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. 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.

  2. 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. :)

  3. 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.

  4. Arnie McKinnis

    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).

  5. 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.

  6. Read/WriteWeb

    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…

  7. 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.

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