I've been thinking a lot about narcissism recently.
I've heard my generation referred to as narcissistic many, many times. And while nothing annoys me more than media commentators deciding that it's perfectly fine to make sweeping negative generalisations about an entire generation of human beings, well, I recently signed up for twitter.
Don't get me wrong, I've been loving it. I like having an outlet to send out short ideas. I may be one of the few people who feels this way, but I like the challenge of culling those thoughts down to the character limit without compromising the spelling or grammar. I really like it, ok? And as for that whole 'Why would anyone want to know what I had for breakfast?' argument that I keep hearing, here's a simple solution: don't tweet about what you had for breakfast. Tweet about things you find interesting, things you actually think other people would want to know. If people took the attitude of Twitter as a way to send out links and information rather than thinking they need to use it to tell everyone the most mundane aspects of their daily life, I think it would have a much better reputation.
But while browsing for people to follow, I've noticed a trend that makes me even more ashamed of being a part of the twitter crowd than I already was. There are hordes and hordes of people on twitter who tweet about nothing but tweeting. Their profiles read like a mash-up of begging, demanding strangers follow them, thanking them profusely and going on to ignore them completely while harvesting more and more followers.
There is no point to this other than narcissism. There is no reason to follow the messages of a person who only uses those messages to amass followers. And yet, these people have thousands of followers, all just like them. None of them even looking at what any of the rest of them are doing. Just begging and clicking, begging and clicking. They follow people for the sole purpose of being followed back and no-one even pauses long enough to think about what an empty kind of attention-seeking this is.
You hear a lot of people crying foul about the possible effects of social networking on young people. Normally, I think this is a whole lot of bollocks. I think the whole 'shorter attention span' thing is more or less irrelevant when society has created a working environment where people need to be able to concentrate on multiple tasks at once in order to survive. But one thing I can't simply sit down and get over is how the encouragement of narcissistic behaviours will effect the younger teens on the internet.
Everybody needs entertainment, especially kids. Previously, kids would spend their entertainment hours watching tv, playing games, reading, whatever it is that kids do. Either way, their attention was on speculation, on fiction and fantasy. But I would wager good money that if you gave all the kids who have ever gone on to become adults the option of spending their entertainment hours focused on themselves, but in a more entertaining format, they would lap it up. They would see strangers acknowledging their existence and want more, just like these kids who scour the internet begging for followers. Human beings are born wanting to be acknowledged. It's just who we are.
But here's the rub. Studies are coming thick and fast showing that when parents imbue their kids with an inflated sense of self-esteem, those kids have a tendency to spiral into depression when they realise they won't get everything they want in life solely based on how special they are. So, what happens when kids are raised on a diet of narcissism and obsessive self-involvement?
My answer is hipsters. Hipsters happen.
Let me start by saying that by 'hipsters' I don't mean everyone who wears skinny jeans and listens to Broken Social Scene. That would describe most people I know, as well as most people I admire. I'm talking about the true hipsters, the people who are more interested in the fashion of music than the music itself. The people who spend three hours carefully crafting an outfit to make it look like they just threw it on after an art session, the people who make up bands to claim they listen to just so they'll get the 'indie cred' of listening to a band so obscure none of their awful hipster friends have even heard of it. For a better explanation of what I mean than I could ever give, read this excellent article by Christian Lorentzen.
The thing that seems to define this type of person is their narcissism. You can listen to hipster music and wear hipster outfits without being considered a hipster. It's hard to say when a person crosses the line but it seems to centre pretty strongly around their deep-seated infatuation with themselves. A good, strong sense of superiority over anyone who isn't a hipster also seems to be an important element. These are the people who clung to emo culture when they were teenagers and needed a new sub-culture to fit into when that one became mainstream, like a cultural hermit crab constantly outgrowing it's persona and moving to a new one.
I'm sure there are people who would disagree with me when I say that the archetypal hipster is little more than a narcissist in organic lamb's wool clothing. I can't think of any of those people of the top of my head, but I'm sure they exist. I would tell those people that to see this kind of self-involvement in action, all you need to do is go to a gig. My favourite example comes from when I went to see Camera Obscura at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne. This was just after I'd been injured, so it might have been a good idea for me to stay at home. But given that I was seriously injured, had lost my job as a result and had already bought the tickets to a band I'd been listening to since I was a teenager (when I had precious little money to spend on entertainment), I went along anyway.
I was not well that night. My head was a mess of concussion and my body was causing me a lot of pain. I was on the brink of passing out all night, so I decided to just hang near the back where I could sit down if I needed to. Unfortunately, while the crowd surged around me, I felt a particularly strong wave of light-headedness and knew I needed some fresh air. I tried feebly to push past the throng of cardigans, but I was extremely weak. Not only did the people around me not move out of the way to let me past, but when I actually fell to the ground at their feet they didn't even give me a second look. I got out and was fine after a bit of fresh air but I am still furious about it. People have tried to justify this behaviour by suggesting that they thought I was just drunk. I don't see that as any excuse. Even if you are going to make the assumption that a person is drunk, then go ahead to judge them negatively as a result of that assumption, what excuse do you have not to even ask if they're ok?
There is no excuse. The answer is that the people around me were simply too self-involved, too busy waiting to see if any of their friends would show compassion first, too focused on being witnessed to be singing along when they knew the words to even give any attention to the human being literally collapsing at their feet.
I'm not one to bag our generation for narcissism. As I said, you can't judge an entire generation of people based solely on the actions of that generation's biggest attention whores. And it's not like I've done any studies, so I can't say that one thing is caused by another.
But I guess it's something to think about.