We all want to be liked: Facebook’s narcissist effect

December 10, 2010, 6:28 PM UTC

Narcissism is no longer considered a clinical disorder. In the age of Facebook, is that really surprising?

According to the the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), I don’t have a problem. But I know I do. In non-clinical terms, I’m a full-blown, alpha-type, social media-addicted narcissist who needs his accounts suspended until he reconnects with reality.

Facebook, a social network I’ve written about on several occasions, isn’t just the web site I spend the most time on, it’s a way of life — a heady, nonstop road I’ve traveled along for years, where street signs are replaced with dynamic real-time news feeds, and my fragile ego can be crushed or swelled with pride depending on the number of people who deign to like or, even better, comment on my posts.

Worse still, I’m one of those obnoxious users who must have Facebook friends. Tons of them. You may be happy with 100 or 200, but I’m not. The more I have, the better. Which is why mine clock in at 1,148 right now. Sometimes, I patiently troll the “People You May Know” area for people I may have even the most tenuous association with. Met once at a cocktail party? Add. Have a mutual friend in common? Request. Friend of a friend of a mutual acquaintance I hate? Everyone deserves a chance.

I used to hate having my photo taken. As you can tell by the oh-so-serious headshot to the right, I’m not Brad Pitt, Channing Tatum, or even Justin Long. But these days, I’m pretty psyched when photos of me surface on Facebook — so long as they do so on my terms. That means they have to be flattering: no paunch, zits, scars, moles or dark circles. I’m not above some light editing: Cropped if I look swollen, blended if my face is splotchy.

That’s right, my photos are retouched. I’ve spent hours sitting at my desk at home with iPhoto or Photoshop Express, dutifully zooming in, using the “Enhance” tool, blurring my face until it looks as though someone smeared generous globs of petrolatum over the camera lens.

If someone uploads a photo of me that isn’t somehow up to my arbitrary standards, I nuke it, untagging myself. I don’t want to look at a horrific shot of myself or worse, let other Facebookers stumble upon them. On the other hand, I will go in and tag myself in stills I look great in, even if the only other thing in them is a palm tree, in case, you know, someone mistakes one for the other, or there simply aren’t enough “Photos of Me” to go around.

Here’s the thing, though. I’d like to say I’m the only person with these issues, but I know for a fact I’m not. I must protect the guilty, but here’s what popped up in my feed recently:

John Doe: Fashion Week. Day 4. After party with Jay-Z and Tom Ford. Booyah!

– 12 Likes, 24 comments

Jane Doe: Who’s gettin’ married??? Me! Me! Meeee!!!

– 19 Likes, 17 comments

Now who’s telling who to get a life?

More and more, I notice people liking their own statuses — an altogether redundant thing to do — putting up professionally-taken wedding photos or headshots as their profile pics long after they should be swapped out, or simply posting pics that were clearly taken, staged or retouched with the sole purpose of eking out some sort of response.

Facebook doesn’t just enable our predisposition towards narcissism, it encourages it. Flourishes off of it. It’s no longer just about “sharing,” it’s about offering up an online persona, even if it’s been carefully edited, cropped, tugged and pulled beyond recognition. Because the more time we put into all these things, the more time we spend on Facebook. Is it any wonder that the company Mark Zuckerberg conceived in a dorm room in college — not exactly an institution above snap judgments based on superficial information or appearances, even at Harvard — claims over 500 million users who spend an average of 55 minutes a day, 6.5 hours a week, or 1.2 days a month on the site? With such a huge chunk of the global population partaking in these activities, it’s no surprise narcissism is no longer a diagnosable personality disorder.

If you saw the somewhat fictitious movie of Facebook’s birth, The Social Network, you know the site first gained traction as a way for college students to connect. But in the years since, it’s grown into something much more. I blame it on the News Feed, a feature introduced in late 2006 that’s just as ubiquitous now as the member profile and equally as critical to the user experience. Just as it introduced a new way for us to keep tabs on others, it also irrevocably changed the social network’s dynamic, placing an increased emphasis on your online persona and how you’re perceived because every single thing you do gets noticed.

The News Feed has only gotten better, which means it’s only gotten worse: Nearly every new feature and user interface update implemented plays into the News Feed, encouraging more and easier content discovery. For example, the most recent member profile refresh makes photo discovery a breeze. But this increasingly comprehensive feature set also makes every single user that much more hyper-aware of how they appear on the site — not just to others, but themselves.

Basic psychology says that human beings crave positive reinforcement via praise or reward. Problem is, positive reinforcement can also become a vicious cycle. The more people like and comment on something, the more people grow to crave that feedback. Being popular on Facebook is like the digital equivalent of being the kid in 4th grade who got the most paper Valentine’s Day cards. The medium of choice may be different today, but the basic principle remains the same: we all want to be liked, whether in the real world or in Zuckerberg’s. Facebook is just the latest product to recognize that basic human desire and successfully exploit it.

Editor’s Note: By the way, if you liked this article, well, see that little button down there. . . ?