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.

34 thoughts on “The new narcissism

  1. Sam Hiser

    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. Seth Finkelstein

    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. Rudy Hoeboer

    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. Justin Pfister

    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. David Foster

    “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?

  6. Mark Rodriguez

    “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.


    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 …

  8. Wayne

    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.


  9. Hamish MacEwan

    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.”

  10. Tim Bray

    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.

  11. Sue Thomas

    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…..

  12. J. Jeffryes

    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.

  13. 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.

  14. Jake Kaldenbaugh

    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…



  15. 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!

  16. 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



  17. Srinivasan

    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.

  18. 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?

  19. 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.

  20. Ed Kohler

    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.

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