September 23, 2013
social networking

Is Facebook a Narcissistic Walled Garden?

I performed an anonymous experiment over the summer of 2013.

20130922-230802.jpgI left Facebook.

It wasn’t one of those celebrated public cries to the masses which normally goes something like, “hey everyone, I’m fed up with social tools and social networks and social sandwiches so I’m going to go into digital hibernation for a while … will you miss me … will I miss you … look at me, look at me, look at me.”

No, I simply stopped using Facebook and I didn’t make a big deal about it.

Well that’s not entirely true is it? People continued to occasionally tag me so it appeared (at times) that my social feed was in fact active. If someone sent me an inmail message via Facebook, I’d also answer those through the social hub feature of my Blackberry Z10. (yes, yes, I know) Furthermore, because I’m trying hard to be an actual author, I would occasionally post links and the like to my Flat Army page.

I’m sure the 100 odd people subscribed to the Flat Army Facebook feed are immeasurably better off. Have I mentioned I’m disillusioned with being an author? No? Ok, that’s for another day.

I didn’t technically ‘leave’ Facebook but what I did do was forego visiting the site to peruse any of the updates from my friends nor did I post anything personally on my own feed.

During the first week of September, now over two months into the experiment no one knew about, I was having a beer with one of my long-time buddies who I’ll call Keith. We got on to discussing Facebook and in particular new social norms. Keith is a 1971’er like me, is raising three young goats like me, is an educator like me and is follicly challenged … like me. Where we differ, however, is with Facebook. Roughly three years ago Keith left Facebook. Not the kind of superficial short-term departure like I did. No, Keith closed up his account and cut the Facebook umbilical cord for good. He didn’t tell anyone either. He just closed his account matter of factly.

Oh, and I lied.

Keith and I didn’t have “a beer” — we had a few — but that is precisely when things started getting interesting. I mentioned to him I was becoming disillusioned with Facebook. (Like with being an author) I argued Facebook was becoming difficult for me to be truthful with my feelings in (or is it on?) Facebook as well as my physical whereabouts. I explained the perpetual happy dance of Facebook status updates from my network seemed like it was a falsehood and even a hazardous form of narcissism. It was beginning to feel fake. I was being digitally twerked. On top of that, if I found people — my so-called friends — who were travelling from afar to visit Vancouver or Victoria (my two habitats) and they hadn’t proactively reached out to say hello face-to-face, were they really my friend? Conversely, I divulged over the past couple of years I was purposely avoiding my physical location on Facebook — I travel a lot — due to my personal feeling of letting ‘friends’ down if they knew I was in town and I couldn’t fit in a face-to-face visit.

Keith said at some point (there were a few Heinekens, so I’m paraphrasing), “Facebook creates a false sense of expectation. Prior to Facebook, we were happy to see someone after a year or longer absence because we didn’t expect to see them everyday in a social stream. We appreciated a letter in the mail or a random email that simply was sent to say ‘Hi, here’s what’s going on in my life’  but these days, with Facebook, our friends are in our face — pun intended — every day through the Facebook social stream. Our expectation is for immediate social gratification, and it’s always happy. We don’t bring up the bad news. We leave no time for separation. We leave no time for distance and thus the expectation is you’re there, everywhere … and happy.”

Like I said, there were a few wobbly pops so it may not be word for word, but you get the general point.

You may recall I shaved my Facebook friends list down from 550 to 350 in a previous post entitled, “I Unfriended You on Facebook. Are We Still Friends?” I unceremoniously unfriended another 120 since the post but I still suffer from this guilt phenomenon; the false sense of expectation as Keith pointed out. Facebook has always been a walled garden — let’s debate the pro’s and con’s of that another day — but to me it seems as though everyone has become happy but somewhat ironically, we’re not. We can’t be that happy … nothing is ever ‘that happy’.

And when we fail to mention we’re in town, or we’re having a bad day, or we’re in need of desperate assistance, or we’re fed up with the neighbour, or we suspect there is fruit rotting in the basement cellar … aren’t we simply using Facebook as a mechanism to lie to ourselves? Are we all that blissful?

And what of envy, or pessimism, or disdain, or ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentalities? Are we lying about our own Facebook induced narcissism?

Research is still too infant or nascent to prove my point one way or the other. One study suggests Facebook “provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection” yet paradoxically it states “rather than enhance well-being, we found that Facebook use predicts the opposite result – it undermines it.” (Kross E, Verduyn P, Demiralp E, Park J, Lee DS, et al. (2013) Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults. PLoS ONE 8(8): e69841. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069841) Another research paper found “that passive following [on Facebook] exacerbates envy feelings, which decrease life satisfaction. From a provider’s perspective, our findings signal that users frequently perceive Facebook as a stressful environment, which may, in the long-run, endanger platform sustainability.” (Krasnova, Hanna; Wenninger, Helena; Widjaja, Thomas; and Buxmann, Peter, “Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to Users’ Life Satisfaction?” (2013). Wirtschaftsinformatik Proceedings 2013. Paper 92.

20130922-230926.jpgMore data comes from the following:

  • “people who are narcissistic use Facebook in a self-promoting way that can be identified by others. The number of Facebook friends a user has and the manner in which posts are made on their profiles correlates directly with narcissism.” (Laura Buffardi and W. Keith Campbell, University of Georgia, Personality and Psychology Bulletin
  •  “we discovered that narcissists and people with lower self-esteem were more likely to spend more than a hour a day on Facebook and were more prone to post self-promotional photos and showcase themselves through status updates and wall activity.” (Soraya Mehdizadeh, York University, Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking)

After my hibernation I decided to look back at my own posts and examine my personal behaviour on Facebook over the past year or so.

I had become the very thing I am questioning now.

My updates were typically pleasant and not truly how I was feeling. Exhibit A was a three week trip to Europe over Christmas. The photos and updates on Facebook told a completely different story than what was actually occurring. In retrospect, it was one of the top two worst trips ever. So many things went wrong — and to come home to a flood as well — pretty much shredded my own Facebook credibility. The launch of the book? All rosy on Facebook but in hindsight it has been a tiresome, political and brutal experience.  And what of my Facebook travel behaviour? Yup, there were at least a dozen times I’d be in a particular town and omit the fact I was actually in town so as to avoid anyone knowing I was potentially within a latte or beer length away.

At this point in the article, you have either already left or are questioning how insane I actually have become.

My question as to whether Facebook is a narcissistic walled garden remains. My Facebook break has resulted in some solid thinking, good questions and a deep desire to solve the riddle.

I’m not closing down my account, but I am in deep ponderance mode.

What say you?

20 Replies to “Is Facebook a Narcissistic Walled Garden?”

  1. Hi Dan,

    I really liked this post, definitely some good questions being raised about Facebook and how it is used.

    A question every FB user should ask themselves is ‘does using FB make me feel better in some way and/or make me feel more connected to people I care about?’. If the answer is no to both, I would say it is time for them to leave FB. It sounds like ‘Keith’ came to that conclusion, and I guess that is what you are pondering.

    It is a difficult balance, what to post to FB – does one post the negative realities of life (e.g. ‘my dog died’, ‘I was just fired from my job’, ‘I’m not living up to my potential in life’) or do they instead focus on the positive aspects, however big or small they may be (e.g. ‘enjoyed a beautiful sunset with my family)? Personally I would rather focus on the positive, but the challenge then becomes making positive posts without boasting or appearing to be showing off. I think it is great when a dialogue ensues within FB but unfortunately I don’t think people use it enough this way.

    I think more people should cut down the size of their FB ‘friend’ lists. I don’t know how many FB friends I have (I know it easy to find out, but I don’t personally care) but truthfully I would ideally like to have fewer. Many people seem to want to have large lists of friends (why, I’m not sure; ego perhaps?) but I would rather be connected to a smaller group of people who want to be more connected, to share more, to comment more, to have a dialogue.


  2. Of course, the first thing I did is check to see if you unfriended me. 🙂 Of course Facebook is a walled garden of narcissism! What else could it be?

    Will ping you on the disillusion over authorship. Interesting.

  3. I love to get just a small look at what my family and friends all across the country are doing. I naturally filter what they post through my own lens of knowing them .

    I use it personally to post just what I am up to and things that are of interest to me. I do not have the need to post every day (or hour). Some people I have met over the years I will never see again. This lets me stay connected in just a small way.

    Perhaps we need to take a lesson from the book “The Information Diet” that I just read. Limit our postings to what we are doing and sometimes, what we are feeling (really feeling ;)). Just as though we were actually talking to our friend or family member. If we usually put on a brave front, that is ok because that is who we are.

    Your article caused a deep reflection. Thanks. I am still going to use Facebook and I hope you will too. I did miss you in August but I just put it down to your usual “holiday”. I look forward with interest to hearing about authorship.

  4. I keep a Facebook account open because it gives friends and family a little insight into my days and it lets me keep in touch with them in return. Instead of trying to use my account to reveal my innermost feelings about anything, though, I deliberately keep my status updates light. Almost invariably they deal with cats, home improvement projects, or me being a klutz.

    I don’t see this as me portraying a false sense of my life; I see it as a way of bringing a little humor to the people I associate with on Facebook. If I feel a need to talk with someone about my personal vicissitudes then I’ll make a phone call, maybe get together with friends for dinner, etc. I’ll find a way to use some form of communication that allows for interpersonal intimacy Facebook just can’t provide. Facebook is a communications tool, that’s all, and as long as it’s not the only tool in the shed it can be useful.

  5. Dan – Time to get back home from the UK … clearly lots of REFLECTING time on your hands! I rarely comment on your blog posts but this is quite an interesting post to say the least! What are people actually looking for when they browse through the many status updates? Connection? A feeling that they are ‘In the Know?” Or is it a brief escape from their own reality? Round 2 of the discussion with “Keith” and lovely wife certainly awaits! xo

  6. It’s interesting, it all seems to be routed in the “Fear of Missing Out” syndrome. I am particularly fascinated with the politically charged face book fights. When I did dare to share my honest opinion regarding a President contemplating another war or gun control BS in the US, I received a lot of nasty grams…so if I don’t want the fight, then I keep it sunny. I use Facebook because I have friends and family all over the world (like most people) but I do have an inordinately large family. Rather than loose touch with these people we can at least see that we are alive via Facebook. I do miss receiving a letter in the post, but in today’s world…as sad as it is to say…who has the time to write a letter??..I know…I know.. “I am that guy”… I always enjoy your musings Dan and I do find that you are pretty honest about what’s going on. Great thoughts on this though! Solider on social media warrior. Don’t go buying a log cabin in the woods and knitting your own yogurt, ok? When you are in the Windy City, it’s ok if you don’t look us up, we get it….life is nuts!

  7. Interesting piece, Dan. Thirty years ago I used to live in North-West London and visited Bexhill about once every 6 months for a weekend. I had my parents and 5 sisters and my wife at the time had her parents and 3 sisters, all living in different houses in the area; 10 houses!! Then we had our friends as well. Everyone expected us to see them “while we were in town”. We’d eventually get back home Sunday evening feeling exhausted. What I took from that still stands; that I have to be picky who I see (and I explain to them assertively if I can’t make it) and if the reverse happens, then I won’t get upset if someone doesn’t come to see me. Yes, Facebook perhaps makes your whereabouts more visible to more people, but I no longer get the guilt or paranoia. When I get to Vancouver again, I would trudge through deep snow, kayak through floods or fly in a rickety old float plane to see you, Denise and the goats, but if you’re out of town, then it’ll have to wait until next time.

    I take the chicken’s way out on Facebook. If someone’s status updates bore me to death (usually teenagers or early twenty-year-olds who post 280 photos from some party the night before, most of which are out of focus and they haven’t even bothered to orientate them correctly), or they start using it like Twitter to tell me what they’re doing every 5 minutes, well I just stop receiving their updates. But I just can’t do without Facebook; a complete junkie. For me, getting snippets or the occasional personal message from my daughter in New Zealand, my Vancouver family and the Chicago mob is interesting and informative. Watching people develop and hearing about the occasional highs and lows instantly is important to me. Maybe I’m just nosey, but I’m interested in my friends.

    There are some things which are totally unacceptable, like a friend who broke up from his wife a couple of weeks ago, and used Facebook to rant at her. I no longer receive his status updates.

    I’m definitely in it for the long haul, but selectively.

  8. Like you I find Facebook increasingly ‘meh’. I’m quite happy to converse with the people that matter through other means, which tends to leave Facebook as a kinda redundant sideline in life. I’m increasingly of the opinion that your friend Keith is spot on, and that life wouldn’t be any worse were we to cut that chord and do things in a different way.

  9. As someone that has moved cities, countries and professions quite frequently, I find FB is the most effective way of sharing with my friends and, more importantly, keeping up to date with friends on a schedule that works for me. I wish I had time to see everyone in real life, or share emails on a regular basis. I can’t even pretend that any of us have time for phone chats and to be honest, after 7 hours of conference calls a day, I’m not eager to get back on the cell.

    I don’t have to login to FB to feel fulfilled and I certainly don’t have to share, but I choose to do so and feel that the value I get – random comments from friends I can’t physically see and have opposite schedules (musicians, bar/wait staff) and are as busy as I am, just at completely different times – is well worth wading through the sludge and the false connections.

    I don’t think of it in terms of expectations. If I don’t go on for a day, a week, a month, it wouldn’t impact my life dramatically, but I do know I’d lose contact with people that aren’t as digitally connected and use FB as their one central hub.

    Not sure that answers your question, but that’s the value I see in FB. Well, that and a great way to trash talk about footie.

  10. Dan, I really appreciate your comments here. Thank you for being bold enough to name what many of us think.

    I’ve more recently seriously considered taking myself off of Facebook. 1. It is a time sucker as I get lost in the vortex of interesting articles, cute pictures and travel photos. 2. We gain a false sense, as you describe of how others are doing. We actually assume people are wonderful, fulfilled and happy. My own perceptions of others become based on their FB posts vs. how they are really doing. 3. I’ve been publiclly challenged a couple of times, a few times by someone close to me that seems to think it is ok to have a public argument on topics with me when we have a close, personal friendship. 4. I found out someone was mad at me because of something I had posted, totally misinterpreted what I said and didn’t say anything to me.

    Frankly, I am disillusioned and uncertain. To think that we can maintain, develop, nurture and truly see another individual based on ‘Likes’, ‘Comments’, ‘Status Updates’ is a very misguided way of being. The sad part is, many are not aware we are even doing that.

    Thanks for shining the light, as you always do.

  11. I think the story is, that people keep public the posts that they want public, but we will never see the much higher traffic of the private conversations.

    We are also seeing a mass education in the management of a public profile…

  12. Dan great post.
    Facebook I like to call ‘curtain twitching’. We get sucked into other people’s lives like reality tv. We can follow people’s social, personal and political activities. I have people on my page that I don’t even like nor want on my page but still stupidly flick through their pictures and read their idiotic comments instead of doing something worthwhile. Before you know it you’ve lost half an hour. That’s half an hour that I can’t really afford to lose at the moment.
    Nonetheless Facebook allows me to keep in touch with friends from around the world who lets face it I would otherwise lose touch with. While it is better to write a letter ‘pah what’s that’ or even an email Facebook allows us enough contact to be fully apart of someone’s life from the other side of the world.
    I rarely do status updates although I would occasionally ‘check in’. I do like to post any funny experiences I may have as of course we all love to share good/positive stuff. I enjoy the banter. I don’t feel the need to post anything negative. There’s enough of that.
    Neither do I really post pictures of my children. Tom just doesn’t get Facebook and so he has asked me not to. I understand.
    I don’t need to read posts about what people ate for lunch but it is nice to know what people are up to and if you meet them have a topic of conversation. Although in my case I meet old faces all the time since moving home and with my shocking memory Facebook has allowed me to stay on top and avoid that awkward moment.
    Facebook is a fantastic tool and wonderful for small businesses, Start up groups and even gain new friends but it certainly does have a responsibility as do we on how we use it.
    Keep the posts coming though Dan i love the way you write. I wouldn’t have known anything about Flat Army if it had not have been for Facebook.
    P.s I’m proud to say I have never changed my profile picture 🙂

  13. Hey Dan,

    You have always been an over analyzer, that is part of your success, charm and others’ fear of what you are going to make them feel. I am no expert but Facebook is just a tool to me. It’s part of my current cultural experience and a way to connect with those that I want to. I don’t have 1034 “friends”. For the most part, those that are connected to me are just that…connected. You know I am social and whether it is online or in person I hope that my posts reflect me. I don’t feel like I need to share all the time and like me in person many of my posts are impulsive…thoughts that pop into my head, moments in time that I am capturing and putting out there. I like the connection I get with those that mean something to me. I’m not walking away from it, yet.

  14. Wow…so many thoughts. I love the comments. Facebook, I think, has a different meaning, purpose, use …depending on the user. Anyone with fragile self-esteem could easily lose hours of their life viewing other peoples status updates and beautiful pictures only to walk away feeling more fragile. Others find it a great tool for keeping in touch, sharing tid bits of their life, reading interesting articles and walk away from it expecting nothing else. I definitely think it’s a walled garden, but whether that wall has a negative or positive impact overall on you personally, depends on you.
    I myself envy people who always have bright and witty status updates…they must be smarter than me I’m sure 😉 I also think I’m a bit of a ‘lurker’…but then again I’m a bit of a ‘lurker’ in person too. That sounds bad… I just mean I’m more of an observer, not quite the extrovert that others might be.
    After reading this post I reviewed my own Facebook page as it has evolved over the years…, my life rocks AND I almost always look good! It’s true, there were no photos or videos of my kitchen (aka: crime scene) after a rough morning of screaming at the goats only to still arrive late at school missing a library book and some ‘really important’ show & tell item. Although come to think of it, I bet that post would get a lot of ‘likes’. It would be interesting to see how many of my ‘good photos’ etc were posted after spending time viewing other peoples amazing lives….I know myself well enough to know that I’m sure I’ve fallen into that trap.
    There’s also a whole other conversation about how FB has impacted the life of one of my family members….we’ll have that on in person, but an interesting perspective I promise.
    I do like finding great articles and news stories that other people have posted or shared, and I also like seeing what’s going on in peoples lives, especially those far away that I don’t communicate with regularly. Admittedly though, I am finding it more and more consuming to wade through all the other ‘stuff’. For now, I’m keeping Facebook…but I think your friend “Keith” has a good point and one worthy of further discussion!

  15. I think psychological mess get more visible through social media. I was among thos who had a big network for work and private (in one and the same Facebook). No good combination when I look back. I have been away from Facebook since April this year. Updates and tags can in worst case create addications which many with me have been through. There are many forms for this and it takes awareness to come out from this. With no awareness, it will escalate and get worse.

    My conclusion is that FB and even Google + can be used to manipulation and false beliefs with accounts. The transparency on these social media channels makes it almost impossible to be 100 % safe as user from being threatened. Hate and false profiles are evidence that people with low self esteem can distroy the whole network you have builded up. My tip is to now trust unknown.

    Social media is not like a professional library. Many business makers thinks it creates success but I think it´s the opposite in my case. They want map my work and want to sell their services to me there. Narcisists are using all ways to create business, false friendships and send their marketing without our interest.

    I think we shall not take social media serious. There are islands with groups that collects around a topic or similar. The narcisist is in the centre there. It takes skills from us to understand where to be, what to publish and why! Parents must show the way and even teachers. To trust too much, is dangerous in social media.

    So we need to use a social media map and ask ourselves (private and professional) why we use it!


  16. Good Lord … what an unbelievable level of insight, opinion and thought. Thanks to you all for such candor.

    As I said, I’m not personally willing to shut down my Facebook account … but I am going to continue monitoring how I’m approaching my use of it, and my interactions within.

    I suppose if it’s a walled garden, my disappointment in some of my ‘friends’ is how ‘pleasantville’ it really has become. I’m guilty as well. The walled garden of FB (so long as you post your updates to your friends only and not the public setting) affords us an opportunity to be real. I love holiday photos, and recipes, and book reviews, and announcements, and a whole cadre of other FB updates … but I equally would be interested — if of course, you’re my friend — on some debate and dialogue on issues … or acknowledgement and/or social expression on things not going so well.

    If we can’t see each other face-to-face, perhaps FB is a place where this sort of exchange can happen?

    It’s a start, isn’t it?

    Anyhoooo … thanks again all. Much appreciated.

  17. Interesting post. Interesting comments.

    I love FB. WIth friends and family scattered around the US, there’s no way I can keep up with them all. It also becomes an Alt media news stream for me, with contacts posting links to interesting articles I might not have found on my own.

    If you want to talk narcissism, let’s talk LinkedIn.

    With two teenagers, it’s been interesting to me to see my teens have virtually abandoned FB for Twitter. They see FB as something “for the old people, like you” as my daughter recently told me.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the disillusion of authorhood. I experienced the same.


  18. This comments are just as interesting as the original post. Doesn’t it just come down to communicating with respect, integrity, maturity and exercising the Golden Rule….. and perhaps a little light humor? I’m not a big user Facebook, but totally see it as a communications tool, like the telephone. It doesn’t define the content, just gives it a medium to be heard. I really enjoyed and appreciated reading all these comment — they help me see it all from the 40,000-foot view! Thanks, Dan!

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