Smartphones and social media are turning us into dreadful narcissists. Would anyone care to dispute this?
Yes, actually. His name is Will Storr, and he’s a British journalist who’s just published Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us. Though the title of his book suggests otherwise, Storr says we’re missing the point when we complain about technologically induced egotism: “We all think that these things”—Twitter, Facebook, the iPhone— “have caused the self-obsession, but of course that’s not true.”
The root problem, he contends, isn’t our devices or our social media sites. It’s us. Or rather, it’s the civilization we’ve built, a culture that for many decades has encouraged ever greater degrees of self-regard. Platforms like Twitter surely amplify our egocentric impulses, but Storr says it’s wrong to blame technology for creating them.
“It’s the general public that chooses which ideas work—and not only chooses which ideas work, but chooses how those ideas are then used,” says Storr, speaking from his home in Kent, England. “Silicon Valley are constantly throwing ideas at us; 99.9 percent of them we reject. A big chunk of those we do accept we start using in ways that the technologists weren’t expecting. That’s true of Twitter. Twitter launched as a service for free text messaging, but that’s not what we used it for. The selfie camera—they called it the front-facing camera—was a thing that we could talk to our nans on our birthday. But that’s not what we used it for, largely.”
As Storr tells it, the vanity that fuels the selfie-snapping and Instagramming of the 21st century can be traced to the distant past. The ancient Greeks developed “this idea they called kalokagathia, which is that you can judge the worth of someone’s character by the physical appearance of their body,” he says. It’s an “unbelievably toxic idea” that “we’re still absolutely in the grip of” in the 2010s.
“You look at a statue of an idealized male form that would have appeared in a marketplace in ancient Greece—you could put that statue on Men’s Health today,” he says. “One of the things that’s really hard for a man to get is the pelvic V-line, that little crevice that appears in some men—certainly not me—above their pelvis. That pelvic V appears in ancient Greece, and it appears today all over our social media.”
But the Greeks and their awesome abs are just a prelude to the key years in Storr’s book. Look at the middle of the 20th century, he writes, and you’ll notice that several seemingly disparate strains of thinking were all pointing in the same direction—toward the celebration of the self. Over time, he demonstrates, these ideas became an important component of our neoliberalist system, which places an outsized premium on one’s station in a free-market economy. The best-known examples of this worldview—Ayn Rand acolytes like ex-Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and House Speaker Paul Ryan—worship entrepreneurs and villainize government.
But such ideas weren’t just a product of the political right. In the 1960s, Storr notes, the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California began its own quest to “rewrite our sense of who we are.” Esalen’s famous encounter groups, in which attendees were urged to drop their social conditioning and tap into their true, unique, and highly capable selves, became widely known (and widely mocked) because they attracted influential journalists, academics, and budding tech moguls.
“There was lots of cross-fertilization between Esalen and Stanford and Silicon Valley,” Storr says. “Even into the ’80s, you’ve got Silicon Valley people going to Esalen to ‘find themselves.’ Silicon Valley went from this place where it was about defense research and missile technology to this center of personal transformation through technology.”
In Storr’s history of egocentricity, another important development was the rise of the self-esteem movement, which got a major boost from a California assemblyman named John Vasconcellos. In the ’80s, a Vasconellos-led panel reported that self-esteem was a form of “social vaccine.” Though, as Storr points out, the panel’s findings were specious, the notion took hold. Oprah Winfrey told her viewers that “self-esteem was going to be one of the ‘catch-all phrases for the 1990s,’” he writes, and invited Vasconcellos on her show to discuss the subject with Maya Angelou and Drew Barrymore. Self-esteem “becomes this viral idea that changes the way we raise our children and teach our children,” Storr says. “Parents and teachers start telling children: ‘You’re amazing, you’re special, you can do anything you put your mind to.’ They start protecting them from failure in any way they can.”
This is a satisfying narrative, but it will strike some as a little too pat. Were today’s 20- and 30-somethings really more coddled than previous generations? If so, are we witnessing a real-time shift in the conception of the self? Selfie suggests we might be. A controversial academic study of narcissism indicates that such traits began to increase among young people in the ’90s. “By the mid-2000s, when the children of the self-esteem generation had become parents, the problem was accelerating,” Storr writes. “Narcissism, the researchers argued, was now an ‘epidemic,’ rising as quickly as obesity.”
Obviously, Storr says, this kind of self-obsession can have a damaging effect, especially when you factor in the pressures of social media. “The underside of ‘You can achieve it, you can do anything, you can become Beyoncé’ is the fact that we can’t. It’s not actually true. The story of most people’s lives is really one of failure after failure, and if we swallow that individualistic pill too much we just blame ourselves for all that failure. We simplify the world to such a degree that when things go wrong for us, we immediately think ‘It’s my fault’ and then we become victims of these very toxic perfectionistic thoughts,” which can lead to self-harm, eating disorders, and other troubles.
With all this talk of inevitable failure, it’s clear that Storr hasn’t written a self-help book. Even so, after three years of researching the history of self-obsession, he has some thoughts on how we might temper it. “The first step,” Storr advises in Selfie, “is to stop believing the tribal propaganda. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from its demands.”
That might mean devoting a little less time to social media. I asked Storr if his research changed his online life. Definitely, he said: “I keep it absolutely minimal these days.”