Thursday, March 13, 2008
The World According To Us
We are all, in a sense, world creators. The philosopher David Hume once said so. And so say all of us, today, as video by video, blog by blog, mashup by mashup, we create culture. We have made the world according to us.
We customise, personalise, tag and annotate content online, providing our own rich context, our own interpretation. Much of this is collective - the 'we' and the 'us' of communities of music lovers, dog lovers, film buffs and followers of everything from Monty Python to organic cotton.
It seems we're becoming heady with power. Scores on San Diego State University's Narcissistic Personality Inventory have risen markedly since 1982. In 2006, on average, US college students' narcissism was comparable to that of celebrities tested.
The findings are outlined in a book by lead researcher Jean Twenge: Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before (2006, Free Press). The book has generated a lot of debate, thanks, in part to the attention-grabbing title - very apt, given the subject matter - which sparked a bout of competitive headlines and labels, such as the 'Entitlement Generation'.
Just recently, a survey by Burst Media indicated that young people think the Internet is all about them. Narcissism has reached epidemic proportions, some would have us believe, in fact The Narcissism Epidemic is the tentative title of Jean Twenge's forthcoming book, to which we're invited to contribute.
But, narcissism is a very accusatory label. It's easy to put down the youth of today. In fact the youth of 'today' have timelessly been berated. Cicero's famous lament "O tempora! O mores!" (Oh, the times! Oh, the morals!) suggests that he also thought youth were going to hell in handbasket.
It has been widely observed that when people transition to parenthood, their moral framework shifts, as they become more responsible. They worry endlessly about their beloved, self-absorbed, irresponsible children. So, their perceptions of youth's narcissism may be exaggerated.
Celebrity culture and YouTube have undoubtedly encouraged the pursuit of fame, but not all narcissism is bad. Many 'narcissistic' traits are actively encouraged by society, such as self-esteem and personal influence over others.
Web 2.0 is all about leveraging personal influence, for example, impressing your friends with your YouTube video, or becoming a key member of a social news community. And personal impact is critical not just to further your own interests but group interests, at work, or in lobbying for a greener environment or cleaner beaches.
That's the crux of Web 2.0 - its community orientation. Group narcissism implies elitism, but the Web tends to be more collaborative and egalitarian. Popular culture reflects this, as Coke's The Summer of Us campaign illustrates.
Perhaps kids are becoming more confident in their abilities to win friends and influence people. But that may well be a reflection of improved actual skills, with even the shyest of people enabled to connect with others online. Perhaps we think our creativity is boundless. But online, anyone can create a cartoon strip with Toonlet, or contribute to an infinite WebCanvas, or live a double life.
We create culture, we create links, we order the world. We are world creators. How can gods be narcissistic?
For we're a jolly good fellow and so say all of us.