Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Facebook Lists

If you're on Facebook you've probably come across a "25 Random Things About Me" list. I'm on Facebook. I've read twenty or more lists. I've written my own list. Recently, The Philly Inquirer published an article about the lists. The article offers two perspectives: "Facebook list: Narcissism or a social shift?"

The "social shift" perspective argues that the lists:

"...reveal a decisive shift in our society...Many of us - younger, mostly - take a distinctive view of private and public, in which a permanent, always-connected audience trades personal, even intimate, information as part of having friends and being social. That hyperconnected life is here to stay. Call this narcissism, but it might be that the train left and you weren't on it."

The "narcissism" perspective argues, in the words of Christine Rosen of the New Atlantis, that the lists:

"For all of their apparently casual tone...are not filled with random things. They are carefully and deliberately crafted efforts to market their makers as quirky and appealing people. The revelation of one person's quirks can be endearing, but the broadcasting of hundreds of thousands of people's quirks quickly devolves into tedious mass solipsism."

At the risk of advocating narcissism, I advocate the lists. To me, the lists are not merely an indication of a "generational shift" (one of my favorite lists was written by a fifty-something friend.) Nor are the lists merely narcissistic.

offers a surfeit of daily information. Some of it is narcissistic, and much of it, I think, is purposefully crafted. Craft implies attentiveness to an audience (attentiveness to others); it implies deliberation. Craft can be a potentially positive force that reaches out and touches others. Craft implies self expression.

I think Christine Rosen is confusing self-expression with narcissism.

I like Charles Baxter's definition of narcissism from his essay "Unheard Melodies" (published in The Art of Subtext). He cites the narcissist as part of the triumvirate (with egomania and psychic vulnerability) of the "Tower of Voluntary Deafness"--people who "can't stand to absorb what is being said" by others. For the narcissist "nothing gets through that does not directly address oneself."

"The true narcissist," Baxter writes, "feels the pain of a perpetual wound" and "this pain makes him or her distractable." The narcissist's conversations, therefore, "have a lengthy, free-floating, and often witty complaint built into them. One of the only forms of conversation that flames the true narcissist into attentiveness has to do with reparations. The narcissist is always waiting, in one stance or another, for the world to offer its apologies."

The narcissist, in other words, doesn't just say, "Look at me." The narcissist cries, "Cry for me."

This narcissistic sentiment is alive, I think, in my own Facebook list. I write of my early drug-use, for example, and I imply that this drug-use might have led to my later illnesses. I also write extensively of my illnesses. What am I looking for if not sympathy?

Then again, number 25 on my list is: "At least once or twice a day I stop dead in my tracks and think: I am lucky. I am so fucking lucky. And then I just go on, and try to do what I have to do."

When I write this I am trying (and maybe, admittedly, failing) to express something essential about myself, something that I need others to know: I try, really hard. In this, I am not asking for sympathy. But I am crafting a persona, quite deliberately.

Does my crafting imply an inattentiveness to others? When I write about myself with an audience in mind am I mired in narcissism?

Often, I do feel like my own on-line crafting of a persona crosses the line from mere expression to narcissism. But self-expression, to me, is worth this risk.

The Facebook lists, true, range from artful to narcissistic, and many offer both at once. What I find in many lists, though, is a unique celebration of self, a celebration closer in spirit to Whitman than Narcissus. One of my favorite lists (read it here; #13 is my current favorite snippet of writing), written by my friend Tommy Kim, offers a mix of celebration, laughter, and self-effacement--a self-effacement that inspires celebration and laughter. To me, his list is not narcissistic at all; it's simply expressive and damn well-written.

To me, the bottom-line is that friends find meaning in these lists--in writing them, in reading them. Friends become closer. Importantly, people write. People express themselves in new ways--ways that they may have never even attempted before. And they do so in a new, confusing forum.

The implicit agreement, of course, is that you don't have to read the lists. You don't have to participate at all. Simply wave goodbye as the train leaves without you.


  1. Bye bye (hand waving).

    Nice post Seth.

    Good luck with this new blog.

  2. Bravo Seth. This is such an insightful and profound essay that touches on so many questions I've had recently. I have enjoyed taking part in these lists. I try to give of myself in writing, whether it is statuses, lists or what have you, and in turn I receive so much from others.
    When I take part in writing on a social networking site or a blog, I can sometimes be in touch with my narcissism and at the same time I also see a real wish to be open for the possibility of a real communication, a sharing of experiences of what it means to be alive right now, even in the medium of something like Facebook. Like Whitman says, we all “contain vast multitudes."
    I think a real exchange of substance is possible through these mediums.
    I know that I have been inspired by your writing as well as from many others. Often I discover that people are not all that different, we are all hungry for something real and whether we hear it from someone else or from ourselves, and we recognize that finer energy or vibration immediately. It sounds a note.

  3. I think it's a complicated and confusing affair. And I think, Steve, it might not be so easy to simply wave goodbye. A part of me wishes I could hope off the train. Another part of me pictures you on the train, right next to me, sipping tea. I like this image. What is FoodVibe, after all, if not a two-year long (food-centric) 25 Things About Me List?

    And Luke, I think you're right, the confusion I/we feel about this new medium seems to have been presaged by the complexities of Whitman's robust expressiveness...

  4. I'll probably get reamed for this, especially since what is written below appears as an isolated comment, removed from most of the context in which it was written, but this is an email I sent Seth during a conversation we had last week that most likely prompted this latest post by him.

    It was part of our discussion about whether or not these lists are the height of a type of self absorption and narcissism unique to our generation that travels under the banner "social networking". I think they are. He does not agree.

    I wrote it after I read the "25 things" article from the Philly online site that his blog post links to.

    He asked me to post it here:



    Yeah this seems to be so much of what we were discussing. Weird.

    I hold my ground though. Yes, of course FB and these lists are changing the way people communicate and share time/information with their friends, but so is text messaging. Yeah, everybody is doing it. But so what? That just proves it is change. And that it's popular.

    What is it doesn't prove is how it is necessarily change for the good or positive. It's just that-change. As we said during our launch phase at Bronx Lab, in the midst of dealing with a million different unmanageable staffing and student situations- change is. Nothing more, maybe less.

    When TV came around it changed the way families spent time with each other and everybody hailed it's arrival. But in the final analysis is TV good for family bonding? By most accounts, probably not. It's an isolating, passive, quasi-voyeuristic activity that travels under the more benign guise of "quality family time". There's no substitute for the real thing- actually talking and spending time together doing activities.

    Which brings us to these list. They are funny, and they can be done creatively, and they are a way for people to connect and feel validated. We certainly get a rise out of reading them. But beneath that rosy veneer, they're a part something more sinister- the devolution of public discourse and communication that began with the rise of mass media culture in the early twentieth century and is only accelerating more and more. For as useful and democratic as it is, the internet is part of it, as is blogging.

    I know I sound like a crank, but I feel strongly about it because I see its effects all day in the classroom. There are so many wonderful things about the current youth generation as well as ours, but there is a deep pathology to them as well- one that is exacerbated by our instant everything, sound bite oriented, shamelessly self promoting, market driven culture that finds a million different ways to pander to our baser character traits.

    What these lists do prove, though, is that despite it all we're just as vulnerable and insecure as any generation ever was.

  5. I love that Baxter essay. I wept for its accuracy, for its inimitable truth. It made me realize how many narcissists I know.

    I love the idea behind the name of your blog, too. I'll be taking credit for the method. Thanks.

    (Does this make ME a narcissist?)

  6. Mary,

    I've been talking to my wife, Karen, about narcissism recently. We've had a few sincere discussions over dinner about the merits of on-line expression and the dangers of solipsism. We've also talked extensively about what it really means to be a narcissist. I think we've both really hit on Charles Baxter's definition of the narcissist as someone who simply "can't stand to absorb what is being said by others."

    Taking into account the other variables, we decided we only know one or two TRUE narcissists in our own lives.

    I think we're all a little bit of a narcissist. Very few people, it seems, are absolutely mired in narcissism. I think it can happen to anyone, at anytime. Illness seems to inspire narcissism. What's important, though, is to recover from it and the only way to do that, I think, is to listen, to seek out others.

  7. Charles Baxter's definition of narcissism is wonderful. It's simple and clear and yet extremely profound.

    I find that it's only when I can surrender my self importance that I can actually be useful to someone, in the extent that I can step above my merry-go-round of associations and pictures I have of them to actually make myself available.

    But there are times where I am extremely narcissistic and even though I may wish for someone to just come along and push me into the river, I cannot let it go.

    This can be useful, I think, because I can try to suffer that; to see it manifest within myself without justifying it or escaping from it. By observing it directly and tasting it, there may be a possibility to move in a direction that is more open or available to someone else, rather than remaining confined to I, Me and Mine.

    We all have our unbecoming aspects, it's part of being human and even if I am narcissistic at times, I need to remember that it is not all that I am.

  8. UNREASONABLE BEHAVIOR- starting a blog and then not posting a new article for 3 months.

    You truly are a master. Keep up the good work!