Does the Internet promote self-love?

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The word narcissism is derived from the Greek mythological figure, Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection.  Narcissus was so entranced by his own reflection that it eventually led to his death. He killed himself. 

Digital narcissism takes this notion online. The evolution of the Internet took narcissism online and much like the case of Narcissus, the internet has become a breeding ground for Digital narcissists.

The world of communication has evolved from physical communication to instant online mass communication. Traditional communication was largely people-centric. Examples include person to person conversations, family or group discussions, books and print media. The computer age has flattened this mode of communication and has enabled mass virtual people-to-people communication.

The world is now always-on and always-connected. The internet has 6.2 billon users covering  60% of the world’s population. The net as we now call it has provided business opportunities, facilitated self and group learning, reduced the distance between migrant labour and families, helped lonely, confined people, and created new seemingly implausible friendships. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg confidently informs that the traditional six degrees of separation has transformed to 3.17. 

This means that one may now know anyone else in the world, through just three circle of friends. This ever increase of virtual friends compels one to constantly engage. A study shows that the average user looks at their smartphone  about 217 times each and every day! 

There is a term nomophobia which refers to the fear of being without ones device, while FOMO is a syndrome defined as the “fear-of-missing-out.” FOMO is why we constantly scan our phones with users confessing to even waking in the dead of the night to stay connected.

Some people have adopted an alternate virtual image which sometimes is a complete alter ego of themselves. Hiding behind virtual anonymity, the introverted becomes extraverted while the quiet  and complacent become loud and challenging. As people become increasingly popular on the Internet, Internet users get seduced by the fame and begin to seek constant validation of their being. Some users have become so popular that they have earned the title of  “influencers”, vloggers  or “youtubers” which despite the size of the Internet, is quite an achievement. A micro influencer needs to have 10,000 followers, a macro influencer has 100,000 followers while a nano-influencer has over three million followers.

Internet popularity and the strive for it has created an alternative narrative which has given rise to digital narcissists. By way of a definition, this digital narcissism is characterised by extreme selfishness, a grandiose view of one’s own extraordinary skills together with an addictive need for admiration. One view is that social media has orchestrated, rightly or wrongly,  a growing culture of narcissism. This is  evident by selfie-obsessions on Facebook and other social media platforms. 

The concept of self-actualisation, a notion proposed by Abraham Maslow, which is “the desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for the individual to become actualised in what he is potentially…. the desire to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Maslow identified traits of self-actualised people such as self-acceptance, spontaneity, creativity, and resistance to conformity.

Whereas self-actualisation may be viewed as the summit of healthy personality, narcissism is a personality disorder. A self-actualised person is self-confident and embarks on a path of inner growth which under ideal conditions can blossom and grow. On the other hand, a narcissist is an injured soul that is self-centred and manipulative. Narcissists have a grandiose and unrealistic view of their talents, as well as a craving for admiration that is often earned.

It would therefore appear that the net provides a perfect medium for both sets of personalities to thrive. The numbers demonstrate self-obsessions. More than 80 million photographs are uploaded to Instagram each day which translates into more than 3.5bn ‘likes’ every day. Almost 2.4billion or a third of the world’s population – publish a visual daily diary of their lives on Facebook and other social media.

The above reality brings into question whether social media is turning a relatively modest specie into a pack of publicity-hungry narcissists? Or could it be that we are already inherently self-absorbed and that social media is just allowing us to exhibit this? What is clear is that social media has unequivocally changed the way we engage with ourselves and each other. 

Waheeder Peters is a Masters in Journalism student at the Durban University Of Technology. Dr Colin Thakur is the Inseta Research Chair in Digitalisation and Director at the KZN NEMISA eSkills CoLab.