Part Two: Social Media Fans the Flames of Narcissism
Traditional social networks have been breaking down, putting the cohesiveness of social activism at great risk. Writing for OpenDemocracy.net, Michael Edwards notes that labour unions in the US declined by 43 percent between 1950 and 2000, while parent-teacher associations lost 60 percent of their membership during the same period. Yet these community-based social networks were the very heart of social transformation in the 20th century. As Edwards explains: “When one looks at the few times in history when civil society has functioned as a powerful and lasting moral and political lever—like the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s—large numbers of people became active in translating ethical action into power structures at every level, from the family to the courts and corporations.” (italics mine) Tellingly, Edwards notes that although NGOs have blossomed as never before—with 1.5 million charities in the US alone and 90 percent of all NGOs established since 1975—they currently seem to have less, rather than more, influence on the political agenda. Obviously this too is debatable.
Gibson’s 2001 essay acquires a chillingly prophetic tone in light of recent political tensions between Russia and the Ukraine. Thirteen years ago, he wrote: “Few who study Russian political culture are optimistic about the development of a strong civil society in that country. In addition to the debilitating burden of hundreds of years of authoritarianism, contemporary Russia is said to lack two crucial elements of a civil society—interpersonal trust and a broad array of non-state voluntary organizations. For instance… 80 to 90 percent of Russians do not belong to any voluntary associations.” Compare this with Edwards’ report of dropping membership in civic associations in the US over the past 50 years or so. Canadians tend to be just a few steps behind America in most sociological trends, so it’s not a stretch to suggest a similar plunge in Canada.
The age-old strategy of divide and conquer seems to apply here, particularly with the rise of narcissism in Western culture. Whether that strategy is planned or coincidental in the West I’ll leave the conspiracy theorists to debate. In part it’s a natural outgrowth of a consumer oriented industrial-technological society, where industries rely on continual mass consumption of their products to stay profitable. Obviously a community ethos works directly against this form of capitalism. Why share a lawn mower with your neighbours when you can buy your own? Why borrow a tool when you can have your own garage full of tools (even though you probably only use them a few times a year)?
This kind of consumerism set the groundwork for the narcissism we now seeing playing out on social media. “In data from 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present,” write psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell in The Narcissism Epidemic. “By 2006, one out of four college students agreed with the majority of items on the standard measure of narcissistic traits. …Narcissists thrive on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.” (italics mine) Tellingly, a Carnegie Mellon study on online discussion forums found that they fostered “superficial exchanges instead of meaningful conversations.”
Narcissism strikes at the very heart of community—the traditional driving force of social activism. How can trust be maintained in a social media environment where anonymity is treated as license for abuse? How can a social group come together in an environment where disagreement is met not with well-reasoned debate but with ad hominem attacks? How can a social movement gain momentum when it’s constantly fractured because the art of compromise has been lost to egocentric posturing or turf wars? According to Twenge and Campbell, there are potential solutions. “The first step toward severing the link between narcissism and antisocial behaviours is to make socially inappropriate behaviour go unnoticed and unrewarded.” It’s a word to the wise for those who find Donald Trump’s tactics appalling—the best strategy in his case would be ‘ignore him and hope he’ll just go away.’ Unfortunately, we live under a commercial system that profits from precisely this kind of sensationalistic gong show. More fuel for the destructive bonfires of narcissism undermining society and civil discourse.
All technology comes with a price, one we’re seldom encouraged to consider. ‘The tool shapes the shaper.’ Add to that the fact that for thousands of years humans have relied on non-textual cues to communication—the raising of an eyebrow, shifting in a chair, a rise or fall in the tone of voice—to interpret meaning. With social media the majority of this information is missing, leaving only text to interpret. The pathetic ‘smiley face’ emoticons of social media cannot possibly replace all this lost information from the sender.
This is nothing less than a radical transformation of human communications. Yet we’re somehow expected to adapt to it within the space of a generation. Certainly you could argue that traditional cursive writing also left out many non-textual cues. The difference, however, was that great effort was taken in public education to train people to express themselves in writing with eloquence and flair. Compare even an average letter written in Victorian times with an email or Facebook post. I’m willing to bet the range of expression will have seriously contracted. And if it’s Twitter you have even less space for eloquence. Not to mention, a forum that rewards instantaneous, often thoughtless expression over thoughtful, reasoned eloquence. This is hardly a formula for social cohesion, much less any major social change.
The corporate consolidation that began in the early 1990s, with the concomitant rise in lobbying to direct the political agenda, has had as much effect on NGOs, democracy and social activism as digital media itself did. This is a fundamental premise of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything. An increasing focus on ‘branding’ and ‘market share’ slipped over from commercial realms to influence NGOs competing for public donations. Gradually they came more to resemble, rather than contrast, the corporations they were fighting. Adam Smith’s ‘law of the marketplace’ thus did a far better job of undermining social change than any concerted infiltration could have done. In analyzing the communications weaknesses of NGOs, Milan and Lubetkin point out that, “More coordination is needed in order to speak with a unified voice to policy-makers.” Instead, the imperative to stake out an NGO’s unique slice of the funding pie has largely kept them from presenting a united front, a single rallying cry for millions. Obviously some groups are more effective at this than others, for example Avaaz and 350.org.
Bill McKibben is probably glad he has tools like Facebook and Twitter to rally the troops, as was seen in recent global climate change rallies. But I’m willing to bet he’d prefer to see us create or join community-based social networks—like the old civil associations and unions—that carry forward the work far beyond a single day of activism. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Naomi Klein makes this very point. As journalist Adam Vaughan explained: “She said it was not just the scale of the march in New York that had impressed her but the diversity, made up of local communities who had been hit by superstorm Sandy, indigenous people fighting tar sands developments, anti-fracking campaigners and what she described as the first time the Labor movement was out in force, calling for job creation in response to climate change.” (italics mine)
Who knows? Maybe that would help us reboot civil discourse, and with it, civil society.
 Michael Edwards, When is civil society a force for social transformation?, OpenDemocracy.net, May 30, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/michael-edwards/when-is-civil-society-force-for-social-transformation
 James L. Gibson, ibid.
 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Simon & Schuster Inc. 2009, first Atria paperback edition 2013, pp. 2, 110.
 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, ibid., p. 111.
 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, ibid., p. 207.
 Stefania Melan & Mario Lubetkin, ibid.
 Adam Vaughan, Naomi Klein: UK fracking trespass law flouts democratic rights, The Guardian online, October 7, 2014, note video interview at 1:13:31, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/07/naomi-klein-uk-fracking-trespass-law-flouts-democratic-rights