You open up your Facebook newsfeed to a deluge of engagement ring photos, political slap-fights, and—horror—your little cousin's selfies from the Justin Bieber concert.
But your attempt to escape to Twitter is quickly thwarted by a litany of "Just woke up!" and "having breakfast #allaboutme" and "Got in the wrong line at the grocery store again!" tweets.
These "public displays of life"—the posts, likes, and tweets that clutter your newsfeed and irritate you even as they stroke your fears of missing out—are part of our current zeitgeist. Some experts have pointed to this apparently self-indulgent stream of twaddle as proof positive that we're becoming a generation of narcissists.
So it might surprise you to find out that the cyber-citizens of today genuinely care about their fellow human beings. In fact, the same tools that make us appear more narcissistic—and sometimes in fact do undeniably make us act in more narcissistic ways—also amplify some of our best traits, most notably having a point of view on the world and wanting to give back. These benefits are easy to miss in a sea of instagramming brunch plates; little wonder that they're often overlooked by people who can't see past the narcissism.
To be sure, the critics' basic point stands: yes, as a culture, we seem to believe that it is vital to not only track, but post our personal actions on every possible social network. The world must know how many miles we ran, the scenic views that accompanied the run, and what we did afterwards to celebrate the run.
We owe this in part to the quantified self movement, which has brought us endless innovations that enable us to track, measure, and analyze every single thing we say and do (from eating to sleeping, to sexing, to listening, to talking, to sitting, to dreaming, to running, to sweating, to teeth-brushing, to chewing).
The quantified self movement can be, and has been, exploited for profit. Once the quantified self became marketable, smart marketers and developers sprang into the vacuum, coming up with more ways to monitor more behaviors. Our quantified selves get us hooked on the products, platforms, and services that promise to make us better versions of ourselves.
Since nearly every person is now a digitally connected consumer, getting people to believe in what a brand stands for, what it's about, and why it's better than the competition, requires marketers and makers to connect products/services to very calculated and personalized consumer needs.
To do that, they quantify us too, and we let them. We want content that's customized to our interests and served to us at the right time, in the right format, on the right platform, when we demand it. As a result, we can thank our digital narcissism for creating the digital advertising industry, which generated $9.6 billion in Q1 of 2013. In essence, we want information and communication technologies to know us better than we know ourselves. We express vague fears about it, but we are no longer willing to live without it.
All of this has conspired to create, according to Dr. Jean M. Twenge , a Facebook-based generational "narcissism epidemic," spawning research backed books like The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement and Generation Me.
But to focus exclusively on these very real drawbacks risks overlooking some undeniably positive developments. A seismic shift is underway, invisibly, beneath the generational scolding. And, the evidence of this shift is plentiful.
As we use technology to learn more about ourselves, we are beginning to create our own personal value systems, publicly posting, liking, commenting, and sharing our views on the world, be it social, political, cultural, or personal. Our digital narcissistic bragging coupled with the ability to share and connect with our peers' equally narcissistic digital behaviors gives us more access to more information in the form of digital-social sharing. This vastly broadens our ability to find things we care about.
All the self-analyzing and, in turn, self-promotions, that we interact with through digital and social technologies has actually created a caring economy based on shared values. There's an abundance of digital places that allow us to learn about, connect with, and support the causes and people we actually want to care about.
Prior to the growth of the caring economy, people with money to give supported large-scale organizations and established foundations. But when's the last time a new Ford Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, or MacArthur Foundation was created with a relatively similar scale and impact? Today, anyone with a few dollars can make an immediate impact on very specific projects they care about. Crowdfunding volume is expected to reach $5.1 billion in 2013. More than 4.2 million people have pledged over $643 million dollars for more than 42,000 creative projects on Kickstarter.
It's not that the Internet is creating better people with better souls. It's that technology is redirecting people's behavior by making it easier to find things you care about, and then removing the roadblocks to giving. That means people are giving more.
So, for all the narcissism that we are culturally suffering from as a result of digital and social technologies, we're also collectively fueling a more caring networked culture that is doing something to help make our communities better. With the privilege of quantifying ourselves comes the social benefit of qualifying ourselves. We are using technology to actively care. Unlike generations before us, we can now seek out new interests that weren't at our fingertips before. Maybe all this digital narcissism is actually giving us the ability to figure out what we care about and why.
If there's something you're passionate about and you're online, you can do something actively and personally about it. If you don't know what you care about, get on the Internet and start exploring, I guarantee you'll find something new and worthy. There's a film about the struggle of transgender youth in rural New York, or a campaign to end sex trafficking, a puppy that needs a home. Digital and social technologies enable us to collectively solve the world's problems through innovative products and services that our (sometimes narcissistic) selves build.
So the next time you roll your eyes at every update you see posted by your friends on Facebook, just remember that the same lens is allowing your social peers to channel his/her skills, talents, experience, and energy into something they value and feel productively passionate about.