using Facebook into the future, the Facebook version of smalltalk has come to an end since we’re not seeing each other on a daily basis anymore. I even ticked the “keep me logged in box” for the first time ever, but now I am back to firing up my password manager and copying-and-pasting the password in every time I want to login, after finding myself seriously unnerved by a website letting me know which Facebook friends of mine had also visited or something like that.

I had a very interesting discussion while visiting the house of one of my philosophy tutors, Bob, who is currently dying of cancer, which expanded my concern with Facebook and smartphones to something more than, “it’s a bit sad that people aren’t concentrating on their actual lives so much”. Our obsession with posting photos and updates and receiving “likes” is tied up with a powerful new narcissism present in the younger generations of society. It’s quite clear how you can talk about the above in terms of narcissism, at least at a subconscious level. All this photo-taking and posting is a way of making and preserving an identity for ourselves, one that we present to the world and wait—anxiously, of course—for approval, in the form of people clicking the “like” button.[2] And of course it’s very easy for concern and anxiety over what others think of you to rise higher and higher, that’s only natural, so we find ourselves thinking more and more about what’s going on on Facebook and spending more and more time on our phones logging on. We are narcissistic because we care more about the identity we build for ourselves on social networking websites than we do about the present activity we are supposed to be engaged in.

Now aside from this brief period of finding myself using Facebook more often and finding myself getting a little worried about taking photos, I generally do a pretty good job of staying out of the online social networking world. But I realised that one aspect of it is that it’s not really possible anymore to avoid having to build this weird online identity. I have a Facebook account because I find it to be such an assumption that people have one that one finds oneself unintentionally left out of things because they were organised online. Since people don’t bother to maintain regularly-checked e-mail addresses so much anymore, something else is needed. Fine. But in order to do this, I still had to create a profile. I still had to make some decisions relating to my online image. I thought, “let’s keep this simple, so people realise I’m not a regular user, and perhaps they’ll contact me through some other method” but of course you are soon dragged in to a game of creating an identity with thoughts like this.

Most of the above is what I’ve been thinking about since the conversation at Bob’s, but the main thought the other participants in the discussion had concerned the inability of younger generations—I was there with a fellow undergraduate but everyone else was considerably older—to be alone, to be disconnected. They spoke of their nieces and nephews and children of their friends having great difficulty being away from social networking when going on holiday and the like. My thought here was that there is an additional pressure that I very often feel to care about being connected, if you like: I sometimes feel that I am socially excluded by the fact that I am able to disconnect, to accept that my friendship with someone is just as valuable because we only conduct it in real life, and that it is not going to disappear just because we can’t do that so easily over the summer when we’re not together in Oxford, say. “Does that make me weird?”

Others of my generation of a similar bent react to this by talking up “introversion”, forming a group identity around their comfort with being alone. There’s a lot of this online. Again from one point of view this is just more narcissism; I have railed against people getting together around words and items of clothing before, somewhere on this blog. I’m not sure that it’s such a great idea to use a term from psychological personality typology outside of that very technical and learned context, either, since it’s meaning is probably a lot more difficult to grasp than reddit perhaps thinks. For example, take myself. As just expressed I am not afraid to be disconnected and alone, yet I’m massively extroverted with my reputation (as I have recently learnt I apparently have) for trying to talk to as many people as possible, and the fact that I am a huge attention-seeker (not at all proud of this).

That’s about all the things I wanted to say; will probably keep thinking about this and trying not to be too judgemental, aware, I hope, of how much narcissism there is in myself.

[1] It was a mistake to only bring one camera; should have bought two.

[2] Also see this.

comment CS0O5PNXMSG8UT72

This is very interesting. I dont use FB, but my wife does. On occasion I peek at her account and I’m always struck by the inanity and banality of content, or the pressure to ‘like’ something of dubious merit just because somebody you know considers it worthy or because everybody else does - the madness of crowds.

We also talked about this on holiday a couple of weeks ago. I remarked that on holiday thirty years ago the only contact was by letter, but these days kids are texting, calling and facebooking every day… And the content you can bet is diluted quality. A bit like digital cameras- hundreds of photos but how many worth keeping?

Comment by davidwight Sat 11 Aug 2012 17:27:42 UTC