Are we really narcissistic on Facebook?

Earlier today, I noticed an article on Mashable concerning a small study that had been carried out by a Canadian undergraduate, investigating how men and women represent themselves in a narcissistic way on Facebook. It’s a good read (you can find it here) but I’ve got some major qualms with it, which I’d like to state here, for posterity’s sake. I’ve also got a problem with the way Mashable presented the findings in a very ‘matter of fact’ way, but I guess that’s the responsibility of good journalism.

Regarding the paper itself, the author asserts that Facebook is a fully nonymous (not anonymous) social network, and builds her study on this rudimentary belief. I’m sure Facebook is nonymous in the majority of cases, but we’ve all seen examples of people failing to display true profile pictures, their real names, or even creating pages for fictional characters, providing a whole new angle for study concerning identity generation, and the possibility of narcissism within this new demographic. Indeed, within a wider context (this study was restricted to a sample of 100 college students, who’d surely be a perfect example of homophily in action, hence downplaying the significance of the author’s results), how could these new, ‘artificial’ identities could affect one’s narcissistic behaviours? I think people who make an attempt to hide their personal identity on Facebook, for instance, by posting ‘pseudo-pictures’ (images of fictional characters that act as avatars, possibly with some semblance to the physical identity of the user in question) are lacking in self-esteem in such a degree that they cling to the service, whether Facebook or otherwise. However, the findings of this paper state clearly that there’s a correlation between increasing Facebook use and narcissism. More on this later.

I also find fault with the author’s definition of narcissism, and narcissistic people. She’s somewhat damning in her exposition of narcissistic types (in saying they’re all nothing but complete narcissists), but somewhere along the line explains that some kinds of narcissistic behaviours could possibly be generated by internal cues. Hence, anyone could prove to elicit some slight form of narcissism. I don’t think the author’s definition of narcissism is that simple, doesn’t exist in such binary terms, and needs to be re-evaluated.

I’ve already stated that the results in the above paper were somewhat inconclusive. My other problem with the results is that they make use of a multivariate coding system to designate Facebook profiles as narcissistic or not. The author does acknowledge at the end of the paper that her results may well be unreliable due to the objective nature of her coding method, but again, some of her definitions, to me, are problematic. For instance, apparently, all people who promote themselves through status updates are narcissistic. I refute this, out of self-experience. If you’re reading this update right now, there’s a good chance that you found it through my Facebook page. Being a poor student, I can hardly afford costly promotions (some, including myself, argue that the best promotion costs nothing) and rely on my Facebook status updates to promote new entries on my blog, which is all I really use status updates for these days. Am I a narcissist? I don’t think so. I just promote my blog because I know Facebook is a good way of informing my friends when I write something new.

My final gripe is with the concluding assertion that narcissistic people spend more time on Facebook. Again, I spend a great deal of time using the service, as do others. An inordinate amount of time, some might say. However, I wouldn’t say I’m as narcissistic as much as I am a massive procrastinator and time-waster. How is it possible to condemn all prolific Facebook users with one fell swoop? I think this, again, is a sampling error, and a lack of concluding clarifications that the findings presented are only relevant within the context of the paper, that is, concerning students in higher education. Even so, not all students are one and the same, and I think drawing such conclusions is a little simplistic.

All in all, I enjoyed reading the paper. It looks at something new, and is a good omen of things to come from (what I imagine is) an undergraduate’s first publication. Still, I think it falls down in its initial definitions of narcissism as a digital behaviour (it’s only on or off, as well as existing in the online sphere). It does hold some interesting questions for further research, though.

The paper tries to take a classically offline behaviour and relate it to online processes, which it acknowledges at the outset. I think this is wrong. It’s a good starting work, but I feel there’s so much more potential out there, to build and research new, more novel models about how we exist online. Are we narcissistic on Facebook? Perhaps. Is Facebook conducive to inspiring narcissistic behaviour? That, I think, is the question we should be asking ourselves.

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3 Comments on “Are we really narcissistic on Facebook?”

  1. Emily says:

    I have a particular individual in mind, whilst formulating a comment here, in saying that some individuals may indeed be narcissistic towards their use of Facebook, primarily to stress certain characteristics of themselves, either on their ‘profile pages’ or when chatting to other individuals, to very consciously impress/charm etc etc. For the record, I am NOT keen on this sort of facade that is applied, and if I feel that I am encountering such an act by someone during my own use on Facebook, then I will unwillingly pull a repulsive facial expression. Most likely, anyway.
    As for the use of drawings/characters etc in place of a person’s actual face as their profile picture, then personally I would say that a lack of self-esteem to be the reason for that is plausible.

  2. Anjani says:

    haha I can think of quite a handful of people (some mutual friends?) who I keep telling are publicly displaying insecurity by putting up non-profile pictures. But I’d say most people who do that know exactly why they’re doing it, and they’re just so comfortable in their insecurity (oxymoronic?) that it’s still a good idea to them.

    In response to Emily’s comment above. Surely one’s activity on facebook is a rather perfect reflection of their ‘real life’ social activity, and so if they use facebook to promote certain characteristics or just use it constantly to try to impress, my bet is that’s exactly what they do outside of facebook.
    Not really any fault of facebook or social networking sites as such.

    Personally I don’t feel facebook has much influence on users’ narcissism or any other personality trait at all. Facebook just makes it very convenient for users to display certain traits, in particular narcissim and lack of self-esteem.

    Nice article Aris. xx

  3. Chloe says:

    Interesting indeed – perhaps facebook encourages narcissistic and self-indulgent behaviour, but surely that is the purpose for it as a social tool. To charm others into liking you and to keep the people you already like you, liking you. Much like in normal non-cyber society. One must love themselves if they expect others to love them. And all that jazz. A flawed study but as you imply, it potentially reveals more about its extraneous factors (demographic, objectivity etc) than it does about the findings themselves.
    Another great article Aris! x


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