Social networking: A tale of narcissism and vulnerability

liedtke, bryceUpload picture, add flattering filter, tweet whereabouts, post ambiguously self-indulgent status, bask in public admiration, repeat. It is nothing new to the social media generation, and as many will admit as fact, online personas are an incubator for narcissism and self-consciousness.

More so than ever, the masses are not only exposed to the social happenings of friends and colleagues, but we are forced to examine our own doings and aesthetic in extremely amplified fashion through media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

The type of scrutiny that social media subjects self-image to was formerly thought of as something reserved for A-list celebrities or young adults placing too much stock in beauty magazines. Now nearly every ensemble we wear out, event we attend and interests we have are immortalized on the web and subject to evaluation, regardless of gender or status.

In a recent study by Pediatrics journal, it was concluded about 40 percent of middle school and high school males now work out in hopes of attaining muscle mass, a dramatic spike in number that was formerly typified as an activity for college-aged men and above. This upward trend of seeking a picture-perfect body is evident in online communities, and you need look no further than our pop culture to observe the evolution of the ideal male physique to its current Herculean form.

Well, so what? Who cares if we end up having a population fixated on bulbous biceps and chiseled abs? There are plenty of people who wouldn’t complain about that — quite the contrary.

The danger is that it permeates something much deeper.

We have all fallen victim to an unbecoming self-image that routs the sex appeal we believe ourselves to possess. The real question is, what happens when these insecurities start penetrating beyond our physical and attack things like our profession, education, residence or even our character?

The façade we create through social media has become a catalog of the good life, a manipulated advertisement to create the most desirable product: you. If you cannot express yourself through a quirky statement of 140 characters or less, if your photos do not evoke envy or reverence, if your personal interests or routine doesn’t coincide with what is thought conventionally desirable, are you doing it wrong?

When we are frequently compelled to compare our own day-to-day to that of the tinkered and polished online personas of those we know, we are pushed towards thoughts of inadequacy — whether that is sexual, professional, intellectual, cultural or social.

There is a caveat to this trend. It is not universal. This is not to say that we are all either narcissists or coy introverts, the spectrum is filled from top to bottom, though it has been polarized.

Social media, by nature, attempts to create a world of absolutes, where success is derived and quantified by likes, shares, retweets, etc. It no longer allows subjectivity or a healthy distinction of my interest versus yours in a non-competitive environment. The net effect? A decrease in vulnerability and a pigeonholed sense of vanity.

The idea of losing our vulnerability is perhaps the scariest of these consequences. Social researcher Brene Brown distinguished it best by saying that while, yes, vulnerability is the edge where we find fear, anxiety and shame, many of our toughest emotions, it is also the birthplace of joy, love, belonging and creativity, where we let ourselves be just that, ourselves. Diminishing this trait through hyper-analysis and comparison to our social networks, in essence, dulls what it is to be human.

When we allow our vulnerability to be tarnished, for our self-consciousness to thrive, we retract and attempt to beat any sort of rejection to the punch. This might come in the form of social withdrawal or overcompensating to a narcissistic point.

How big of an effect does this really have? According to research from Jean Twenge, Ph.D. of San Diego State University, those who exhibited narcissistic tendencies rose from about 17 to 30 percent from 1982 to 2009 among the college aged demographic, a figure on par with that of our obesity epidemic. To be clear, these statistics are not the sole creation of online social networks, but they do have an influence.

Some may disagree and highlight the positives of social media; these networks allow us to communicate and coexist in a global community like never before. The tricky part is to block out the negatives while utilizing such a powerful tool.