Jason Arment

We’ll Be Ourselves Again: The Story of Narcissus in the Selfie Age

"Echo and Narcissus" by John William Waterhouse

Jason Arment ruminates on people who fall in love with their own reflection. A cautionary tale told through the mythical fable of Narcissus.

 

The world is a strange place, often paradoxically beautiful and disturbing. One easy example of this, so-called “low-hanging fruit,” is social media. Social media is something fairly new to the world, although the issues it drags into the foreground are not. For instance, people have been vain since the start; but it really isn’t until you scroll through a person’s photos, only to see the same few selfies repeated ad nauseam, does it really become plain that there might be something else going on besides, “Just sharing how I look with everyone.”

And although most people know what narcissism is, they don’t know the old myth that told of a man so enthralled with his own reflection that something bad happens; and if they do know that much, then the knowledge dries up shortly after. It is almost never mentioned that Narcissus was so busy peering at himself that he rebuffed the love Echo, a beautiful nymph who was hopelessly smitten with Narcissus. It was part of Echo’s fate that Narcissus be unable to love her; because she’d lost her voice as a punishment from one of the gods, she had no way to speak with him. So, in a sad and twisted fable, Narcissus dies, starvation stripping him to nothing. (He then becomes a flower, if that is consolation.)

People just don’t take any of it seriously and make snide remarks about how the American Psychiatric Association coined the term “selfitis.” If a person takes more than a couple of pictures of themselves a day, they have an actual psychological problem. And although “selfitis” is the low-rent version of explaining to someone the story of Narcissus, it does show how people who explore the human subconscious are in agreement that narcissism is rampant. Or it would, if the entire thing wasn’t satire gone viral; much like the self-parody it satirizes, “selfitis,” shared impulsively by myriad people, is a testament to internet trends run amok.

But what has caused the influx of selfie taking or, really, the creation of the selfie? Living vicariously through one’s social media presence, of course. Why else do so many people act like caricatures of themselves—usually bad ones. People that have been through higher education will be familiar with the idea of doing something just so they can put it on their curriculum vitae, but everyone with social media is familiar with how people are motivated to do things just so they can post about them on social media. Some of the more direct manifestations of this is “checking in,” although, with some social media platforms revolving solely around pictures, pretty much anything can be done just for the sake of being seen doing it online.

This leads to a lot of fakery. What people are, what they want to be, and how people perceive them are oftentimes far estranged. The artsy communities that thrive on social media are often the most afflicted with rampant misrepresentations of individuals. Through social media, history is not only easily Stalinized, but outright fabricated—whatever it takes to curry favor with online acquaintances and maybe even create more attention by increasing friends and followers.

For some people, this works into a larger moneymaking scheme. And I completely and totally understand this; I am not trying to put down anyone who is currently making money off of the masses on social media. Do what you do, just don’t be disingenuous about it. The other side of the token is, if you aren’t making any money off of posting selfies and trying to spin up a cult of personality, then why do it?

That’s really where I think my “generation” went off the rails with living vicariously through social media, just like past generations went wrong believing their own myths. The late twenty-something who is trying to “make it” through social media oftentimes gets lost in the attention and doesn’t realize that what they’re doing could be counterproductive. Does it make sense to post gratuitous photos of our body’s reaction to the new fad diet while, at the same time, trying to convince the world that we are serious, thoughtful people who are worth taking the time to get to know? Not really. Kind of like how it doesn’t make sense for our parents to talk about how they had it “harder” back when college was cheaper, the minimum wage unaffected by inflation, and the future was as bright as the gleaming ship the Jetsons used to fly.

What motivates some to catalog their lives so thoroughly that the intimate details are revealed after a glance at their online persona is worth examining. Because, if you really think about it, much of the chronic oversharing seems to have deep roots in abandonment issues, and most of the people pretending to be someone they’re not (living vicariously through a lie) are really just super lonely.

Another thing to take into account, especially in the good old U.S. of A., is that people are spread out, not doing so well financially, and finding travel to be more and more a luxury. Social media allows users to strengthen the idea that the world is a small place when really the schisms between people are only growing deeper and wider as the U.S.’s infrastructure continues to fall into disrepair and, even though gas is cheaper than it used to be, the cost of travel continues to rise. People in this nation are less mobile now than they’ve been since time they weren’t around for, and it isn’t just because everyone has a drinking problem and can’t seem to figure their shit out. It’s actually the way it is.

Obviously, children of wealth will be less affected by this than those who weren’t born with parents willing and able to pay their rent past their teens, through their twenties, and into their thirties. I don’t mention these folks to be bitter, but because ignoring their existence would be strange. It seems like everyone knows someone who recently tried to use crowdfunding to pay for a trip to Europe and, when it didn’t work, the person somehow magically had the money anyway and away they went to Europe, leaving behind an online trail of selfies.

When will this strange social trend of living through the person we create online end? Probably never. It’s just too easy, and for some people it’s a way to garner the attention they so desperately need. And it’s not coincidence that so many of these people do the same thing across every social media platform they’ve used.

But maybe there isn’t anything to worry about and it’s all just another example of social Darwinism—those who allow their lives to be dictated by the fleeting attention and accolades garnered by their online persona will fade away while others step up to take over whatever real-world role they were trying to fill. I’m not trying to be hyperbolic about people’s weirdness; I’m just saying that if you’re waiting to be made whole by a bunch of cyber “friends,” the wait, and outcome, might end up being just as hollow as a person playing out their online projection.

 

Jason Arment

Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He's earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Chautauqua, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review, Dirty Chai, and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Volume 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, The Florida Review, and Phoebe. Jason lives in Denver.

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