How does Facebook make overt self obsession ok?

People who talk about themselves a lot are generally disliked. A likable person will instead subtly direct conversation to where others request the information they want to reveal. Revealing good news about yourself is a good sign, but wanting to reveal good news about yourself is a bad sign. Best to do it without wanting to.

This appears true of most human interaction, but apparently not of that on Facebook. On Facebook, when you are not posting photographs of yourself and updating people on your activities, you are writing notes listing twenty things nobody knows about you, linking people to analyses of your personality, or alerting them to your recent personal and group affiliations. Most of this is unasked for by others. I assume it is similar for other social networking sites.

If over lunch I decided, without your suggestion, to list to you twenty random facts about me, tell you the names of all my new acquintences, and show you my collection of photos of myself, our friendship would soon wane. Why is Facebook different? Here are some reasons I can think of:

  1. It is ok to talk about yourself when asked, and in a space where communication is very public to a group, nobody knows if you were asked by someone else. This seems the case for the self obsessed notes prefaced with ‘seeing as so many of you have nagged me to do this I guess I will reluctantly write a short essay on myself’ and such things, but I doubt it applies the rest of the time.
  2. Most writing on Facebook isn’t directed at anyone, and people are not forced to read it. It is the boredom and annoyance of being forced to hear about other people’s lives that puts people off those who discuss themselves too much, not signaling. This doesn’t explain why people spend so much time reading about one another on Facebook.
  3. Forcing a specific other person to listen to you go on about yourself is a dominance move. Describing yourself endlessly into cyberspace isn’t, as it’s not directed at anyone. This doesn’t explain why it would also look bad to decorate your house with posters of yourself or offer free newsletters about your exploits.
  4. The implicit rules on Facebook say that you must talk about yourself. Everyone is happy with this, as it lets them talk about themselves. So they don’t punish people who talk about themselves a lot there. And thus a new equilibrium was formed. But shouldn’t talking about yourself more still send the same signals? And why wouldn’t this have happened elsewhere?

31 responses to “How does Facebook make overt self obsession ok?

  1. 5. Social grooming.

    Interaction offline offers tons of information which is not available online unless one deliberately makes it available.

    You don’t talk about the contents of your room because people can just *see* the contents of your room. You don’t talk about your psychological test results because people after a few minutes know pretty well how introverted-extrovered/neurotic-open you are. You don’t talk about the 20 things no one knows because those things slip out in the fast casual conversations. (Fast & high-bandwidth compared to online…) You don’t hand people lots of photos of you because people are getting 30-60 ‘photos’ of you a second. And so on.

    People understand that there is a void to be filled, a blank canvas to be painted. It’s only when one starts to go beyond normal amounts of information that it’s condemned (eg. photos of obscene areas).

  2. Mostly 4 I think.

    Bragging about yourself a moderate amount or showing off a moderate amount suggests that you have few ways to brag or to show off. Bragging or showing off a lot in person is painfully time consuming to be on the receiving end of. Bragging or showing off a lot online lets the victim escape if they wish to but allows you to credibly imply that you have many things to brag about and are only stopping due to limits on your time, so it doesn’t signal weakness.
    Once you are talking about

  3. facebook has a mild voyeur feeling: we enjoy finding out about friends from others, and on facebook it feels like we’re collecting gossip from the ether.

  4. The offense in face to face conversation is monopolization. There is a single shared scarce resource – time – and the participants must take turns speaking, so that everyone gets an allotment of the scarce resource.

    This is not the case on facebook. If you are busy typing up your day’s activities, or whatever, that does not preclude anyone else from typing up their day’s activities. No one has to wait for you to finish writing your entry. No one has to wait until they’ve finished reading your entry. The structure is fundamentally different from face-to-face conversation.

    Facebook does have things analogous to face to face conversations: newsfeeds, status updates, walls. These have one vertical dimension corresponding to time, and the typical example has an alternation of entries, much like a conversation.

  5. Number 2 is the most important I think.

  6. I would give a bit more credence to #3; adding that if you invite someone to your house and have lots of posters of yourself you are inviting them into “your space” that is all about you, another dominance move.

    I would give less credence to #2; people do like to know more about each other (you can use that information for social gain!) but they don’t like getting it at the expense of social dominance. Facebook allows you to collect information without submitting to being talked at.

    In my own experience, which may not be representative, I spend a lot of time looking at pages of people I do not see regularly. As gwern pointed out, when talking to someone you are getting lots of information about them; getting that information from someone you don’t see in person has many advantages.

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  8. The difference of talking about yourself on Facebook is that it is one step removed from direct conversation. You update your FB page and then someone reads it. This is similar to people reading autobiographies, interviews etc. I guess this is the main reason why you can get away with being narcissistic on Facebook.

  9. Here is a short list of what I consider narcissistic behavior on facebook. In my experience people that I know that do these things, endure social consequences and gain a reputation for being self obsessed.
    1. If you have more than 100 pictures of yourself than you have friends. 2. If you tag yourself to your own picture album. 3. If you take photos of yourself and post them. 4. If you change your profile picture more than once a week. 5. If you comment on how you look in pictures that you post yourself.
    These things come across as BAD no matter how much facebook may encourage self-obsession. However, if someone is self-promoting in a status or constantly changes their status, I think it is more sharing and trying to receive a reaction from others more than self-obsession.

  10. You’re making this way too complicated.

    When you visit someone’s Facebook page, you are, in effect, seeking and requesting information about them. You initiate the information download. This is very different than if someone sent you an unsolicited e-mail with their life story.

  11. Sorry, but I disagree. This does not reflect my experience on Facebook in any way.

    Perhaps this is a generational difference in perception. I’m over 50, and thus (I assume) not a typical Facebook user.

    Facebook has led me to reconnections, and then meaningful conversations, with old friends and acquaintances from whom I would never have heard otherwise.

    And I find that very pleasant. I was “friended” recently by an 80-year-old man who was once a dear friend of my late father. The conversations we’ve since had about his friendship with my dad have been edifying and lovely.

    And they would have been quite impossible without Facebook, or some Internet entity like it.

  12. Related to #2, I’d say it is easier to tolerate self-obsession on Facebook because there is very little pressure on the reader to respond positively. One can ignore FB comments or even laugh at them without hurting anyone’s feelings. Doing that in person makes a social mess.

  13. Rather, I would state that Facebook has made voyeurism “OK”.

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  15. Robert Bloomfield

    I vote for 3, and the magic word is “non-rivalrous goods”. In most other social situations, time to communicate is a rivalrous good, which is why we call people who talk about themselves incessantly ‘bores.’ Online, everyone can talk at once and I can choose how to direct my attention.

    Of course, there are extreme cases.

  16. Great one on Facebook. I have to post it to Facebook.
    -Travis

  17. I don’t accept the premise that people who talk about themselves too much are disliked. I’ve come across many people who dominate conversations and talk about themselves constantly and are popular, not least because they can be entertaining. Overt self-obsession may be seen as a vice but I don’t think it is always punished in practice by social rejection. (In general I think people do well socially when they are aware of unspoken social rules and norms, but flex them to their advantage rather than treating them as absolute limits).

    On facebook we are in control and can switch it off when we get bored, so even normally reticent people feel less compunction in talking about themselves. Also, we see not just photos off them but by them; not just their comments but the replies of their friends. We get a shallow but still addictive glimpse of what it is like to be them, that is more enticing than the self-aggrandising image that narcissists typically present of themselves through conversation.

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  20. What may be neglected here is one can talk about themselves and at the same time relate to others. Where some posts are directly related to a certain event that many “friends” attended, which virtualy extendes it. Other posts, while being self related, are universial in the plesent or unplesent feelings they invoke, like:

    made an awesome peppersteak dinner last night with spinich and garlic as a side dish, yummy!

    Or:

    I need a vacation from tech week. – this speaks to the theatre people in a directed mannor! Tech week is the week where the show gets tweaked and its very fast paced and hectic. This is a group statment uttered by one.

    Same as: I had the best mocalatkachino today at starbucks!

    If you had no friends from either the theatre croud or NYC (starbucks) than these would be self centered.

  21. I think you can do yourself a favor by replacing “Facebook” in this post with “someone’s memoirs.”

    Nothing new, really. And most memoirs are slogs like Facebook updates.

  22. I agree with Brent Eades.
    Facebook is a great way to keep in touch with old friends, and to make new friends.
    I dont see why some people are so upset by it.. overanalyzing it.
    You could just as easily over-analyze going to a bar to etiquette at a dinner party..
    but then I dont think your life is going to be very fun.

  23. #2 and #3, yes. I would add: the people who talk about themselves are the ones providing content. Without them you would go to FB and see nothing. They provide whatever value the site has. And if you monopolize the resource, for example with so many status updates that you dominate your friend’s feeds, that would be frowned upon like someone dominating conversation.

  24. Hi Everybody! I’m a facebook user, I’m 50 years old, I have 2 dogs, and I’ve been accused over the years of being an internet stalker, a miscreant, a hooligan, a megalomaniac, an egotistical brat, a cotto salami, a generation X-er, a baby boomer, a big fat baby, a blabbermouth, a flying monkey in the service of a rather hostile lady with green facepaint, a nuclear submarine, and so many other things. If you’re still reading this inane response, then you are a perfect candidate for the social interaction at facebook, and please send my mafia more bricks and perhaps a baby fish if you happen to see one with yellow stripes.

  25. Jonathan Hankin

    It seems to me that a lot of this “Social Networking” is really just a way for people who are self conscious int the real world to have constant affirmation.

    But we must see Facebook for what it really is, a computer game with imaginary circumstances and unrealistic relations. It may be a computer game very intune with reality, with a great deal of fairly true information attached to it. But at the end of the day the people who make up the regular facebook body are simple looking to see how many likes they can get on a comment. How many, Friend connections they can collect.
    What does it mean to be friends with someone? The ability to look at a webpage completely consciousely controlled by another individual. That doesn’t mean a thing. It’s a game.

    However the rest of us still caught up in this crazy palce called the real world, have trouble playing the game for too long and find it excessively annoying when others do it on thier mobile devices while were still trying to be in the real social world.

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  28. Its important to note that this ‘self obsession’ usually stems through ‘obsession with outside world’. FB facilitates people to secretly stalk all of their friends etc and feel huge pressures to respond in similar ways.

    Being a standard 18 year old FB-obsessor I urge you to realise that that this self obsession stems not from the principle behind the site (interaction) but from inherent lonliness.

    It is far more rewarding to have a face-to-face conversation than one over the internet. Most of my friends will ‘appear offline’ to avoid appearing a FB-obsessor (people think it is sad/creepy) only to check their newsfeed every 10 minutes and watch other people’s lives progress. It is too easy to feel ‘left behind’ as friends photos upload, status’ made about jokes you don’t understand, and wall posts to everyone but you.

    The real FB-obsessor is a secret FB-obsessor. Although there seems to be more leniency to self-proclaim on FB than reality it is still quite clearly pretentious. The problem is that it links cyberspace to reality to the point where one feels cyberspace is reality, and feels the pressure to find out about reality through cyberspace.

  29. I gave up on Facebook after I couldn’t take the narcissism anymore. That’s kinda odd considering I’m the prime age to be on Facebook (21) but I really have taken to keeping my friends by (a) talking to them (*gasp*), (b) calling them, or (c) texting/emailing them. If I can’t keep a friend that way, then he/she is simply not my friend because I don’t know them or we parted ways a LONG time ago in middle or high school and we now live separate lives (separate lives that I don’t need to obsessively and creepily tap into everyday though a social networking site). Why on earth would I need a million “friends” that I barely know or have to keep tabs on everyone in my old high school? Seems kinda pointless and pathetic that you’d have to keep reaffirming your social status like that.
    Nothing against people who use Facebook because there are legitimate reasons for using it (long-distance relationships, coordinating group events, military, career, etc.) but I just prefer the old fashion meaningful relationships over whatever social networking has to offer. I encourage all Facebook users to spend more time in the face of real friends in your life right now vs. staring into the lives of a million (potentially narcissistic) Facebook friends.

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