This heartbreaking and very disturbing story on CNN about a Florida teenager who committed suicide on his live webcam while viewers egged him on and chatted back and forth about whether he would succeed got me thinking about the ways the internet has changed and continues to change reality and human interaction. My first reaction, besides revulsion, was that there seems to be something strangely antithetical about committing suicide in such a public, dialogic forum. Suicide seems to me the ultimate act of hopelessness, of isolation and disconnection, from other people and from the world around you. I think it’s a fascinating commentary on our mediated world that, even in death, the only thing that, as the saying goes, everyone does alone, this poor kid’s behavior demonstrated the kind of performative, outwardly-focused presentational awareness, a narcissism of sorts that characterizes so much of online social interaction.
I was talking to a friend yesterday who is working on a project dealing with Myspace, specifically Myspace comments (the messages Myspace “friends” leave each other on their profile walls) as an exemplification of this same sort of online narcissism, and it reminded me of this story, which I’d just read. I’ve never used Myspace, but have been on Facebook for years and I’ve seen this mutual narcissism/voyeurism steadily growing within that space. In the relatively early days of Facebook when I first joined, users had only the comparatively limited forum of the Facebook profile to personalize with such information as your dating status, home town, religious beliefs, favorite music, and an open-ended blurb called “about me”. At the time I remember being a little embarrassed to post such things as my political views and favorite activities for all to see. Part of me enjoyed being able to craft an image for myself, to see some kind of a skeletal, one-dimensional version of me cohesively represented in a little box–neat, clean, definite, and much simpler and more easily digestible than the three-dimensional reality of my life. Especially as a somewhat shy, reserved person, I think I relished the chance to let the profile represent me to people better than I felt I might be able to. At the same time, I did feel a vague sense of embarrassment, the same embarrassment, in fact, that kept me from starting a blog for years–the feeling that there was something incredibly presumptuous in assuming that anyone would want to hear what I thought or know a bunch of random information about me.
Over the years, I’ve had that feeling again and again as Facebook has become more pervasive, providing an ever greater variety of ways to exhibit one’s self publicly–photo albums and video, all kinds of “applications” which let you, for instance, display a map showing everywhere in the world you’ve been or a little box that shows your friends what music you’re listening to at that very minute. Most recently came the “news feed”, a somewhat creepy feature which aids and abets the stalker in all of us by showing us a running list of all of our friends’ most recent facebook actions–who just changed their “relationship status”, who wrote on whose wall, who became friends with whom, etc. At the same time, Facebook also added the “status message” feature which allows users to post a short message, which informs their “friends” of their current whereabouts, feelings, or plans. It took me a long time to come around to the status message. Something about writing into a window which forced me to discuss myself in the third person was just too much for me. But, even that has come to seem much more normal to me and I will probably even put the link to this post up in my status message after I finish writing. At least in my personal experience and observation, it seems to me that the internet continues to facilitate ever-greater potential for narcissism and self-display. Other forms of media certainly encode these values as well, but I think it is the internet’s participatory and productive elements that reify messages by allowing individuals who were primarily consumers of these values previously to become producers and reproducers of them as well.