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Social Media: Narcissistic Meaning Construction?

Institutional Culture

Social Media: Narcissistic Meaning Construction?

Social media—entities such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook—are certainly cultural and intellectual game changers. The following views are based on observations of Facebook dynamics—postings, comments, photos, and status reports.

Earlier “task focused” computer applications, such as word processing and spreadsheets, were tools clearly designed to serve as technological extensions for enhancing or invigorating existing processes such as writing and calculating. (For example, word processing has greatly enhanced and reconfigured my notions of process-based writing methodologies—processes described by writers such as Peter Elbow in his now-ancient text Writing with Power.)

Some might laugh at this analogy—but word processing is much like a shovel. Both have clearly defined task outcomes.

Social media entities, however, seem to indicate the development of a kind of “intelligence”—they are tools that construct a new kind of meaning. They are not extensions of old technologies—they represent a new planetary landscape.

I am not trying to make a connection between word processing and social media. I am, however, trying to make a leap between computing [word processing] as tool and computing [social media] as meaning construction.

There are numerous websites that allow for creative self-expression and meaning making. Do you maintain a blog on Blogspot or on Open Salon? Any author can establish a cost-free account and then post essays, poems, book reviews, analyses, or political pieces. The marketing byline for OS reads “You make the headlines.” And there is joy in seeing oneself in print. Hundreds [thousands] of pieces are posted daily.

On Open Salon, writing and self-fulfillment seem to merge. Sometimes I watch the “feed,” the recent postings list, to track the sheer bulk of writing blogged in a one-hour period.

On Facebook, your home section has a similar feed feature. Photos, recipes, status reports, and life event updates are listed as they are posted on “friends’” individual Facebook pages. Of course, the comments—the “like” markers, the photo tags, the status notes—provide ongoing archived evidence for what is happening in your friends’ communities.

And what is going on? That, finally, is the purpose of this essay. Is Facebook a useful tool for providing rich learning experiences, for connecting learners within common-interest communities, for enhancing the teaching/learning experience? Perhaps. However, I would contend social media is used primarily not as a tool (like word processing is) but as a kind of complex cosmic personal scrapbook—a warehouse of “look at me” detritus that has more meaning for the poster than the poster’s friends.

And there is nothing wrong with archiving the significant events of life for friends to see. But ultimately, I see social media usage as a medium for self-promotion or self-aggrandizement.

The wondrous global “party line” known as Facebook provides a sharing mechanism that has value—but what is the meaning of this value? I sense sometimes a kind of narcissism is revealed when pictures and updates are posted. Is the world really interested in my status or your whereabouts?

I would remind readers to reconsider the words of Marshall McLuhan, 1960s communication theorist, who cautioned us [writing about television] that the medium has become the message. In his view, any new media, any new technology, creates a cultural amputation—a loss of older values or mores. The new technology creates a replacement—but not without cost (Federman).

I would venture that Facebook creates a kind of meaning construction that may be antithetical to learning—Facebook has the ability to displace other meaning-making activities. FB is slick, easy to use, and powerful. However, as you know, time spent on Facebook could be spent elsewhere.

An individual can spend 24/7 commenting on and “liking” pictures posted on Facebook (I think my niece—a college freshman—does!).

What is the final outcome of such activity? The new algorithm? I post—you like—I post—you like. Consider the 3Ms—Movies, Music, Munchies. We can spend every day discussing movies, our favorite band, the best restaurants—meaning is made—but what is learned that improves the quality of life outside of sensory pleasure or the salubrious benefits of gossip and small talk?

Perhaps Facebook is the most democratic of the social media utilities—perhaps it makes us feel good in a potluck kind of way. But what is the final outcome? Or in this case—what is the incremental improvement in knowledge and academic awareness that has taken place by relying on one’s daily [mundane] narrative experiences and photographs for Facebook postings?

Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in 1831, perhaps predicting a kind of cultural decay or cultural leveling in the new United States, noted that “one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.” Now I don’t think Facebook is the focus of decay or depravity, or the domain of the weak, but its demands and popularity and gloss do create a kind of emerging democratic leveling of taste and culture. Of course, this depends on your definition of art or culture—a subject for another essay, perhaps.

With Facebook comes empowerment and possibility—if it is used as a tool, a utility.

Not a Luddite, not a naysayer, I heartily support the use of Facebook and other social media as a means to connect collectives for defined purposes. But let’s be careful about what we celebrate as significant teaching/learning experiences.


de Tocqueville, Alexis. (1835). Democracy in America. Retrieved July 9, 2011 at  www.columbia.edu/cu/tat/core/tocqueville.htm.

Federman, Mark. McLuhan in Culture and Technology: What Is the Meaning of The Medium Is the Message? Retrieved June 25, 2011 at http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/article_mediumisthemessage.htm.

Open Salon. Available: http://open.salon.com/cover

Jeffrey Ross is an English instructor at Central Arizona College.

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