Of selfie, narcissism and going ‘social’

There’s a tale of a young man called Narcissus, who was so vain that he fell in love with his own reflection

Peter Harrison
Peter Harrison
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When I was a child I remember going through photo albums looking at images of groups of faces staring back at me. I would be captivated by scenes from streets, looking at the people in the background – wondering where they were going, what they might have been thinking at that precise moment the picture was taken.

Other images showed views, or buildings, may be even a statue. Sure there were the obligatory images of people standing in front these things, but I was always more interested in what was happening around them rather than the person posing awkwardly with the fixed smile in front of the camera.

Move the clock forward a few decades and take a look at the modern day equivalent of the photo album – social media sites like Facebook or Instagram. Suddenly the images are more about the selfie. “This is me in…” reads the caption. But it’s hard to tell where they are because all you can see is the same face, over and over, with little space left to see the views behind them left in the shot.

There’s a tale of a young man called Narcissus, who was so vain that he fell in love with his own reflection. His life passed him by and he died having done nothing except admire himself. I fear this fable might have come true. There has been much written about the self-obsessed era we appear to find ourselves in. And everywhere you look there are people telling each other how great they are.

Often narcissism is mistaken – in my view – for confidence. But it appears to me that in many cases it is far from that. Often it is an attempt for reassurance or approval

Peter Harrison

A prime example of this trait is the likes of Donald Trump, who seems, according to The Guardian newspaper’s Zoe Williams to epitomize “the lack of empathy, the self-regard and, critically, the radical overestimation of his own talents and likability”, traits that many would argue make him a classic narcissist.

So many conversations today, seem to revolve around people talking about themselves and their self-proclaimed brilliance. But who are they trying to convince? We all know these people – the ones who somehow manage to guide the conversation away from what you were talking about, to them with almost stealth-like effort.

Even when they appear to be showing some form of empathy, they still manage to turn it around onto themselves, their Facebook entry expressing sorrow at some hideous event and the disclaimer: “but there’s nothing I can do”. Sure enough, the next entry is them smiling seductively again into the lens of the phone camera – awaiting the “Likes” and the “Omg, you’re gorgeous” comments.

Gaining approval?

Often narcissism is mistaken – in my view – for confidence. But it appears to me that in many cases it is far from that. Often it is an attempt for reassurance or approval, I believe.

Williams quotes Pat MacDonald, author of the paper Narcissism in the Modern World, who explained: “We have a narcissistic society where self-promotion and individuality seem to be essential, yet in our hearts that’s not what we want. We want to be part of a community, we want to be supported when we’re struggling, we want a sense of belonging.”

In 2014, UK daily The Independent published the article: “Are we more narcissistic than ever before?” It referred to this phenomenon as a psychological issue. It described people who had very high opinion of themselves compared to how they view others – I know people in this category.

Then there was the vulnerable kind – the ones that managed to turn their suffering into a problem shared, whether others wanted to experience it, or not. Yes, I admit, I have been guilty of this as well. Suffice to say the conversation revolves around them as people look to reassure them – it’s tiring work indeed.

And if you look at social media, it is exploiting these traits to gather information on our behavior, our interests, and our consumer habits. It’s learning all the time what adverts to show us as we share our location on Facebook, “checking in” to restaurants, cinemas, malls and bars.

Meanwhile, many people in the Middle East are enjoying the long Eid break. It’s a time to spend with family or friends. But if you walk through the malls, people are not talking to one another; instead many are staring at their mobile phones apparently oblivious of the people around them.

Terrified that they might be missing something – it has a name: fear of missing out (FOMO). Their eyes are glued to the screens of their smartphones, in between taking selfies – it’s not a social activity for the people around them. So I suggest to these people, shutdown your Facebook, put away your phone and look up.

Look at the person you’re with, smile and ask them: “how are you?” But mean it, listen to their answer and respond with interest about what they have just said. Forget about the “me” or the “I” and let yourself become absorbed by a conversation where you don’t even feature.


Peter Harrison is a British photojournalist whose career spans three decades, working for print, digital and broadcast media in the UK and the UAE. He's covered a broad spectrum of subjects, from health issues and farming in England, to the refugee crisis in Lebanon and the war in Afghanistan. He is a senior editor with Al Arabiya English.



Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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