Category Archives: Armchair Sociology

Why I’m a Narcissistic Asshole

As several Twitter friends pointed out to me, maybe my problem with Instagram isn’t really with Instagram; maybe it’s with attention seekers. A tool is just a tool, so there’s no sense in dissing the tool; it’s better to dis the people who misuse it.

This is true, to a point… except that I really don’t have a problem with attention seekers, because we’re all attention seekers.

Since our social networks conflate “creating” with “publishing,” and everything you make automatically becomes something you’ve marketed by virtue of having released it into the world, everyone is an attention-seeker. Some of us are just less transparently desperate about it than others, so we see them as being more deserving of attention than those who beg for it.

But when I made this argument, BurghBaby was not having it.

She’s right, it does say a lot about me. But what, exactly?

Do I want people to like / enjoy / believe / be influenced by what I say / make / do?
Sure. Who doesn’t?

Do I believe that no one does anything purely altruistically?
Yup. Even Mother Theresa felt good about helping others, which means she got something out of the exchange. No matter how virtuous we are, we’re always acting in our own self-interest.

Do I believe that no one does anything just for the experience or enjoyment, and that there must always be an end game?
Yup. If you’re creating things for yourself that no one else will ever see just because you like the act of creating them, that’s great — but you’re probably keeping them entirely to yourself, because that’s for you. It’s not online, even in a locked “only my real friends can see it” format. And if you really enjoy creating, part of that enjoyment is in seeing yourself improve. And how do you know you’re improving unless you’re gauging the reactions of others?

So, in a nutshell, is BurghBaby right? Am I incapable of believing that people create just because they love to create, and that they couldn’t care less who sees it, or how many people see it, or what other people think?

Yeah, pretty much.

Because I believe if you like something enough to experiment with it and learn more about it, you also like it enough to believe you might get good at it — good enough, perhaps, that others may also believe that about you someday.

Which means, yes, every act of creation — from movies and paintings to Instagram and Twitter — is an assertion that your creation deserves to exist, and deserves the attention of others. It was worth your time and effort to make, and you (whether subconsciously or overtly) believe it’s worth someone else’s time to consider.

That’s why we make: to change people with what we’ve made — which, in turn, changes us.

And this is why I don’t have a problem with attention-seekers: we’re all attention seekers. What I have a problem with is the way social networks commoditize that exchange to the extent that attention itself becomes the end, rather than the means to something greater.

Here’s the Problem with Instagram

What’s the point of Instagram?

I mean, I know what it does. You share photos. Okay, great.

But why?

For the likes, right?

No one does anything online unless they’re expecting some kind of reaction, and like all social networks, Instagram promises you feedback in the form of likes. You post a photo, someone likes it, you feel good. The more people who like it, the better you feel.

Until you post the next photo, and then you worry if it’ll get “enough” likes.

“Why did that last photo get 13 likes, but this one only got 5? What’s wrong with this photo? (And, by extension, what’s wrong with me?)”

So you start adding hashtags to your photos, because you want more people to notice your photographic talents. But these hashtags only lead to likes from strangers.

Now you find yourself caught in a quandary: should you start posting more photos (and adding more hashtags) to lean into the direction that gets you more likes? If so, you won’t be posting photos for your actual friends anymore; you’ll be posting photos that support Your Personal Brand on Instagram. (But your friends weren’t liking your photos enough anyway, right? So screw them.)

So you start taking more photos of the things that get the most likes — food, graffiti, foliage, sunsets, cats, or whatever else you’ve come across that tripped your hashtag trigger.

Now your album looks very different than it did a few weeks ago. Now it looks like you have a theme. Now it looks like if someone stumbles across your profile, they know what to expect from you.

So you start getting more followers. (Yeah, they’re total strangers, sure; but hey, followers are followers, right? Isn’t that why we do anything?)

Eventually, people start leaving you comments. The “great shot” ones are nice, but you start getting annoyed by the “hey, follow me back” comments. You check out those peoples’ profiles and you see they have thousands of followers, and you think, “Who gets thousands of followers on Instagram?” And instead of finding it absurd, you think, “How can I get thousands of followers on Instagram?”

And so it goes, and so it goes, until you can’t see a well-composed image on the street anymore without deducing which filter you’d apply to it and how many likes you think it would get.

You start saving photos to post later in the day, so they don’t hit the mid-day glut.

You stop taking photos altogether that you doubt will “move the needle.”

You tell yourself this means you’re getting better at Instagram, but what it really means is that you’ve come to hate images.

You see amazing photos, cute photos, amusing photos, heartfelt photos, and they all receive the exact same grade from you: “like.”

Spectacular landscape? “Like.”

Well-framed architecture? “Like.”

Your sister-in-law’s crooked photo of her kids asleep with the dog? “Like.”

It’s all the same.

You see someone’s amazing sunset photo and you think, “She should have used Lo-Fi.”

You see an actual amazing sunset in real life and you think, “Instagram would never do this justice.” But what you’re really mad about is that you know you’d never get as many likes for your photo as that sunset is worth in real life, nor as many as your exemplary cropping and filtering skills deserve. Nature may have created that sunset, but you’re the one who brought it to your ungrateful audience of tens or hundreds or thousands of followers, most of whom will never even see it. And the ones who do will be judging it against every other hashtagged sunset on the planet since the dawn of time (or at least since last week, because anything older than that is “too old to like unless you’re a creeper”).

And you won’t take a picture of that sunset.

You tell yourself you’re done with sunsets.

Done with chasing likes.

Done with Instagram.

You delete the app off your home screen.

You sleep soundly.

And then, in the morning, you lay in bed and reflexively open Instagram (from the menu) and prowl through all the photos you missed from yesterday, and you see someone else’s shitty sunset picture that got 23 likes and you get so so so so pissed.

Not because that photo doesn’t deserve it [even though it should have been straightened].

Not even because you didn’t take it and get all those likes for yourself.

No, you’ll be pissed because you can’t even enjoy a fucking sunset anymore without wondering what’s in it for you.