The new narcissism

Writing at the Weekly Standard, Andrew Keen looks in horror at the “great seduction of citizen media, democratized content and authentic online communities.” Peeling away the “sociological jargon” of the Web 2.0 movement – “which fuses ’60s radicalism with the utopian eschatology of digital technology” – he lays bare its essential narcissism, “with its obsessive focus on the realization of the self”:

Another word for narcissism is “personalization.” Web 2.0 technology personalizes culture so that it reflects ourselves rather than the world around us. Blogs personalize media content so that all we read are our own thoughts. Online stores personalize our preferences, thus feeding back to us our own taste. Google personalizes searches so that all we see are advertisements for products and services we already use.

As I’ve thought about the watery philosophy and the powerful technology that dovetail so neatly in Web 2.0, I’ve become fearful that we’re building a machine that will, to great and general applause, destroy culture. Keen gets close to the heart of the matter: “If you democratize media, then you end up democratizing talent. The unintended consequence of all this democratization, to misquote Web 2.0 apologist Thomas Friedman, is cultural ‘flattening.'” In the end we’re left with nothing more than “the flat noise of opinion – Socrates’s nightmare.”

I sense it, too, every LCD a mirror. Beware of those who come with money and influence and pretty-sounding abstractions and who are utterly unaware that what they so joyfully seek to impose on the world is their own reckless banality.


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34 Responses to The new narcissism

  1. This would be true if our lives took place at the molecular level of HTTP…or whatever.

    Even as the Web, computing and access proliferate to 5x the current penetration over the next 10 years, the last thing I fear is the death of culture. You’re focusing too much on the shit content. Some of it is actually good. I said ‘some’.

    Since you put Thom F in mind, a nuclear event in the Middle East is far more likely than this circle jerk we call the Blogosphere going blind.

  2. Ehhh … I’m not a fan of the pandering, but I think this overstates the case. There’s always been high culture and popular culture, and The World Is Going To Hell In Handbasket Because Of Those Newfangled Things.

    The reason for the selling of “self” is because that’s the only workable model for the hype.

  3. I do agree with a potential for flattening culture, I don’t with it destroying culture, that is impossible as long as there are two humans left alive on this planet. It may destroy your favorite cultural expressions though, because it will make expressing it difficult. The target group will just be too small to make it viable.

    I have always wondered why marketeers are so interested in Web2.0. Probably because they see a tool for branding. An easy way to target the lowest common denominator in a large homogenous group of people, which the web2.0 communities tend to levitate towards. Luckily there will always be brave souls who want to provide exceptions to this general rule. Web2.0 also provides a means for first choice that I hope will make the current brand of marketeers extinct.

  4. By flattening culture, we flatten our fears and desires. To wake up another morning and experience “the same” and to know that next month will be “the same” is oppression of the human experience. We need a generation of sages and wisdom bodies to produce the content and media to help shine light on the dark tunnel of the “daily me” and the eternal spinning wheel. Nick, your blog is an amazing contributor to this delightful and fun effort.

    Our mind can not feast off the thoughts of itself. It can only survive of the flesh of the other. Just because we’re online in a new technological realm doesn’t mean the dynamics of nature don’t exist

  5. JohnO

    I know that I use blogs to learn about things that I don’t already know. And from I read I find many conflicting opinions. We’ve lost a space in newspaper, radio, and TV to intelligently discuss issues. I hope the social medium of the internet can become this place.

    Also about the cultural flattening:,70209-0.html

    A Good Read

  6. Web 2.0 End of Culture?

    Nicholas Carr predicts that Web 2.0 will destroy culture. In theory, the possibility exists, but by ignoring things such as social tagging, he overlooks key cultural benefits.

  7. ordaj

    It’s a threat to the elites. It introduces competition to their control.

  8. “Blogs personalize media content so that all we read are our own thoughts”…this is just silly. Do you think opinions are unidimensional? Isn’t it rather the case that I may disagree with Roger Simon (for example) about the war on terror, but disagree with him about many aspects of economic policy?

  9. “Web 2.0 technology personalizes culture so that it reflects ourselves rather than the world around us.” –

    There is nothing NEW in narcissism. As much as narcissism exists in Web 2.0 – narcissism exists in the elites of the mainstream media where they believe THEY report the news. THEY know what’s best and THEY choose what is newsworthy. Thomas Jefferson wrote “Every citizen should be a soldier.” – I would add that ‘every citizen should be a soldier and every citizen should be a journalist.’

    Does someone need a degree in journalism to be considered a journalist? I personally believe the only core requirement is a questioning, curious spirit and a desire to RESIST.

  10. Nick Carr is a smart guy – but he’s wrong

    Nicholas Carr is the former editor of the Harvard Business Review. He’s written books, he’s written for the New York Times, he’s spoken at MIT and he’s won awards. I have done none of these things (okay, I won an award once in …

  11. How do you reconcile that view with the fact that the free exercise of digital choice (linked below) still results in power curves rather than this flattening you refer too? Free to produce and consume media, people still wind up gravitating toward the relative few. Conceptually, I think flattening is associated with (more or less) equal opportunity, not outcomes. Hierarchies still exist offline and on.

    Having said that, there is no doubt a whiff of utopianism in the air. I just think it’s separate issue from the flattening of opportunity.

    My two cents.


  12. Deep Breath Necessary to Stop the Hyperventilation and to Get Oxygen to the Brain

    This is just silly, silly hyperbole.

  13. It would seem the existence of track backs and comments is not simply for the purpose of agreeing, which rather dismisses the premise of the article.

    That the Internet would allow us to avoid diverse ideas, some how in a way that Fox News doesn’t, is old, lame, elitist and wrong.

    Disruptions exist in more than the technological and commercial spheres, it would seem the cultural incumbents are no less aggrieved that their privileged status is being eroded. Odd that that should happen, what with them being the “great and good,” one might hope it would rise above the self-indulgent bleatings of the hoi polloi.

    “Sure, 90% of [] is crud. That’s because 90% of everything is crud.”

  14. Excessive pessimism, I think. 95% of everything in the blogosphere is crap, just like 95% of all human creation. The question isn’t whether the bad stuff gets written, it’s whether the good stuff gets read. I’m reading a lot of good stuff, these days.

  15. You know, what ~really~ scares me is this: if you allow ordinary people to get together in an open space, say a town square or a meeting hall or even a small cafe, they might start talking to each other without mediation or editing. Think of what they might say and how they might say it! There are bound to be grammatical errors, slang, mistakes, exaggerations and even lies. Much of the language will not be poetic, and it will probably be multimedia, with gestures, visuals and audio confusing the issue and creating mixed messages. Some may even speak to each other in foreigh languages that others might not understand, and there would be no control over the subjects they discuss or the things they say. I think this is appalling. If it is removed from the newspapers, TV and radio, and allowed to occur just anywhere, the quality and artistry of conversation will be so narcissistic and banal, and fall so low, that nobody will be worth listening to. I, for one, will pay no attention to any voice that has not first been sampled and edited to ensure it is worth my time. I hope you will all do the same. In fact, you probably should not bother reading this comment…..

  16. It’s a pitty that Blogger 2.0 is in Spanish (and not in English, I think you would like it vey much.

  17. The internet and blogs don’t destroy culture. They enable it’s creation. Faster, better, and in forms perhaps unrecognizable.

    While I think the point that the internet allows you to create your own virtual walled garden is a valid one, I also think the internet amplifies your ability to peak out of that garden. No matter how thick your walls, they will come with windows built in, and what lies beyond those windows is infinite and tempting.

  18. Anthony Cowley

    I don’t know about this one. Upon reflection, the way I use blogs is more like a newspaper with 10,000 sections of which I read 20 than it is a reflection of my own thoughts and opinions.

    Using terms like “Web 2.0″ conflates too many issues. I completely agree that a loss of authorship is a dangerous ideal to pursue, but I don’t think customization is bad. This discussion is worthy of more nuance than over-used labels can provide.

  19. Check out this post discussing the Olympic committee’s decision to shut down a site because it is using the images of olympians. Interesting arguments asking why newspapers can run images, but blogs can’t. I’d love to hear your perspective on the situation…



  20. Mark Harris

    The same thing was said about “push” in the 90’s, the same could be said about American media conglomerates (probably with more justification), the same was probably said about the printing press, back in the day.

    We’ve always had people who only listen to opinions that agree with them. I’d go so far as to say those people are the majority, because it’s never the majority that struggles to change things.

    I often don’t agree with what you write (case in point) but I read your blog anyway, because I like the way you think, and the way you make me think about the issues. I like that Tim Bray (who I also read) reads and comments on your blog. That’s often two perspectives on the same matter that feed my own thinking. That’s what its about, for me.

    I don’t waste my time on ‘political’ blogs which really expose the underbelly of society and the signal to noise ratio, I don’t waste time on polemic blogs, whether I agree with them ot not, I try not to waste time on bad writing, and I don’t waste (a lot) of time on pure entertainment blogs. Life’s too short to drink bad wine, after all.

    But I enjoy and learn from the bloggers I disagree with as much as those I do. Maybe I’m different in my consumption (and maybe people will call me elitist for saying so) but vive le difference!

  21. Al


    I am not entirely sure I would agree, I write on my blog because I like to express things (‘better out than in’), but the biggest buzz is participation. Folks commenting, tracking back, or other post around the same subject etc..

    To me the quality is in the conversation, not the creation of a 20th century masterpeice.

    Today it is not how good the piece is, but rather how good the conversation that it may be part of.

    This is a good conversation, It’s great I can join in.

    P.S. Please excuse my limited writing talent



  22. I think you missed a very important point: whats called Peer Production. Fred Wilson wrote a lot about it.

    You say, this leads to destruction – wait, working together builds great things I thought. Goto delicious and see for yourself.

  23. Aron

    How can personalization be a sole reflection of self when the underlying algorithms are almost always based on relating you to the tastes of others?

  24. Makio Yamazaki

    Web 2.0 has the usability which was apart from the organization(enterprise, school, etc.).

    To be suprised it would be “the network usability” that the network community has itself.

    People would take the informations from the domain.

    However, it was available in case of “Web 1.0″.

    “Web 2.0″ made people able to provide the individual ideas easily through the network tools(Blog, RSS, Wiki, etc.).

    There might be the intention of not only “collaboration” but also “discovery”.

    It utilizes the interactive feature that nourishes ” the network organization ” together.

    The people would get energy from each other from it —which may be the new value people has not yet.

    The process of collaboration would be more and more important than the information itself, I mean.

  25. Will writers for traditional media outlets manage to compete with non-traditional journalists on the web? It looks like most top-100 blogs are written by people without traditional media backgrounds. Are the people reading and linking to those sites settling for mediocre content, or finding better content from non-traditional sources?

    Democratizing content creation seems like a threat to writers protected by the barriers to publication in traditional media outlets. Oh well.

  26. Alain Rogister

    Interesting article, but the author loses points for putting *Bono* and WG Sebald in the same “elite” category, dammit! Most of the music industry has never been about “elite” anything, only after mass production of mediocrity, just like this talent-challenged Bono egomaniac.

  27. Scott Wilson

    I think most of the comments so far are right on the money. You can’t destroy culture… you might destroy a culture, but however much you may dislike what follows, it’s still just another culture. It’s a little silly and excessively paranoid to think that the basics of human nature are going to be fundamentally altered by something so trivial… whether you are a Web 2.0 advocate or detractor.

    I think it’s an overblown conception of the future. There are MANY other forces at work in our world besides Web 2.0 and I would even say it’s one of the lesser ones, and less likely to be a determining factor in whatever future culture we embrace.

    I always find it interesting to compare the arguments of people with radically divergent fears, and I think it might be interesting to drop Nick into a room with some of my friends who are absolutely convinced that the “flattening” effect is due instead to the conglomeration of Big Media outlets into the hands of a few major corporate players. I think both he and they are wrong, but it would be an interesting discussion. :)

  28. Ecosystem vs egosystem

    On bad days the blogosphere seems to me like the mother of all wine-and-cheese parties from hell – thousands of people in an aircraft hangar with their chests puffed out, saying “blah blah blah” loudly to no-one in particular.

  29. Stefan Farestam

    While it is certainly true that the web is breaking down the

    traditional culture and content control systems that have

    been established in modern societies over the past few

    hundred years, it is also establishing new control structures.

    eBay has a ranking system, as does Google. Look for a

    content quality control system to emerge for

    online, user-contributed content.

    I don’t think we have anything to fear in this

    evolution. Traditional control structures (such as those

    established by journals and publishing houses) are not only

    subject to much eliticism, but also the reverse,

    i.e. promotion of poor content.

    I hold HBR as a prime source of high quality content,

    however, I regularly find pieces on the web which are of

    equal quality.

  30. The term “web 2.0″ was created to differentiate the current web world from the one that created the infamous “POP” heard round the world. But with most things, this is no different than any popular product or service – first there is the macro (you can have any color as long it’s black), then there comes the micro (you can get it 30 designer colors, with two wheels or four, in leather or cloth).

    Culture: Dictionary Meaning (1st classification)

    1. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.

    2. These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population: Edwardian culture; Japanese culture; the culture of poverty.

    3. These patterns, traits, and products considered with respect to a particular category, such as a field, subject, or mode of expression: religious culture in the Middle Ages; musical culture; oral culture.

    4. The predominating attitudes and behavior hat characterize the functioning of a group or organization.

    In my observation, the current state of the web is not about losing yourself, it’s about discovering yourself. It’s not about the breakdown of culture, it’s about being completely immersed in MY culture. It’s not about being global, it’s about being local and creating connections with people. And ultimately, we “connect” with people that are similar to us, not different. We share something (where we live, what we do, our leisure activities, how old our kids are, the stage of our relationships, our age, our educational background, etc.) – that sharing is what brings us together. Culture is an outgrowth of these dynamic connections, not a stagnant “thing” that we live with on a daily basis. Web 2.0 is not the death of culture, it is the explosion of culture – and the ability for one person to become connected to experience, thoughts, ideas and people (yes, people).

  31. Marcelo Lopez

    Every single one of the detractors of this blog entry are belying PRECISELY what he’s stating here. Yes, we all know that not all blogs are crap, but arguably MOST are. That’s not to belittle anyone personally, no one likes their “art” put at a level of equality with mediocrity. Yet, there it is. The underlying fact that most of what’s out there is tripe, that getting to read that 5% that’s good ( I would argue strongly that the percentages do NOT bear that number out ), isn’t about to be trampled out there. So while I may disagree with what you have to say ( gathered by few or by hundreds of thousands ), I will defend your right to say it. Speech. That is one of 5 freedoms guaranteed by the first ammendment. How many of the rest of those do YOU know by heart ?

    Just the same, being a coat-tail boomer ( I was born a year after the “official” end of the babyboom era ). I have looked at my boomer-precursors, and for the most part see malaisical, whining, “Rage, Rage at the dying of the light” type metaphysical attitudes. And when I see posts like Sue’s that use kindergarten sarcasm to instill fear about what “the man” is/could do to stunt free speech, it just makes the point for why Nick’s on the money. No one is saying people shouldn’t speak their minds, get over it !

    Practically every contrary comment to this RoughType entry expressly makes the point for Nick being right. Nick ISN’T saying that ( not that I’m speaking for him, but I’ve read him long enough to get the strong impression he’s not saying ) anyone SHOULDN’T speak their mind, but rather that what Web 2.0 is instilling is simply to dilute informed opininon into hyperbole-like commentary. Just so much fluffer-nutter speech. Not a whole lot of substance, mostly air.

    Ed Kohler and Scott Wilson seem to have stated the oft overlooked rationales and after effects behind this “flattening of the culture”. I offer a postulate to Scott, however. Consider that the aggregation of several media corporations into fewer larger media conglomerates flattens things towards their polar set of core “VALUES”, i.e. diammetrically opposed poles.

    And Tim, if you can compile an OPML reading list of these so-called 5% useful blogs, please publish it. You’d be doing the folks having to wade though the other 95% a huge favor.

  32. Reuters on the role of big media in the Read/Write Web

    Jeff Jarvis is live-blogging the keynote of Tom Glocer, CEO of Reuters, at the Online Publishers Association. I got pretty excited by a similar speech by Associated Press CEO Tom Curley just over a year ago, so this Reuters keynote…

  33. This Gives Self-Respecting Eastern Elitist Liberal Snobs A Bad Name

    Can’t help but offer a reaction to Nick Carr on The New Narcissism: The flip side for me: Posting on a blog forces me to think, in a way that just reading a piece and forwarding it under tho…

  34. Addy

    culture is the amalgamation of personal, individually honed ideas. Contribution to culture can only take place after individual self-reflection.

    Only after introsepction can we form and voice our ideas and allow them to become part of a culture.

    personalization in web culture enables us to explore our individual interests to the fullest. Is this narcissistic? yes. But it’s what encourages self-refelection and introspection, which are just as vital to a pluralistic culture as exposure to foreign ideas.

    To assume that through increasing exploration of our own interests, we increasingly ignore other opinions and ideas is to preclude out innate urge to express ourselves and our natural interest in other people’s opinions.

    To be part of a culture is not merely to define oneself in opposition to or in accordance with other people’s ideas and opinions; one must also actively participate in culture by contributing ideas and opinions formed after introspection and self-reflection.

    So the new narcissism cultivated in web culture will not lead to a flattening of culture. if anything, it will merely increase the circulation of new ideas cultivaetd through individual thought and the pursuit of personal interest.