Over the last decade, with the growing popularity of social media platforms such as Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter, we have experienced a shift in human connection. The social need for real community, once fulfilled by tribes and villages, is now being partly replaced by online communities. Social networking sites have become the new institutions for building relationships, being used to connect with old and new friends and build professional networks. But perhaps the larger existential desire is to feel supported and connected to a larger community. Whether we increase the number of Twitter followers, Facebook friends, or blog subscribers, there is an unconscious drive to be seen and valued authentically, which begs the questions “what does this desire for connection represent in our psyche? Does social media fulfill our collective need of belonging, love and affection, or contribute to our narcissistic tendencies?”

Psychologists have long studied social communities. Stanford University even has a course titled “The Psychology of Facebook”, taught by Dr. BJ Fogg, a psychologist who studies the persuasive factor of online communities and how they motivate user’s behavior. Opinions vary on the psychological aspects of social media. For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive”. Dr. David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research, views social media as a contributor to our narcissistic age.

Are we a culture starved for real connection and community? According to Maslow’s hierarchy, social needs such as belonging, affection and relationships are important to the process of self-actualization. Social media allows users to build online communities, join groups and causes, and feel connected to others across the continent, transcending boundaries of time and space. Ludwig Binswanger, a Swiss psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of existential psychology suggested: “relatedness to others is crucial to human existence and mental health”. He distinguished among different modes of relatedness and identified the only one free of psychopathology is the dual mode, characterized by reciprocity, respect, and openness. Do social networking and online communities serve a purpose of relatedness in our disconnected world?

Individuals whose personalities are organized around maintaining their self-esteem by getting external affirmation are said to have a narcissistic personality, based on the Greek myth of Narcissus, the youth who fell in love with his own image and eventually died of a longing, which could never get satisfied. In some ways, we can all fit into this category and ask ourselves whether the convenience of immediate connection of social media serve as the container for maintaining our self-esteem? Do Facebook and Twitter fulfill our collective need of belonging and serve a purpose of relatedness in our disconnected world? Or do they contribute to our cultural narcissistic tendencies?

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One Response to “Social Media: Unconditional Narcissism or Human Relatedness?”

  1. Diana says:

    This "debate" cracks me up. We all know that our need to "feel supported and connected to a larger community" has become more and more impossible in this country. Loose family structures, lack of connection to one's heritage or tribe, and our being openly "different" in the community – whether by religious, political or sexual orientation – have left many of us outcast or at least circumscribed in our communities.

    I am definitely in the "proving that you are alive" camp. We are not "a culture starved for real connection and community", we are starved human beings, and as such begin our lives dependent upon connection and community for survival. We all know a bona fide narcissist or two (or three) and may even be one ourselves. But referring to the farthest end of the spectrum, where a person doesn't see others except as players in their drama, as having anything to do with the normal human need to maintain one's self-esteem "by getting external affirmation" would be too big a stretch. Everyone needs to be – and deserves to be – seen.

    I'm sure that the population of online groups would probably yield the same proportion of full-blown narcissists as the general population. Online communities let everyone have a say, not just the loudest or most powerful that tend to dominate in "real life".

    And finally, using the term narcissist without compassion for how they are created in infancy and childhood does any psychological discussion of narcissism a disservice. We are all guilty of some degree of narcissism. Those who suffer from it the most suffer a tremendous loss of ability to feel connected.

    If we are to look at online vs. real life relatedness, let's acknowledge that we are asking the wrong question here. The question isn't whether or not online communities are contributing to our "cultural narcissistic tendencies." The question is whether or not these communities are successful at helping us meet our natural need for "belonging, affection and relationships."

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