Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Many 2 Many: fame, narcissism and MySpace

[image source -- a good article on narcissism]

I found this somewhat interesting and insightful post at the Many 2 Many blog: fame, narcissism and MySpace. The author takes a look at the real issues behind the rising levels of narcissism among our kids. Danah Boyd thinks that blaming sites like MySpace or shows like American Idol for our narcissistic youth is missing the picture.

Here is a good passage:

My view is that we have trained our children to be narcissistic and that this is having all sorts of terrifying repercussions; to deal with this, we’re blaming the manifestations instead of addressing the root causes and the mythmaking that we do to maintain social hierarchies. Let’s unpack that for a moment.

American individualism (and self-esteem education) have allowed us to uphold a myth of meritocracy. We sell young people the idea that anyone can succeed, anyone can be president. We ignore the fact that working class kids get working class jobs. This, of course, has been exacerbated in recent years. There used to be meaningful working class labor that young people were excited to be a part of. It was primarily masculine labor and it was rewarded through set hierarchies and unions helped maintain that structure. The unions crumpled in the 1980s and by the time the 1987 recession hit, there was a teenage wasteland. No longer were young people being socialized into meaningful working class labor; the only path out was the “lottery” (aka becoming a famous rock star, athlete, etc.).

Since the late 80s, the lottery system has become more magnificent and corporatized. While there’s nothing meritocratic about reality TV or the Spice Girls, the myth of meritocracy remains. Over and over, working class kids tell me that they’re a better singer than anyone on American Idol and that this is why they’re going to get to be on the show. This makes me sigh. Do i burst their bubble by explaining that American Idol is another version of Jerry Springer where hegemonic society can mock wannabes? Or does their dream have value?

So, we have a generation growing up being told that they can be anyone, magnifying the level of narcissism. Narcissists seek fame and Hollywood dangles fame like a carrot on a stick. Meanwhile, technology emerges that challenges broadcast’s control over distribution. It just takes a few Internet success stories for fame-seeking narcissists to begin projecting themselves into the web in the hopes of being seen and being validated. While the important baseline of peer-validation still dominates, the hopes of becoming famous are still part of the narrative. Unfortunately, it’s kinda like watching wannabe actors work as waiters in Hollywood. They think that they’ll be found there because one day long ago someone was and so they go to work everyday in a menial service job with a dream.

Perhaps i should rally behind people’s dreams, but i tend to find them quite disturbing. It is these kinds of dreams that uphold the American myths that get us into such trouble.

Read the whole post.

In general, I tend to agree with some of these assertions. However, I'm not as opposed to teaching children self-esteem as the author seems to be. There is a lot of value in having our children believe in their self-worth.

Still, if we teach our children that they alone are special, and that they are more special than other people -- and fail to set appropriate boundaries on their needs and wants -- then we get narcissism. There needs to be some kind of middle ground in which our kids can feel valuable as human beings, but not more valuable than all other human beings.

I think that one path through this issue is teaching our kids about service and generosity. If we can teach them both self-worth and humility, that they are valuable as individuals but that the world does not revolve around their wants and needs, then we will have far less narcissism among young people.

What it comes down to is boundaries. Parents have gone so far in the direction of trying to build self-esteem in their kids that they have neglected to teach them boundaries around the issue of privilege. I see it every day with the kids at the high school next to my house -- kids who are driving H2 Hummers, BMWs, and other very expensive cars simply because their parents can afford them and don't know how to say NO.

The author of the cited post is correct that MySpace, American Idol, and other organizations are simply taking of advantage of what they see in these kids -- and perpetuating the myth by doing so. In the end, it comes down to parenting and socialization. We have no one to blame but ourselves.


Tamarai said...

I stumbled onto your blog by accident. I am glad I did. I find your writing insightful and motivating. Universe works in mysterious ways. I am definitely adding you to my blog list. Thanks.

Unknown said...

An interesting topic I will want to further explore and blog about.

But I am not so sure that things are so different in bad ways than they used to be. The 70s and 80s were famously the ME decade and ME decade REDUX. Today's youth are far less racist and otherwise hatefully discriminating that prior generations. They are accepting of gays, showing the way for their elders!

They are also overwhelmingly liberal politically. This hasn't been true since the 60s.

Also, the working class jobs of the 50s, say, were pretty tough places and unions were outrageous. I don't know that the halcyon days were all that halcyon.

william harryman said...

Thanks Tanya!


I think you raise some very valid points. And I think both you and the article are correct.

What it looks like to me, from an integral perspective, is the full-on emergence of the Sensitive Self (Green Altitude) with all the good stuff that goes with that (equality, egalitarianism, ecological concern, and so on),

But what we also see, as a result of lax parenting, are the rising narcissism scores that so many people are commenting on. It seems that this might be a direct result of having parents who are both affluent and embedded in a sense of entitlement or privilege. They might be teaching their kids to be more tolerant and accepting, but they are also teaching them that they are entitled to have whatever they want.

It looks suspiciously like the Mean Green Meme to me.

My two cents.


PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks for this thoughtful piece. You say, wisely, "I think that one path through this issue is teaching our kids about service and generosity," and add, at the end, that "we have only ourselves to blame." Our generation (okay, mine: not sure about yours!) has been remiss in actually practicing service and generosity as the primary means to teaching it to our young people. It's sad, now, to look around this country--including, perhaps especially, at its government--and see how the notion of service has been replaced by the philosophy of "what's in it for me?" (or for my party). Weighing our gift to the world of truly valuable and needed things (food, medicine...) against our spending on war and weaponry is one measure of where we stand on the scale of generosity. No wonder our children look at us askance. It's not hard to catch the unseemly whiff of cynical hypocrisy.

Anonymous said...

Love your blog ! This is my first time reading it.So i had to comment. Keep up the good work.Oh and as a fellow myspacer, check out

Anonymous said...

Domin8 MySpace with unique myspace layouts. Check out