Two different perspectives on social networks and the self

Writing in his Chronicle-sponsored blog today, Mark Bauerlein notes that psychologists have identified rising rates of narcissism among teenagers over the past several decades.  There are multiple causes for this, the research suggests, but Bauerlein focuses on one in particular:

What a temptation the MySpace page and blog diary pose. To think that you can record the events of the day and week and have someone read and respond, to believe that what happens to you on the way to school might be meaningful to others, to realize that your life is, indeed, something special and different and unique and worth sharing . . . well, the new tools are the answer.

It’s natural for 17-year-olds to be and think this way, but maturity means outgrowing it, not indulging it. Let’s face it, 90-plus percent of the things that happen to you during the week are of little or no significance to anyone else. They don’t merit a blog post. Realizing that sad fact is part of growing up. It’s not a pleasant process, to be sure, and the new tools, Twitter and the rest, enable the young to delay it long past its proper moment.

Let me start by saying that I’m usually pretty sympathetic to Bauerlein, and to arguments critical of boosting self-esteem.  But this isn’t his best moment: On the one hand, he’s quick to say that most things that happen during the week aren’t significant, yet on the other hand he’s just acknowledged that people do nevertheless comment on one another’s blogs.  Even their sad little LiveJournal and MySpace pages.  So there is at least some meaning.  (And you could equally say, of course, that most social conversation in the real world is pointless chatter–which it is–but that doesn’t make it deplorable.)

More generally, I think that this is a moment for education, not for condemnation.  I’ve argued before that I don’t think students are as familiar with technology as grown-ups tend to think, and this is probably a good example.  It may be the case that students turn to such tools as Twitter for endless self-validation or for mere self-expression–but I don’t think that’s the best use of such technologies.  Merlin Mann gets at the crucial issue:

And, you know. Just since it bears repeating: If you think you know people from reading Twitter, you probably don’t get Twitter. Or people.

One of the things social media let us do is reflect in more sophisticated ways on self-presentation and on the differences, perhaps, between the self we present to the public and the self to whom all the meaningless events of a day happen.  In other words, there’s no reason at all why Twitter, like everything else in a liberal education, can’t help us learn to get over our small shivering selves.

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