fame, narcissism and MySpace

When adults aren’t dismissing MySpace as the land-o-predators, they’re often accusing it of producing narcissistic children. I find it hard to bite my tongue in these situations, but i know that few adults are willing to take the blame for producing narcissistic children. The issue of narcissism and fame is back in public circulation with a vengeance (thanks in part to Britney Spears for having a public meltdown). While the mainstream press is having a field day with blaming celebrities and teens for being narcissistic, more solid research on narcissism is emerging.

For those who are into pop science coverage of academic work, i’d encourage you to start with Jake Halpern’s “Fame Junkies” (tx Anastasia). For simplicity sake, let’s list a few of the key findings that have emerged over the years concerning narcissism.

  • While many personality traits stay stable across time, it appears as though levels of narcissism (as tested by the NPI) decrease as people grow older. In other words, while adolescents are more narcissistic than adults, you were also more narcissistic when you were younger than you are now.
  • The scores of adolescents on the NPI continue to rise. In other words, it appears as though young people today are more narcissistic than older people were when they were younger.
  • There appears to be a correlation between narcissism and self-esteem based education. In other words, all of that school crap about how everyone is good and likable has produced a generation of narcissists.
  • Celebrity does not make people narcissists but narcissistic people seek fame.
  • Reality TV stars score higher on the NPI than other celebrities.

OK… given these different findings (some of which are still up for debate in academic circles), what should we make of teens’ participation on social network sites in relation to narcissism?

My view is that we have trained our children to be narcissistic and that this is having all sorts of terrifying repercussions; to deal with this, we’re blaming the manifestations instead of addressing the root causes and the mythmaking that we do to maintain social hierarchies. Let’s unpack that for a moment.

American individualism (and self-esteem education) have allowed us to uphold a myth of meritocracy. We sell young people the idea that anyone can succeed, anyone can be president. We ignore the fact that working class kids get working class jobs. This, of course, has been exacerbated in recent years. There used to be meaningful working class labor that young people were excited to be a part of. It was primarily masculine labor and it was rewarded through set hierarchies and unions helped maintain that structure. The unions crumpled in the 1980s and by the time the 1987 recession hit, there was a teenage wasteland No longer were young people being socialized into meaningful working class labor; the only path out was the “lottery” (aka becoming a famous rock star, athlete, etc.).

Since the late 80s, the lottery system has become more magnificent and corporatized. While there’s nothing meritocratic about reality TV or the Spice Girls, the myth of meritocracy remains. Over and over, working class kids tell me that they’re a better singer than anyone on American Idol and that this is why they’re going to get to be on the show. This makes me sigh. Do i burst their bubble by explaining that American Idol is another version of Jerry Springer where hegemonic society can mock wannabes? Or does their dream have value?

So, we have a generation growing up being told that they can be anyone, magnifying the level of narcissism. Narcissists seek fame and Hollywood dangles fame like a carrot on a stick. Meanwhile, technology emerges that challenges broadcast’s control over distribution. It just takes a few Internet success stories for fame-seeking narcissists to begin projecting themselves into the web in the hopes of being seen and being validated. While the important baseline of peer-validation still dominates, the hopes of becoming famous are still part of the narrative. Unfortunately, it’s kinda like watching wannabe actors work as waiters in Hollywood. They think that they’ll be found there because one day long ago someone was and so they go to work everyday in a menial service job with a dream.

Perhaps i should rally behind people’s dreams, but i tend to find them quite disturbing. It is these kinds of dreams that uphold the American myths that get us into such trouble. They also uphold hegemony and the powerful feed on their dreams, offering nothing in return. We can talk about reality TV as an amazing opportunity for anyone to act, but realistically, it’s nothing more than Hollywood’s effort to bust the actors’ guild and related unions. Feed on people’s desire for fame, pay them next to nothing and voila profit margin!

Unfortunately, union busting is the least of my worries when it comes to dream parasites. When i was trying to unpack the role of crystal meth in domestic violence, i started realizing that the meth offered a panacea when the fantasy bubble burst. Needless to say, this resulted in a spiral into hell for many once-dreamers. The next step was even more nauseating. When i started seeing how people in rural America recovered from meth, i found one common solution: born-again Christianity. The fervor for fame which was suppressed by meth re-emerged in zealous religiosity. Christianity promised an even less visible salvation: God’s grace. While blind faith is at the root of both fame-seeking and Christianity, Christianity offers a much more viable explanation for failures: God is teaching you a lesson… be patient, worship God, repent, and when you reach heaven you will understand.

While i have little issue with the core tenants of Christianity or religion in general, i am disgusted by the Christian Industrial Complex. In short, i believe that there is nothing Christian about the major institutions behind modern day organized American Christianity. Decades ago, the Salvation Army actively engaged in union-busting in order to maintain the status-quo. Today, the Christian Industrial Complex has risen into power in both politics and corporate life, but their underlying mission is the same: justify poor people’s industrial slavery so that the rich and powerful can become more rich and powerful. Ah, the modernization of the Protestant Ethic.

Let’s pop the stack and return to fame-seeking and massively networked society. Often, you hear Internet people modify Andy Warhol’s famous quote to note that on the Internet, everyone will be famous amongst 15. I find this very curious, because aren’t both time and audience needed to be famous? Is one really famous for 15 minutes? Or amongst 15? Or is it just about the perceived rewards around fame?

Why is it that people want to be famous? When i ask teens about their desire to be famous, it all boils down to one thing: freedom. If you’re famous, you don’t have to work. If you’re famous, you can buy anything you want. If you’re famous, your parents can’t tell you what to do. If you’re famous, you can have interesting friends and go to interesting parties. If you’re famous, you’re free! This is another bubble that i wonder whether or not i should burst. Anyone who has worked with celebrities knows that fame comes with a price and that price is unimaginable to those who don’t have to pay it.

How does this view of fame play into narcissism? If you think you’re all that, you don’t want to be told what to do or how to do it… You think you’re above all of that. When you’re parents are telling you that you have to clean your room and that you’re not allowed out, they’re cramping your style. How can you be anyone you want to be if you can’t even leave the house? Fame appears to be a freedom from all of that.

The question remains… does micro-fame (such as the attention one gets from being very cool on MySpace) feed into the desires of narcissists to get attention? On a certain level, yes. The attention feels good, it feeds the ego. But the thing about micro-celebrities is that they’re not free from attack. One of the reasons that celebrities go batty is that fame feeds into their narcissism, further heightening their sense of self-worth as more and more people tell them that they’re all that. They never see criticism, their narcissism is never called into check. This isn’t true with micro-fame and this is especially not true online when celebrities face their fans (and haters) directly. Net celebrities feel the exhaustion of attention and nagging much quicker than Hollywood celebrities. It’s a lot easier to burn out quicker and before reaching that mass scale of fame. Perhaps this keeps some of the desire for fame in check? Perhaps not. I honestly don’t know.

What i do know is that MySpace provides a platform for people to seek attention. It does not inherently provide attention and this is why even if people wanted 90M viewers to their blog, they’re likely to only get 6. MySpace may help some people feel the rush of attention, but it does not create the desire for attention. The desire for attention runs much deeper and has more to do with how we as a society value people than with what technology we provide them.

I am most certainly worried about the level of narcissism that exists today. I am worried by how we feed our children meritocratic myths and dreams of being anyone just so that current powers can maintain their supremacy at a direct cost to those who are supplying the dreams. I am worried that our “solutions” to the burst bubble are physically, psychologically, and culturally devastating, filled with hate and toxic waste. I am worried that Paris Hilton is a more meaningful role model to most American girls than Mother Theresa ever was. But i am not inherently worried about social network technology or video cameras or magazines. I’m worried by how society leverages different media to perpetuate disturbing ideals and pray on people’s desire for freedom and attention. Eliminating MySpace will not stop the narcissistic crisis that we’re facing; it will simply allow us to play ostrich as we continue to damage our children with unrealistic views of the world.

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41 thoughts on “fame, narcissism and MySpace

  1. AJ

    So in the end, do we fix it by teaching the children, punishing the people making money off of them, or what? People are still aware of the difference between famous and skilled, right? That was a heavy post…

    Do you think in general that all adults are anti-MySpace?

  2. Ori

    I think people want fame for a far more important reason than the ones you mention. People want to be famous, because as mammals we are very hierarchical animals. People want to be famous because they want to feel that they are not just a faceless member of the 6+ billion mob. In other words: if they are famous their life has a purpose.

    This explains why people then fall into the born-again industry’s clutches. Religious salvation offers the exact same remedy, your life is now “purpose-driven” (like the title of the famous book).

    We should also note, that even ex-celebrities fall into the same born-again Christianity trap. All you have to do is watch one too many VH1 ‘Behind the Music’ specials to realize that the archetypal narrative of celebrity is overnight-stardom, sudden-drug-fueled-descent, rediscovery-of-Jesus.

  3. John Dodds

    Magnificent analysis Danah, but I would suggest that the fundamentalist Christian angle is peculiar to the US – narcissism is also growing in relatively secular societies such as the UK that have imported the base cause of all this, namely the peddling of self-esteem instead of self-awareness.

  4. KRF

    For your own sake, take a break out in the real world. You’re just burning yourself up recycling these outmoded socialist cliches. Union worship, give me a break. Do yourself a favor and learn some history from someone other than deluded academic status-seekers.

  5. zephoria

    Ori – totally agreed on the meaning making. I’m influenced by Hannah Arendt’s arguments that reality comes from living in public. The question of public though is a question of scale. She’s mostly interested in how people leave the home, but i wonder if there’s a drive for bigger and more visible to make it feel real in a culture of hypermediation.

    To your points about celebrities going through a similar cycle… that’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought about it (and don’t watch the VH1 specials). Hmm… must think more on that.

    John – my critique is explicitly American because i can’t speak to other parts of the world since all of my fieldwork to date is US-based. Also, all of the studies on narcissism that i’ve read are US-centric.

  6. Neil K

    It’s very hard to sort out how the microfame in MySpace reflects the fame culture leaking in from televisual media. Do you find any correlation between kids who want to be Paris Hilton and MySpace involvement? Are they trying to imitate her on a smaller scale? Or is MySpace just a different sort of forum?

    I suspect there isn’t a correlation, or, if there is, they hope to “graduate” to mass media.

    The biggest difference is that microfame just doesn’t pay, and it probably never will. The blogger’s fame is advertising for some other skill — maybe they can get consulting gigs. Paris Hilton’s fame is a standalone product. It’s not clear that we can have a leisure class based solely on social networking.

  7. joeblo

    A wonderful modern take on fame an narcissism. The commercial ‘Be like Mike’ campaign for all kids to be a basketball or later rap star has been replaced by reality TV with the internet finally edging in. The connection to the rise of the evangelical isn’t something I’ve considered before. I think one would want to include Scientology there as well. Can we look back at other times when narcissism and evangelicalism (and class separation) to place to see how it was resolved before?

    I guess I’m one of the adults that don’t understand MySpace. It just seems like another boomlet in the social networking space that lets you create passable, if increasingly annoying personal pages. It doesn’t seem like the current young audience will stay on it long, and the younger ones will find a new way to differentiate themselves from their older siblings. Unless MySpace has the some marketing brilliance to reinvent itself ala emptyV of perhaps SNL, it’s as doomed as SecondLife.

    I’m intrigued too by other effects of narcism. Does it relate to some of the isolation that teens grow up with in neighborhoods without escape to private group childhood play. When all their public time is monitored at school/play/home, the ‘freedom’ of fame and the escape to the relative privacy of the internet must be all the more attractive.

    Oh, and Paris Hilton’s fame seems just lame. That a B$ heiress would feel the need for fame, or that she could buy it seems obvious, but by happenstance to find a culture (or actually entertainment business) starved for such ‘content’ is the real key. They have created her and they will destroy her as well. Fer’chri’sake the poor girl can barely dance.

  8. jenks

    this was really great to read, and a subject that i find totally fascinating. no, eliminating myspace certainly won’t deminish this zealous craving for celbrity, and it’s obviously not its cause, but there’s something to be said for exacerbation. sort of like exhaust from diesel busses won’t cause the predisposition for asthma, but kids in urban areas with a lot of diesel busses driving by sure do seem to develop the disorder at a higher rate than normal. perhaps the exponential proliferation of platforms for seeking attention (and they’re certainly not all virtual. the dancefloor has been an attention platform before the internet was a twinkle in anyone’s eye) could have something to do with this higher rate for the development of narcisim.

  9. FG

    Hi Danah, if the success of myspace is a symptom of a narcissist society and narcissism in US depends on American dream/protestant ethic, how do you explain that social networks are among most used website everywhere in the world (also in developing countries and even in deeply Catholic one)? I run a quick survey using Alexa to get traffic data and I can’t find any correlation between “dominant ethics” and use of social networks. I’ve uploaded my results here.

  10. Frances Bell

    Very interesting post Danah – Thanks. One thing that occurred to me (that you will probably know something about) is that users interpret technologies such as MySpace very flexibly. They may naively begin by using their space publicly (but intended for their own circle of friends) and move to private use with a public window once they realised it was public and that might cause problems. So is there a shift to private Myspaces or not?

  11. Ian Grove-Stephensen

    Danah, the assertion that “There appears to be a correlation between narcissism and self-esteem based education” is a very broad-brush statement. I’m not sure there is even an accepted definition of what ‘self-esteem based education’ is. Can you cite research on this, or at least give pointers?

    Disclosure: my company, Chalkface Project, publishes teaching and learning materials aimed at boosting self-esteem. If this correlation really exists I need to know about it.

  12. marciorps

    I totally agree with Ori about the reason for fame-craving not being freedom, but i still think there is something more to that than a innate need for purpose.

    > If you’re famous, you don’t have to work. If you’re famous,
    > you can buy anything you want. If you’re famous, your parents
    > can’t tell you what to do. If you’re famous, you can have
    > interesting friends and go to interesting parties.
    > If you’re famous, you’re free!

    Assuming all those phrases come from interviews, i interpret them not as all relating to freedom, but to something like “doing all right”, being successful, good chances of survival, or in a word, power.

    Ori’s idea about being hierarchical mammals feel like right to me, but also very disconnected from the rest of her purpose theory. In a social environment, the strife to be the leader would be a common default strategy for survival.

    In that account, the enormous amount of time and energy that society spends with famous people (as opposed to “really important people” such as politicians and businessmen and stuff) should make the perceived importance of fame to be much bigger than could be regarded as normal. And that, obviously, will lead to still more time and energy being spent on celebrities gossip, creating a snowball effect.

    This seem to be a subject with growing importance. Still, no answers here, just random thoughts.

  13. Liz

    Two patterns I’ve noticed from the lower grades:

    Schools here in California discourage competition and individual achievement. No one’s art, writing, sports ability, or performance are better than anyone else’s. Instead, praise is for everyone. Doing well doesn’t get any special recognition, because it might make the people who aren’t doing well *feel bad*. I think this is demoralizing to everyone and creates an extra hunger for praise and celebrity. School plays are written so as to have no special or starring roles; they’re all for crowd scenes with loose threads of narration voiceovers. There’s no academic achievement awards in lower grades. Rather than giving many opportunities for kids with different talents to shine, no one gets to shine.

    At the end of the day in my local elementary school classrooms, the kids sit in a circle and take turns “doing appreciation”; this means that Jorge says “I appreciate Brianna for being nice to me at recess” and then it’s Brianna’s turn to say “I appreciate Jasleen for sharing her chocolate.” This sort of thing adds an extra passive-aggressive dimension into the equation as only the popular kids get mentioned or praised by their peers. So “fame” is achievable only by shallow celebrity.

    IMHO these two trends produce a particularly unproductive narcissism. (Unproductive for individuals and for society & labor in general.)

  14. David Brake

    Could you share any non-pop-science references about narcissism? Which sources would you say Halpern leans on most?

    The ones that I have come across most directly applicable are:

    Jacobs, J. (2003) “Communication over Exposure: The Rise of Blogs as a Product of Cybervoyeurism”. in ANZCA 03, Brisbane and

    Calvert, C. (2000) Voyeur Nation : Media, Privacy, and Peering in Modern Culture, Westview Press, Boulder, Colo.

  15. zephoria

    Neil – I’d bet that those who want to be Paris Hilton are engaged in different practices on MySpace than those who have no interest in that degree of fame. For example, the profiles would be public, there’d be a lot more risque material, a strong investment in quantity of connections (and comments) over quality, etc. But there are people who engage in these practices who aren’t seeking that level of fame so i don’t know.

    FG – Don’t get me wrong – not all of MySpace use is about seeking fame. As i’ve written before, the vast majority of it is about hanging out with your friends. In this entry, i’m trying to challenge the adult view that MySpace creates narcissists. At a lower level, many argue that it is a symptom of a narcissistic society. My point is that the architecture allows narcissists to seek a certain degree of fame, not that it can only succeed if there are narcissists. Given that 66% of teens keep private profiles, it’s pretty clear that the majority of young people are not actually looking for fame in their use.

    Frances – yes, the shift to private has been pretty consistent. There are two types of populations that make people run: those who hold power over them and those who wish to prey on them. The former includes parents, teachers, bosses, school admissions officers, etc. The latter primarily consists of marketers. Once these two groups started infiltrating a relatively homogenous online space, people ran to privacy. The numbers are very high at this point.

    Ian – start with Baumeister’s research on self-esteem. He’s published with numerous other people about a variety of different issues around high self-esteem (including narcissism, a drop in grades, etc.) Because he’s at the center of this area, you can spiral from there following reference traces. Since this is psychology, there’s a myriad of solid articles dealing with specific issues rather than a canonical book with everything wrapped into publicly consumable information.

    Also, although i haven’t read it, i understand that Twenge’s “Generation Me” addresses this issue directly.

    David – Halpern deals with Elkind (on imaginary audience), Young and Pinsky (on celebrity and narcissism), Baumeister (on belonging), Twenge (on social exclusion and self-importance), Millman (on acquired situational narcissism), and a collection of others.

  16. Lisa Williams

    This was a great post, thank you.

    Here’s what I’m taking away from this

    1 Fame-seeking, drugs, and religion are *all* responses to the fact that the opportunities for security and meaning are not distributed equally among people.

    2. The people who do have more opportunities to acquire personal material security and meaningful work may, directly or indirectly, support these ‘opiates of the people’ because if the people wake up to the fact that they have no chance they may get out the electoral or literal pitchforks and torches.

    I have two small children, boys age 3 and 5. I worry about what opportunities they will have to achieve security and meaningful work. Reading this makes me think, what do I want to tell them is important? Ideas: mastery is important; charity is important. Having people pay you in social currency, like attention, without mastery or charity, is not going to be sustainable. Workable? What do you think?


    A bit about the costs the famous pay, and how the nonfamous aren’t aware of them: I remember being in my early 20s and having a job writing about technology. My boss suggested I listen to a quarterly investors’ conference call of a company whose software I was writing about. Being very green, I had never done this before, and I was under the impression that CEOs were like minor deities — nobody messed with them. On the call, what I heard was some junior analyst from Morgan Stanley just ripping the CEO — total contempt. I have no idea what I learned about the company, but I hung up the phone and thought, nobody gets out alive: everybody’s gotta answer to somebody. It made me think differently about the career ladder: wherever it was going, going up did not mean getting out of the line of fire.


    That said, one of the worrying things I see today in our society is very, very powerful people using their power to insulate themselves from some or all of consequences of their actions. Most of the time, when people do dumb or destructive things, sooner or later, they bear the cost of their actions. (With many actions others bear part of the cost along with them). Now we have a class of people who escape the natural consequences of their actions — and the wisdom that comes from suffering those actions. I have in mind Enron-style management figures and some politicians. We bear the cost of their mistakes; they bear increasingly little of it. Since they don’t feel the pain, and aren’t penalized, they go on to make bigger and worse mistakes — which we, unable to build a fortress around ourselves — bear the consequences of, in the form of busted pensions, ruinous wars, etc.

  17. Steve


    Your post touches on one of my strong areas of interest which is how the structure of mass attention in society changes under the impact of various kinds of media.

    A somewhat disorganized discussion vaguely focussed on that question follows.

    In the pre-electronic era, most people paid attention most of the time to people in their immediate surroundings. It was a world of small towns, where people had fame, notoriety, or at least reputation among the relatively small number of people who they lived close to.

    Of course, there were important exceptions to this tendency. The wealthy, the politically powerful, and those who were able to attract the attention of the print media could become known beyond their geographic confines. Urban dwellers not falling into the above categories were still generally restricted to gaining attention within their own locale, but the urban local was much richer in potential audiences than the small rural environments.

    (One can go back a step further and try to imagine how all this played out in the world before the invention of movable type. This is left as an exercise for the reader. The mind boggles.)

    Then we come to the post WW2 world – the world I personally grew up in. This was the world of the monopoly media. There were 3 major TV networks. Two major wire services served the printed newspapers, and also had considerable influence on the assignment editors of network news operations. Movies had a “star system”. Pop music was dominated by the “top 40” format (This was well before the kind of segmentation of pop music formats seen today).

    In this world, fame or notoriety was possible only for a favored few that made it past the gatekeepers. But once achieved, it was absolute beyond most of what we see today. There are remnants of this system still in place, of course. Professional athletics is probably the pre-eminent venue of traditional style fame, followed closely by movie stardom. Notably, these are areas where the costs of producing mass spectacle remain high.

    The TV monopoly was definitively shattered by the rise of cable. CBS, NBC and ABC still exist, but as shadows of their former selves. No TV newscaster today has or could have the iconic status of a Murrow or a Cronkite.

    The field of pop music is in transition as we speak. Assumptions of even a few years ago as to the nature of musical fame are no longer valid. In my view, this can be traced to the role of P2P music sharing in cutting back the obscene profits of the giant music monopolies. This had an important consequence that might go almost unnoticed except by those with an interest in the question of “making it” in the music industry. This is the evaporation of available funding for the heavily promoted superstar. There will be no more Avril Lavignes.

    So, lets take a look at how the music industry has adapted to this situation. One solution of course it the path of DIY. DIY is a noble sentiment. It is also well suited to the needs of the music industry. DIY shifts the burden of the costs of promotion, production and performance from the indistry to the individual aspiring performer. (And the only people guaranteed to achieve wealth, if not fame, are the owners of guitar stores). Young musicians are encouraged to self-promote, tour regionally to (sometimes literally) underground venues, live on coca-cola, chips and marijuana (or beer, depending on their genre) and pack themselves into broken-down vans that may or may not ever reach their next gig. The A & E people call this “building your story”. From the industry viewpoint this is the perfect Darwinian environment. Whoever manages to claw their way out of anonymity and achieve consistent regional or national notice on the underground circuit is eligible to move to the next level. The partnerships between the industry monopolists and the “indie” labels is precisely the relationship of major league sports clubs to their farm teams.

    An alternative path is for the industry to buy their stars pre-promoted. Thus we see the rise of pop stars who were already famous from other venues, or from having a famous relative. Think Jessica Simpson – or, God help us, Ashlee Simpson.

    And, finally, what may be the untimate solution. Invert the problem. Stand it on its head. Change mega-superstar promotion from a cost center to a profit center. And so American Idol is born (nuff said?).

    But what of the democratization of the new media? Does this not allow anyone to publish, anyone to produce, anyone, if they are talented, to be a star? Well, sort of – but at the price of radically redefining the very nature of fame.

    Let me note parenthetically an important point which doesn’t otherwise fit comfortably anywhere in the flow of my discussion. Stardom has some relation to talent, but it has never, IMNSHO, been primarily about talent. It is about presenting a constructed personality for the star that the audience can identify with and aspire to. Marylin Monroe, Madonna, Elvis, the Beatles, may have had talent, but that was not why they became icons. Otherwise young girls would be swooning in droves for tenors and ballerinas. And now back to our scheduled program.

    The rise of cable and the Internet has the overall effect of fracturing the attention monopolies. More people can now become known outside their immediate circle, but to a smaller audience. In some cases a vastly smaller audience. Think of Nirvana. They became famous within my lifetime, but during a time when I was paying attention to other things, so what I know of them is history. Kurt Cobain emerged at a time when an audience existed that was waiting for something fresh, iconoclastic with attitude. And the particular personality and creative talent of Kurt Cobain ignited the teen scene like a match to the California hills after a dry summer. And Nirvana exploded. But I will argue that they could explode as they did only because monopoly structures and a star system were in place that they could use as it used them. If the long hot summer of our teenagers’ discontent were to once again produce a landscape of dry hills, could any match ever again start such a conflagration? (And I seem to see the brown leaves everywhere).

    From the point of view of audience, the question manifests itself as what I like to call the “human bandwidth problem”. Nobody could possibly pay attention to all the stuff out there. Worse, with the rise of genuinely talented self-produced content – nobody can possibly pay attention to all the *good* stuff out there – or even to all the *really excellent* stuff out there. I choose to pay attention to danah’s blog – perhaps because that was where I stopped to rest when I was too tired to journey further. And so I set down roots. Are there other blogs as worthy of attention as danah’s? Almost certainly. Will I personally ever attend to more than a couple of those? Almost certainly not.

    So, how do you get all eyeballs looking at you – if that is what you want. I was going to try to answer that – but I’ve changed my mind. Instead, lets look at the hidden motives for seeking fame.

    I have a little different take on why people want to be famous. What you said about being rich and having the celebrity lifestyle – sure – there’s bound to be a lot of that. But I think there’s something more profound and real as well. I recall my young friend Casey, who I think of as my “typical teenager”, paradoxically because she is not particularly typical of anything – which I suspect is a lot more typical than most people imagine. Casey once showed me her Journal. Old school – written on paper in an actual notebook – filled with poetry, blurbs, drawings, collages, and words turned into visual art. And a theme emerged. She said it explicitly once on one of her pages. But the sentiment pervaded the work.

    I Don’t Want To Be Invisible.

    Just think on that, for a minute, as an iconic statement from one of today’s typically atypical teens.

    Flash back to a few months earlier. The car is loaded up with Casey and her friends. Here I am taking 4 teenage girls out for ice cream – and a fine mood everybody was in. (I didn’t find out until later that herbal mood enhancers had been employed.) And the girls were singing. A popular song, which I’ve heard on the radio dozens if not hundreds of times, but never learned the name of or most of the words to.
    “…when everything’s made to be broken – I just want you to know who I am.” And that last line was belted out with an unmistakeable gusto. That was the point.

    I Just Want You To Know Who I Am.

    I could rant on about parents who no longer know their children, Kids whose only knowledge of their peers is superficial socially defined mask constructs, and a society that elevates hiding behind the oh so beautifully constructed self (or the just as carefully constructed anti-self) to an art form. But those rants are beyond the scope of this discussion. Fame? Maybe because if a million people become in some sense aware of your existnnce you might find just one or two to be genuinely known by.

    And, perhaps there’s a deeper level yet. Perhaps some folks actually feel they have something to give. Perhaps they have a vision they feel the need to share. Perhaps they feel the need to let somebody else know what they have seen. Univerallly human, no?

    So, how does one find fame in the internet age. How does one be found as a “needle in a needle stack”? And what does it even mean if one succeeds? I find I have no answers. But perhaps having the questions will do for now.

    Thanks for listening,


  18. wk

    This makes me think how little I know about how US culture is… I’m in NZ & we tend to think things are much the same as here, only bigger… probably very inaccurate!

    I don’t know if any of you watch BSG but one of the recent eps was about this very thing. That basically people are only getting to do the work they were “born into”, there is a big union strike organised by Tyrol on one of the fleet’s fuel production places. At the end him & Roslin have this chat where she basically sees his point and says that she wants him to keep fighting for people to be able to do more than that. And then there’s the totally adorable bit where Felix (?) gets to go be a viper pilot.

    I do hope that your next *real life* president is that hot 🙂

  19. Kathy Sierra

    I think there are more distinctions we can make here… there’s a KEY difference between saying “it’s possible for you to achieve these things, given these circumstances…” and saying, “You DESERVE to have whatever you want.” It’s the “I deserve it” part that I see causing the most trouble with the teens I work with (and some adults). It’s the “really frickin’ hard work” part that’s missing as well.

    And there’s a distinction to be made about telling someone they *can* be *anything* when by *anything* you mean the lottery-like famous. But within reason, I’ve told my daughter that–given no physical, mental, or emotional limitations–it IS possible for her to do almost anything that can be achieved through working one’s ass off.

    As one who was raised to take that blue-collar-job-for-life and don’t even THINK about going to college, the other side can be equally damaging. A lot of the older generation that told us to accept our lot in life now greatly regret–at the end of their lives–that they accepted theirs.

    Somewhere there’s got to be a healthier middle ground/compromise that involves hard work and de-coupling “you deserve it” from the “you might be abe to do it” thing. And the lust for fame (as opposed to a desire to become something big and ambitious like, say, a heart surgeon) is a symptom of issues much deeper than just being told it’s possible.

    I do hope the “self-esteem” movement that went way too far in public schools is listening to you, though. I kept my youngest out of public schools largely for that reason.

  20. zephoria

    Kathy – i totally agree with you. Opportunities are there for some if they are 1) talented, 2) willing to walk away from the norms of their community, 3) willing to work their ass off. It’s just a difficult proposition for many. In some ways, i always feel odd about addressing these issues because i chose to walk away. I worked my ass off, went from suburban Pennsylvania to Ivy League land based on the belief that i could. And few around me did. And few around me could’ve. The problem is that i think we look around at the few success stories that we know (me included) and think that’s extensible to everyone. But sadly, i don’t think it is…

  21. David Brake

    Thanks for the references, danah – I managed to Google up the text for Elkind and Twenge though I couldn’t find the rest (annoying that Halpern’s book doesn’t participate in Amazon’s “search inside” programme!

    I knew there was something I dimly remembered reading recently on the whole self-esteem issue and it came to me – Po Bronson wrote an interesting piece for New York magazine “The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids. As I posted on my blog, it covers a lot of ground but the key take-away point for me was that you should be very cautious about telling your kid that s/he is smart – you should be praising them for putting in effort and/or for specific aspects of what they did. It sounds rather puritanical but apparently there’s evidence that praising a kid’s capability can be harmful – they can end up avoiding things that are challenging.

  22. GiGi

    When I moved to the US, I was struck by how pervasive the ‘fast and friendly/drive-thru’ concept was. So many tests/exams are multiple choice — all you have to do is memorize and select the right answer vs. being graded on how you get to that answer, as per in the UK when a lot of exams were essay or longer-form. I was horrified, listening to a group of small smiling school children singing a song whose lyrics consisted mainly of “I am special” and then imagining their little faces drop when they have a not-so-special grown up experience of getting laid off or something.

    But I’m wondering if part of this debate is less about being correct, or special, or famous, as it is about getting there quickly and the rush associated with that/beating the system.

    Being on Idol, having your novel selected as one of Oprah’s bookclub reads, winning the lottery… you skipped a step, you figured out a shortcut. And sure, then comes the alluring ‘freedom’ and power/money/respect but I honestly think we’re all guilty of tabloid tactics in celebratizing the people who figure out the shortcuts.

    England is famous for the ‘get rich quick scheme’ (as represented in countless Britflicks) – counting the money, spending it, or squirreling it away is neither here nor there; the shortcut is the compelling narrative.

    Tila Tequila, the Star Wars Kid, heiresses, “Idols,” marrying a millionaire on TV… being able to check in and out of rehab or find the lord (particularly popular in making parole)… I don’t know for sure, but it feels like there’s something all of these things have in common that’s to do with velocity. So to your point, danah, social sites and webcams are nothing but new vehicles that might get you there faster… wherever there is.

  23. Jake Lockley

    You have to look at the causes of patholigical narcissism to understand it. It’s all about an individual’s psychological defense mechanisms. It applies to rich, poor, and people from any culture, while what you discuss is particularly relevent to western culture.

    Level of narcissim is consistent with level of maturity, and key indicators all revolve around constructiveness of behavior. I do have to point out that Christianity (or rather the idea of worshipping a third-party entity as a greater good) seems to be required to overcome inherent narcissism in man as an evolving animal. It’s all about us when we don’t have more important things to worry about like food, shelter, or some caveman coming up behind us and clubbing us to death.

    Anyway, I could talk about this for days and give you all kinds of references to check out on narcissism, but what I wanted to point out that you didn’t is the effect it’s having on the quality of content we consume. The bologosphere is the gossipsphere, there’s more rhetoric and unqualified opinion than fact and research in the public awareness (despite the powerful tools we now have), reality tv is outcompeting documentaries as cheap but profitable content, the bar has been lowered by content such as Jackass and YouTube and MySpace, garage bands that target the lowest common denominator and lack the skill or talent of previous generations of garage bands are already touring because they have 50,000 “friends”.

    You also failed to mention that to appreciate the value of something it must be earned, and the more prosperous we are the more we give to our children rather than have them earn. The death of the teen working class is only in part due to narcissism, there’s also illegal immigration and the separation of classes it’s causing because kids don’t want to work a job that someone from a third world country could get. You might argue in part that’s ego, but it’s also wage competition. I miss the days when kids learned their way in the world by getting paper routes and working at fast food restaurants. Now you’re lucky if a kid has had any real responsibility in their life let alone a real job before they’ve graduated from college.

    Check out Mind OS: The Ultimate Blueprint for Business and Personal Life by Paul Dobransky MD. I found it online (P2P, Torrents) but not in print. It has a chart on page 91 that serves as a scale for narcissism/maturity. It serves as the best guide to measure behavior as healthy/mature.

  24. overthinker

    I agree with much of this article, but it uses ‘meritocracy’ incorrectly. Meritocracy is not the idea that “anyone can succeed.” It is the idea that anyone can succeed contingent on merit. It contains the strong implication that those who lack merit will not succeed. The problem has more to do with egalitarianism, where people are inculcated with a sense that everyone can be great, when in fact few are great, most not.

  25. zephoria

    Overthinker – sorry for not being clear. You’re totally right. What i was trying to get at is that people see “successful” people being less capable (less meritful) than themselves and so they think, wow, a meritocracy means that i should have access to that. It’s the combination of the myth of meritocracy and the fact that we don’t actually reward the best, but instead reward in order to maintain hierarchies.

    (The question of whether talent is innate or not is a different issue and just makes a mess out of everything.)

  26. Henrik

    That was a very interesting read. When I compare it with the UK, I notice that. Fame obsession is possibly more extreeme here. It seems to be the most extreeme when compared to other european countries, and I don’t recall the part of US I have visited as using that much media space for it. And on the contrary there isn’t anyone claiming that anybody can become president. Actually a recent study found that the social divide is widening. Success is a factor of where you grew up, not your motivation.

    I suspect that people see fame as a way to escape social divides. Apparently it is the only viable route that people see, which is very sad.

  27. Cameron

    Thanks for the arcticle. I really hope you don’t mind, but I plan to steal the phrase “Christian Industrial Complex” for personal use…
    Swinging the other way, you can cross reference this arcticle with the “philosophy” of the film Fight Club (Of which I’m a big fan)and start to make people realize that they are not precious little snowflakes… However, push this direction to the extreme, and then we have a society of robots… OK we already do. Robots with the dream of being the next Idol.
    Extreme narcisism or extreme conformity… Neither is a decent option. There will be people with the natural born ability and circumstance to rise to the top, and others who will never leave the dregs. Now do we fight this or accept this. Accept it and we enter “Brave New World” territory. People always want to rise above theit lot, and seemingly rightfully so. Enter narcisism…
    Hell, I enjoy my 5 seconds of semi-anonymous ranting in my own bid to have my voice and opinions heard. I think we all do. That’s why I’ve written this. That’s why you’ve written this. I doubt there are any answers that can be applied where ego’s are involved, but that fact that you have provoked thought is a step forward.
    Thanks again,

  28. Clayton


    Thanks for posting this, and especially for responding intelligently to the comments.

    I love the phrase ‘Christian Industrial Complex.’ That is a great crystallization of one of the major problems with the church today. It deserves a book of its own.

    I think there are two levels to this narcissm debate – the societal level, and the application level, i.e. how this applies to the family and other basic social units. I can see how one of the side effects of mass-production education is a growing desperation for attention on the part of adolescents. The current system isolates kids from their parents (who as more mature (hopefully) people are less affected by the hunger for fame/recognition/approval), and surrounds them with other desperate peers. I agree with Jake that a component of this is the individuals’ psychological defense mechanisms. In some people, pathological narcissists are produced.

    (BTW, Jake, nice irony in using this phrase: ‘there’s more rhetoric and unqualified opinion than fact and research in the public awareness’ in a blog.)

  29. Jens Alfke

    danah, I think you’re accurately describing part of the social problem that leads to narcissism, but I disagree with your claim that meritocracy is a myth or that the demise of unions has anything to do with it.

    Meritocracy is not a lottery: it asks people to work hard and prove themselves — exactly what Kathy said above about working your ass off. This is largely true in the US; well, as true as our other ideals like democracy are, i.e. definitely busted in some places and in some ways, but basically working. Real statistics show that social mobility between classes is much higher in the US than in Europe (although it’s been declining lately.) So it’s an odd choice for you to single out a 30-year-old British book as bolstering that claim.

    Moreover, unions are really anti-meritocratic, I think. Through collective action they try to round off differences in the merit of individual workers, so it becomes difficult or impossible for people to be rewarded (or punished) according to their competence. And a big part of the decline of unions has to do with internationalization of labor — the US steel and auto workers lost their cushy place because there are lots of poor but highly motivated workers in third world countries who are eager to do the same work. That’s simply extending meritocracy to the rest of the world.

    It’s the idea of the lottery, of fabulously high-status positions that only a tiny number of people that can attain (pro sports player, movie star, rock idol), that’s so pernicious. People seem to have no idea of the actual odds involved, of just how many other people they’re competing against. But they set their goals on these instead of on good and achievable positions that they could actually stand a chance of reaching if they worked at it.

    I think most of the problem is the age-old American vice of anti-intellectualism. None of those celebrity roles involve much actual thinking or mental effort. We don’t tend to revere people for their intelligence or brilliant creativity, unfortunately, and this is more exacerbated the farther down the class hierarchy you go. Why is that?

  30. mark madsen

    Two ideas that seem to feed each other are the powerful and well-known who insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions (think Dick Cheney getting drunk and shooting a man in the face, and having that man apologize for being in the way) and the idea that we are entitlte to fame and fame = freedom to do what you want. The latter is perpetuated in the popular media by stories of the former.

    Have you (or anyone) tried to model the system of feedbacks in around some of the myths/concepts you’re talking about, ala systems dynamics? That would be a fascinating way to think about how this whole system of cultural ideas and mechanisms supports itself.

    I never really thought about the self-esteem concepts in schools and what they do. I was on the other side of that barrier, which I attribute to why I was successful. Low self esteem = more work ethic, but too low = meth addict and too high = narcissists who later become disillusioned. Most of my peer group ended up in the “too low” category, something I suspect happens a lot in the urban poor situation as well, since success = quantity of stuff.

  31. Andrea

    I think fame probably meets different needs for different people; freedom, power and visibility are all on the list somewhere, but in different positions for different people. Personally, you could not compensate me enough for the meatgrinder of living my life in front of a camera. There’s no freedom about it–every action is scrutinized and criticized, you can’t even gain two pounds without someone taking a picture of your midsection and speculating on a possible pregnancy. The power you have is of a very circumscribed and peculiar sort–you have a lot of financial power, you can buy a lot of things, but if you try to step outside of your media-packaged role of singer/actor/model you will be mocked and belittled. (“They only published that book because he’s famous.” “Rock stars have no business pretending to be activists.” etc.) And while you are visible, you are so visible that it is impossible to be an actual human being–you have to assume the mask permanently because imperfections will not be tolerated. So YOU aren’t visible; the mask is.

    That said, I hope the undeserved-self-esteem movement dies, soon. The whole idea that people can feel good about themselves entirely outside of their accomplishments, goals, achievements, choices and activities is so completely destructive in so many ways–narcissism is just the most recently documented.

  32. ripley

    A fascinatin’ post.

    I’d just chime in on “meritocracy” to say that the myth is that by framing things in terms of that theoretical construct, you obscure how “merit” is determined.

    Even granted one could set up a meritocracy, you’d still have to decide whether reward comes from how hard you work or from the value of one’s final achievement.

    Is there really a connection between the two? Don’t many geniuses reel off amazing things without working? and don’t some people work as hard as they can but simply not produce something very good at the end of it?

    And how do we define valuable anyway? What if different people value the product of labor (or genius) differently – how does a meritocracy decide what is the correct value to reward?

    And how does a meritocracy work with the idea that valuable things can (and often are) be created collectively? Can you really allocate reward on an individual basis when people rely on a variety of networked resources (shared knowledge, culture, communication, education). Maybe the merit reward should go to the producer’s high school math teacher?

  33. Lin

    Saying that MySpace creates narcissists is like saying that video games cause murderers or heavy medal music creates devil worshipers. It’s just not true. If you are prone to those behaviors already then it might be enough to push you over the edge but for the average person it’s not gonna happen.

  34. Hapto

    if they are famous their life has a purpose.

    I would break that down to… the ego’s version of “if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it… did it really happen?”

    Maybe its Schrodinger’s cat ad infinitum out here on the net… Except it involves millions of people constantly peeking in the box… just to be sure.

  35. Sumana Harihareswara

    Anna Fels’s “Necessary Dreams” points out that the childhood or adolescent desire for fame is often a precursor to a more nuanced ambition, combining the urge to master some domain or skill with the desire for the recognition of one’s peers or community. She also notes that women, especially, feel the need to hide that wish for fame instead of developing it into a healthy passion to guide our careers.

  36. Rebel Sarah

    “Stamp of Approval”

    I think that in many ways, networking sites are about getting that “stamp of approval.” If people think they’re all that, they want others to acknowledge it as well. For the people that don’t have especially high self-esteems, I think many of them seek out that approval as well in hopes of feeling better about themselves. I think some are just desperate for attention and approval.

    To me, the people that seem the most well-adjusted on these networking sites are the ones that have minimal information posted about themselves, less than one page of pictures, not receiving or posting comments everyday (friends that are really close tend to keep in contact in person or over the phone, right?) and less than around 70 friends.

  37. C. Flynn

    Ms.Boyd makes a lot of great
    points about narcissism as a deep-seated societal problem encouraged by
    parenting trends that bar criticism. I can see where it might seem that
    the MySpace manifestation of it is just that. And yet I do not think
    it’s that simple– I believe MySpcace et al are far more insidious than
    the author asserts. The medium has an energy of it’s own that
    perpetuates and grows this stuff in a very distinctive way. Myspace is far
    more than just a symptom of misguided values when it becomes it’s own
    little vortex of daily obsessive picture changing and commenting that
    directly feeds some of the most unfortunate characteristics of the
    adolescent mentality. And it is unique to the medium because it is so
    easy and cheap to do.

    At least every little egomaniac who lines up to try out for America’s
    Got Talent or whatever has to get off his/her butt to do it. Not so with
    MySpace, which is not about doing anything other than gushing over
    yourself and your friends /about the way they look/.

    Would the asserted levels of adolescent narcissism lessen if MySpace and
    other technologies that encourage this personal OCD went away? Yup, I
    surely think they would– at least to some degree. But it’s moot, so

    As a parent, I try do what I can to ensure that very little unmitigated time in front of a computer is an option for my kid, and encourage engagement in other activities.

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