In the Era of Instagram, Narcissism as the New Norm

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Hillary Clinton supporters, turned around in order to take selfies with the candidate, in Orlando, Florida on Sept. 21, 2016. (Barbara Kinney for Hillary for America)

From the book THE ATTENTION MERCHANTS, by Tim Wu. Copyright © 2016 by Tim Wu. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

For most of human history, the proliferation of the individual likeness was the sole prerogative of the illustrious, whether it was the face of the emperor on a Roman coin or the face of Garbo on the silver screen. The commercialization of photography may have broadened access to portraiture somewhat, but apart from 'WANTED' posters, the image of most common people would never be widely propagated. In the 20th century, Hollywood created a cohort of demigods, whose image everyone recognized and many, in effect, worshiped.

With the arrival of the smartphone and Instagram, however, much of the power of a great film studio was now in every hand attached to a heart yearning for fame; not only could one create an image to rival those of the old icons of glamour, but one could put it on a platform where millions might potentially see it.

Perhaps a century of the ascendant self, of the self’s progressive liberation from any trammels not explicitly conceived to protect other selves, perhaps this progression, when wedded to the magic of technology serving not the state or even the corporation but the individual ego, perhaps it could reach no other logical endpoint, but the self as its own object of worship.

Of course, it is easy to denigrate as vanity even harmless forms of self-expression. Indulging in a bit of self-centeredness from time to time, playing with the trappings of fame, can be a form of entertainment for oneself and one’s friends, especially when undertaken with a sense of irony. Certainly, too, the self-portrait, and the even more patently ludicrous invention, the selfie stick, has become too easy a target for charges of self-involvement. Humans, after all, have sought the admiration of others in various ways since the dawn of time; it is a feature of our social and sexual natures. The desire of men and women to dress up and parade may be as deeply rooted as the peacock’s impulse to strut. Like all attention harvesters, Instagram has not stirred any new yearning within us, merely acted upon one already there, and facilitated its gratification to an unimaginable extent. Therein lies the real problem.


Technology doesn’t follow culture so much as culture follows technology. New forms of expression naturally arise from new media, but so do new sensibilities and new behaviors. All desire, the philosopher and critic René Girard wrote, is essentially mimetic; beyond our elemental needs, we are led to seek after things by the example of others, those whom we may know personally or through their fame. When our desires go beyond the elemental, they enter into their metaphysical dimension, in which, as Girard wrote, “All desire is a desire to be,” to enjoy an image of fulfillment such as we have observed in others.

This is the essential problem with the preening self unbound by social media, and the democratization of fame. By presenting us with example upon example, it legitimates self-aggrandizement as an objective for ever more of us. By encouraging anyone to capture the attention of others with the spectacle of one’s self—in some cases, even to the point of earning a living by it—it warps our understanding of our own existence and its relation to others. That this should become the manner of being for us all is surely the definitive dystopic vision of late modernity.

In the fall of 2015, an Australian teenager, Essena O’Neill, quit Instagram in utter despair. A natural beauty and part-time model, she had become an Instagram celebrity, thanks to her pictures, which had drawn half a million followers. But her Instagram career, she explained, had made her life a torment.

“I had the dream life. I had half a million people interested in me on Instagram. I had over a hundred thousand views on most of my videos on YouTube. To a lot of people, I made it,” she confessed in a video. But suddenly it had all become too much.

Everything I was doing was edited and contrived and to get more views. . . . Everything I did was for views, for likes, for followers. . . . Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real. It’s contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self-absorbed judgement. . . . I met people that are far more successful online than I am, and they are just as miserable and lonely and scared and lost. We all are.

A survey of Instagram and other social media users by the London Guardian yielded similar responses, suggesting that even among those with relatively few followers the commitment is grim. “I feel anxiety over how many likes I get after I post a picture. If I get two likes, I feel like, what’s wrong with me?” wrote one woman. “I do feel insecure if I see girls who look prettier than me,” wrote another, “or if they post really pretty pictures, and I know I won’t look as good in any that I post. I do feel pressure to look good in the photos I put up. I don’t feel anxious about not getting enough likes on a photo but if it doesn’t get enough likes, I will take it down.”

In April 2012, a mere 18 months after its debut, Instagram was purchased by Facebook for $1 billion. The high-flying start-up’s founders had cashed out without ever having devised a business model. No matter. By November the following year, the first ad feed would run in Instagram, following Facebook principles of limited targeting. The acquisition would prove astute. In April 2012 Instagram had 30 million users, but by the fall of 2015 it had 400 million, more than Twitter. And so Facebook would join the ranks of hoary behemoths with a war chest. A transfusion of young blood would preserve their status in the uppermost echelon of attention merchants.


As for Instagram, its upward glide portended a future in which the line between the watcher and the watched, the buyer and the seller, was more blurred than ever. The once highly ordered attention economy had seemingly devolved into a chaotic mutual admiration society, full of enterprising Narcissi, surely an arrangement of affairs without real precedent in human history.