It’s Not the Narcissism, it’s about People Like Us

26 Feb ’07

David Radler tries to explain the problem with movies in a piece in the LAT that, essentially, points the finger at American Narcissism: “Who needs Brad Pitt if you can be your own hero on a video game, make your own video on YouTube or feature yourself on Facebook? The promise of an alternative life — the vicarious thrill of escape — has always been one of the movies’ greatest blandishments. In the theater we could all imagine ourselves to be Cary Grant or Bette Davis. Now with avatars — essentially masks that one can use to represent oneself on the Internet — anyone can be Cary Grant or Bette Davis without having to imagine it. In effect, we have become our own movies.”

Robert Young at GigaOm is inclined to agree (many others as well – see here, here and here, for example), though he points to “digital self expression” rather than narcissism as the core need. That seems more apt to me that Radler’s explanation but it still doesn’t seems quite right to me. Much of what I do with social media these days would seem pointless if it were just about self-expression – the point is to connect to someone, not just to cast my creativity into the wind. I think Radler’s right to point the finger at the Internet’s power as a niche machine, and at social media’s power to engage attention, but to my mind the appeal is not the satisfaction of narcissistic urges – the appeal is the desire to connect with People Like Us. And if Hollywood (and the music and TV businesses) has done one thing very effectively, it’s been to create an industry around the notion that They are not People Like Us. Royalty, maybe; visitors from another planet, it sometimes seems; but certainly not People Like Us. The only exception to this I can think of is Reality TV (more to my point, though even that now seems past its stale date and has descended more into Circus than reality). The online niches that Radler describes are each miniature worlds where we can spend our time being Us and meeting others who are Like Us. I think movies are troubled now in part because we have an alternative to escaping into lives other than our own – we now have the opportunity to make our own lives more meaningful by connecting to others who have lives like ours.

I’m not saying we no longer need Escapism – there will always be some need for it. But I think that, at least for a while, there will be less interest in it. The Internet gives us the power to make our lives more meaningful by tapping into People Like Us – perhaps finding ways to derive this deeper meaning from our lives is simply more satisfying than escaping from them.

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