Essays on Technology and Culture

Narcissism and the Backpat Delivery Machine

I recently read an article on The Atlantic proclaiming the Internet has spawned a narcissism epidemic. [1] The article has some good points wrapped in a veneer of technological fear, but that’s how you get people to read articles of that nature. There maybe an uptick in narcissistic behavior online, but the study may be conflating correlation with causation. It stands to reason that a more narcissistic person would use Facebook more. If you want attention from people you know, that’s where to go. This is the nature of the beast. [2]

Social media enables the latent narcissism in (almost) all of us. We want to be loved by some number of people, typically more than one. Suddenly, we have the ability to speak to a huge audience, and we’re all too happy to oblige them. Or, to quote my friend Jonathan Pfeffer, “The Internet is a void.” Nature abhors a vacuum, and so the empty spaces of the Internet created by free, open publishing platforms are going to get filled with “content,” and not all of it is going to be of value to us. Fortunately, we don’t have to see it if we don’t want to. [3] The narcissists also have their enablers. These enablers are not the platforms, but the people on the platforms who read, like, share, and comment on what gets posted. If they’re rewarding junk, then junk will get posted. Nobody would be posting pictures of their lunch on Instagram, if other people didn’t approve of it somewhere, no matter how much mockery they get.

When you’re in a creative field, seeing this can rub you the wrong way. Comic artist Spike refers to it as The Backpat Delivery System, wherein artists talk up a big game about what they’re going to do, maybe post some work-in-progress stuff, and rake in the kudos without actually producing any completed work. The backpats are, it seems, enough to satisfy the craving for attention that any creative project unleashed on the world is seeking, so the actual project goes undone. Then, there’s the cottage industry around criticizing everything under the sun to consider, as it’s easier to tear down than build up, and the backpats will be delivered just as often.

The real problem of Internet-enabled narcissism is its potential to divert someone’s attention from creating real, good, interesting things, into the ratholes of unfinished show-off projects at best, or trolling at worse. The Instagram-lunch posters are not the problem, nor are the people who build empires of the self among their own friends, real or “Internet.” The short-circuiting of our reward system by the Internet’s Backpat Delivery System can too easily keep a creative individual from producing what they’re capable of, when they’re too busy rolling in their potential audience’s premature adoration.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check my URI.LV stats.

  1. Linked via the awesome Jamie Phelps  ↩

  2. I particularly loved this quote from a Stanford psychiatry professor: “This shift from e- to i- in prefixing Internet URLs and naming electronic gadgets and apps parallels the rise of the self-absorbed online Narcissus.” Here, I thought it was just everyone trying to ape Apple.  ↩

  3. Which is a pretty narcissistic thing to do, but offset by its utility.  ↩