Does social media usage lead to an increase in narcissism? What happens when we empower the people who get the most likes and retweets? We speak with social psychologist Miranda Giacomin, who studies the fluctuation of narcissism across situations, and Alice Marwick, a new media researcher studying self-presentation strategies, attention and privacy online.
How do you view the relationship between social media and narcissism?
It has become a trend to look at narcissism and social media use. The data out there is mixed. In some cases narcissism does predict taking a greater number of selfies, having more followers and posting more pictures, but in some places we don’t see that relationship. Instagram and even Snapchat do play on people’s narcissistic drive because they’re based on what you look like, what you post, how you portray what you’re doing. That feeling of self-enhancement is one the reasons people post on social media.
When we’re thinking about these types of behaviors it always comes back to what the platform itself is encouraging or discouraging people to do. There is a real tendency in the public conversation to conflate posting on social media and attention-seeking behaviors with narcissism. That’s problematic for a number of reasons. There’s a stereotype of the millennial woman or the teenage girl as a selfie-seeking narcissist who is desperate for attention online. What we ignore is that there are a lot of social structures, social values and media culture that are contributing to these types of behaviors, so they make them completely clear and logical for people to engage in. There is plenty of evidence that when people are able to command large audiences in their online lives, that status transfers to the offline world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are narcissistic; it means that they are using a very logical attention-getting technique. Social media has the potential to reverse some power dynamics via activism, but structural power is very pervasive. For example, we can use social media for feminist activism, but social media can also be used to spread sexism.