Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wanted: A Survival Guide to Online Narcissism and Incivility

When I started my blog back in 2006 I never gave much thought to what my motivation was. Why would I? Blogging was fairly new to me, though I know a few bloggers who started at least a few years earlier than I did. But the forum was new enough that when I said I had a blog, most people I knew had no idea what I was talking about.

Fast forward to today. Blogging is still popular but other forms of social media have also boomed and one need not go to that much trouble to find friends and relatives on Facebook and Twitter. My mom still doesn't know what a blog is, but she has a Twitter account.

The bigger the Internet community gets, the more extreme the behavior gets and I find myself dwelling more and more on what motivates me to continue to blog in an ever growing environment in which blogs like mine, rather than growing an audience, are losing steam as everyone jumps on the bandwagon in search of significance in whatever arena they choose. Remember when mommy blogs first started popping up? They used to consist of moms talking about their day while posting a few pics of the kids at preschool. Cute and harmless mostly. Now mommy blogs seem to have developed a hyper-competitive edge, at least in some quarters, and if there aren't multiple tabs for recipes, videos and giveaways, you're just not keeping up with the Joneses (pictures of the BMW in the driveway are optional but recommended).

And yes, the same seems to be true among book bloggers. I have tabs and giveaways.... What is happening to me?

Well, according to a Dr. Strenger of the Tel Aviv School of Psychology I may be suffering from a fear of insignificance brought on by the global information network and celebrity culture. Now that's a mouthful. In other words, television and the Internet have given us the means to compare ourselves to the most "significant" people in the world-- and we desperately want to be like them.

I don't even think this is a debatable point. Or a new one. When you look at the myriad of ways we can put our personal life on display, from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and weblogs, it's undeniable that a lot of us may be searching for our fifteen minutes of fame and we've been doing it for awhile. And if that was all that was going on with the glut of public displays of personal information it would be easy to shrug off. But the fact is, the culture has gotten mean. Really, really mean.

This also isn't a new issue. We've all seen Internet trolls attempting to stoke the anger of readers on various sites for their own entertainment and I think we're all savvy enough to know when we're being baited and not to "feed" the trolls. But trolling is moving moving beyond harmless flame-wars and seems to be taking on a life of its own.

Trolling, in my opinion, has a few different categories. I think deliberately inflammatory blog posts, like the now infamous (at least amongst our community) one posted by Leo Grin that stated that modern fantasy is nihilistic and pointless  are a trolling of sorts. If you look at the post, as a whole, it isn't built on much an argument in that it only cherry-picks a few authors to make the point-- most notably one successful author in particular who was bound to be noticed. And Grin's idea of why he is qualified to make the argument seems to rest on replies that consist of little more than I know more than Robert Howard than you so there. I debated on arguing the point here for awhile, but then I thought why bother? The author used to drum up attention already addressed the issue far better than I could and any commentary on my part is really just background noise. But what really decided me in the end was that I couldn't find the motivation to care enough about what one guy had to say about this particular issue. One guy.

We love controversy don't we? I read a lot of interesting replies to that particular post. Very erudite, well thought out replies that nonetheless took the opportunity to stir-the-pot as well-- which is all fair in this particular game. And no, I don't think the replies count as trolling. It's that first traffic-seeking commentary that catches my attention. This is a phenomenon I see a lot these days, especially among new bloggers. Not too long ago I wrote a post about a newbie blogger who decided to take the well-worn path of revisiting what rules we reviewer-bloggers should be following-- and it worked. Anger, controversy and blog-hits ensued. So--bravo to that guy. I'm am forever amazed at how people with no particular track record of achievement set out to declare that they are the new trend setters. Who are any of us who randomly set up a blog in any way qualified to tell anyone else what they ought to be doing? I can get on-board when a successful author, who has proven themselves in their chosen specialty, gives their thoughts on the genre. Though I will admit the politics can drive a wedge between us if I'm told I'm a mouth-breathing, flat-earther if I don't subscribe to a certain sets of beliefs. You'll forgive me if I don't buy your books in that case-- right?

Blogging isn't without its risks.

Unfortunately trolling doesn't stop at looking for blog hits. In fact the newest forms of trolling are so vile that it won't be long before we're nostalgic for the days of cheap shots aimed at us via other blogs. Facebook-- which appears to have the largest audience these days-- seems to also be the favored troll hunting grounds. I was very slow to pick up on this because I naively thought the "friending" process would weed out the riff-raff. Oh silly me.

The need to share personal information has gone from talking about what one is having for dinner to putting up memorial pages for lost loved ones. And I'm not talking about fluffy the cat. To some extent I can understand putting up information to share with family members regarding grandma's funeral, but I admit I'm not one who would put up a public page as a memorial. That's just me. But other well-intentioned individuals have taken to doing this and, sadly, have learned that nothing is sacred in the forum of public information-sharing. Unbelievable as it sounds people now troll memorial pages for attention. I won't go into detail here, but suffice it to say that the anonymity of the Internet has not brought the best out in people. At all. Clearly these nuts subscribe to the theory that negative attention is better than not attention at all.

It's not really shocking in a society that makes celebrities out of people who do little more than get drunk and punch each other on camera that people are becoming less and less civil to each other. When you think about it, it's hard to find examples of civility anymore. According to what I've read the main culprits of this kind of behavior are 20-something young men. I know a lot of people are going to tell me not to fret over the younger generation; that every generation looks at the one behind it and shakes their head. But in this case-- I think we might need to start worrying. A simple Google search on "narcissism" brings up many articles on the particular phenomenon of net narcissism and our collective penchant for perpetual status updates and Googling our own name.

And no. The irony is not lost on me that I have a blog as well as both Facebook and Twitter accounts. My kids, however, do not. I wonder if Narcissistic Personality Disorder has been pulled from the DSM because it's now just so darned common?

I'm not gonna lie. I'm finding it harder and harder to negotiate the online world. I'll occasionally post my thoughts in posts like this but it's a little like walking on eggshells. I'm a small fish and don't generally get too much attention-- on a good day-- so I don't get much troll traffic. And I'll be the first to admit I'd delete it if I did. Who needs that garbage? I don't want the angst. I'm not someone who can shrug off the snark and, I hate to say it, but even anonymous hate will give me an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Maybe I read too much into things, but I also wonder if our collective online obsessions aren't sucking the soul out us. I can waste a whole day online and I'm not proud of it. And I ponder, more and more frequently, the merits of getting a real life. One that doesn't consist of me sitting at my computer and setting a bad example for my kids.

Like I asked before-- why am doing this? It's not a job. I don't make any money. I do get the occasional blurb in books I review-- so that feeds the ego which in turn feeds the blog. But is that reason enough to keep doing it? I don't ask these questions because I want people to tell me to keep blogging; though I would have looked for that at one time. I ask because I am starting to wonder if being plugged in is actually making us more disconnected than ever. How good can it be when people are getting into car accidents because they can't quit texting long enough to drive to work? The answer to that is pretty obvious.

I think the real lesson though is that no one is paying as much attention to us as we are to ourselves. No one else cares about the status updates. Nor or they monitoring our blogs to see if we post everyday. The good news there is that I'm pretty sure I can find a real life and no one will know the difference. Did I tell you that I joined a real-life book club? You know, the kind that meets in person? Yep. I actually get more than one or two comments when I make an observation about a book these days. It's awesome.

I haven't reached the point at which I feel the need to walk away and stop blogging altogether. But I have decided it's time to be more productive offline because the online world is sucking me into a vortex of self-involvement that can only get more and more unhealthy. I don't have the wonderful ability to not care about the ugliness that seeps into my world via my computer; though maybe I should consider that a good thing. So I'm giving myself permission to chill out. To go slow and post only when I feel like it; not because I feel a weird obligation to post every day. Who knows. Maybe my next radical step will be to delete the Facebook account.

Gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.


sdennard said...

Great, thought-provoking post! It's something I've thought a LOT about...especially because for me in this day and age, book promotion = social networking. I'm pretty much REQUIRED to blog and tweet and socialize online.

I actually deleted my facebook account last year, and it was GREAT. But then my publicity team told me I had to have a "Fan Page"...but I can't have a "Fan Page" without a standard profile/account, so I've been pulled back down with the undertow.

And this line: "And I ponder, more and more frequently, the merits of getting a real life." too. I work full-time at HOME in a foreign country where I'm not allowed to drive. My entire "social life" is built on my blog and twitter. It's both saving my sanity from loneliness while also destroying my sanity -- I'm completely out of practice when it comes to holding a NORMAL conversation or maintaining face-to-face friendships. It's tragic, and I feel like I'm not the only one with suffering social skills.

Thanks for writing this. I think you're right, and I think we need to be aware of it.

Charles Gramlich said...

A well thought out and timely post. It reflects a lot of my own thinking as well. Blogging is a pretty narcisstic thing, and Twitter and Facebook even more it seems to me. It's as if some folks are driven to share and maybe it is that 'want' to be more to the world than we are. As for the trolls, there are plenty of them and always have been, but the net gives them so many more people to hurt.

Budd said...

I have noticed that people come to expect the hate and that some bloggers have to pump the hate to the next level in order to "stay edgy," or "modern," or "enlightened." For that reason, I can't read political blogs.

M. McGriff said...

Wow, this post really made me think. I'm from the generation that grew up without the internet until highschool and experienced the burst of social media while young enough to totally jump on the bandwagon and you're right - the trolling, the negativity, and just plain antics that bloggers do just to get attention is crazy - and what's crazier is that it works! I remember the days of having to socialize in person and it's harder to do that because we as people have become so "busy" we never have time.

Yes, the more plugged in you are, the less connected you are and it takes a lot of effort to keep up and maintain a real life.

SQT said...

Sdennard-- I've noticed that a lot of authors are very active online, and now I know why. I get it to a point. It's much easier to have a presence online than in person. That said, it's also much easier to offend a potential audience. There are authors I won't read after seeing how they behave online. So it's a double-edged sword.

Charles-- When I started blogging it was because I needed the adult interaction. Being a stay-at-home mom can be really isolating when the kids are small. But now it's become more about the ego and when that becomes the issue it seems really pointless. Now I feel like I'm not getting enough done in the "real" world. Time to rethink the priorities.

Budd-- Politics can be rough. I have pretty strong opinions but I don't want to take on the attitude that my ideas make me superior to anyone else-- and I sure don't like others doing the same to me. It's all so rhetorical anymore too. Not a lot of individual thought.

M. Mcgriff-- Have you seen the kids walking down the street who text to each other rather than just talk? I have. I think our kids will have to know how to negotiate the online world, but the most successful people are still going to be the ones who hold on to real, honest-to-goodness interpersonal skills. I'm keeping my kids off the computer as long as I can.

AvDB said...

There are nasty people out there who revel in online anonymity. They take it as a free pass to say whatever pops into their narrow little minds as soon as they think it. There are no repercussions for their actions--which is good because the internet is, and should always be, free--and they feel no guilt or culpability over making other people feel bad. When everyone is reduced to a profile picture or avatar it's easy to forget there are actual humans involved. It's mob mentality on an individual scale.