Online culture, narcissism and the death of human connection

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What are we doing to one another? At a time when we have the capacity to connect more than ever before in human history, we’ve come undone. We pull away, we ignore, we miscommunicate, violate basic, shared social codes and manners that were the norm only ten years ago. We blame the technology (which we created), we blame age (it’s old fashioned to treat others with respect, and totally “normal” to treat others with disdain), we blame anything but ourselves, our own choices, behaviours or cowardice. We fail others online by failing to see their humanity, by failing to employ empathy, by treating others as flippantly as if they were products on a shelf to be chosen from, picked up or rejected, consumed, returned, exchanged, liked, disliked and thrown away when we tire of them. We idealise, devalue and discard both strangers and friends alike*. We hide behind screens, pseudonyms, and advertisements of our selves. We play up our good bits, hide the bad, and some of us outright lie and manufacture false selves. We are commodities, we are products. We are the pawns and by-products of late-stage capitalism. We perpetuate and feed the finely calibrated machine of consumerism that we created by selling our selves as products to one another. We publicise and perform our selves in ways that were previously only available to the famous, to celebrities, to performers. Andy Warhol’s prophetic 15 minutes of fame has morphed and mutated into fame all the time for all of us. Fame 24/7. We filter and pose our exteriors into acceptable versions of us, dictated by still-more-famous-than-us plastic people who have literally sculpted themselves into non-human, semi-artificial life forms, people who define the new “beautiful”, who define the new behaviours. People who seem to do nothing other than perform false versions of themselves to high acclaim. These are the people we emulate in this visually-focussed, superficial, virtual, performative, narcissistic world we have created.

We are all performers now, all the time. We willingly gloss over privacy agreements and give consent to god-knows-what’s-in-the-fine-print, not being fully aware of what’s being done with our information, our representations of self, our most private messages and photographs that we exchange without a moment’s care with strangers, all because we are so desperate to connect, to belong, to love, to share, to feel included. We are attention hungry and many of us are not prepared to do the self-work required to improve our selves and our self worth. Self worth is more dependent on ‘other worth’ than it has ever been before. We are addicted to it. The chemical rewards from the dopamine and oxytocin hit we get every time someone “likes” what we do, while intermittent, is enough to keep us coming back like junkies. Intermittent reward is a principle casinos operate on to get gamblers addicted, as do psychopaths and manipulative abusers. The principle goes like this (and it’s been studied): give someone a reward, randomly, but not always and definitely not consistently, and they will return to you, or your pokie machine, for more of that reward, no matter how infrequently you give it, and no matter how much it costs them, and no matter how much you violate them in between the moments of reward.

What are we giving up in the desire to connect, and why are we so blind to the fact that we are in fact, more disconnected than ever? Do we think that 24/7 connectivity in the palms of our hands via multiple social media or dating platforms makes us connected?  Messages stunted by limited character counts ping out on Twitter, bounce around the virtual walls and echo before dying, largely unheard and not responded to. Not only can we not say as much as we want to, the tiny messages we are permitted to send get largely ignored in the ever-flowing stream of self-expression and content-rehashing that whizzes on by. It’s overwhelming. I believe (and hope) we’d all rather cuddle up on a couch with a loved one, breathe in sync with one another, heart rates aligning, sharing words and experiences. I also believe that’s all we are seeking from these technologies and platforms, which promise so much, but deliver mostly heartbreak and superficial human connection of a magnitude I never witnessed in the pre-internet era. If I have this distance and perspective by virtue of my age, then what on earth is happening to “digital natives”? Have their brains developed in atrophied and stunted ways? Do they even know or appreciate the depths that friendship or intimacy can plumb if conducted offline without technological intervention? Or only as an adjunct to the shallow online default we’ve all become accustomed to?

All of these outbound one-way, superficial messages, all of the filtering and commodification of the self that is encouraged by social media, has led to an unnatural growth in narcissism, which is endemic to and epidemic among, such modes of communication. Narcissism has become normalised through social media and online dating interactions and threatens to become a global disorder that ruptures the fabric of society as we know it. The tech tools we’ve created encourage it and social media fuels and exacerbates it. Narcissism, in its most extreme form = the death of relationships. You cannot have a relationship with a narcissist, or not a healthy one anyway: a healthy relationship is one that goes both ways, in which both people’s needs are met. Narcissism is a solitary mindset that involves self-promoting to others or manipulating others for the sole purpose of receiving attention and admiration. It is a one-way transaction. Without attention the narcissist feels empty, hollow, meaningless, like they don’t exist. Just as we all feel when our posts don’t get “liked” enough online. There is a real danger in this way of thinking. With a narcissist, there is no genuine exchange; the narcissist’s disingenuous attitudes and extreme fakery render any authentic exchange or connection totally void. The equation goes like this: I pose, you applaud. There is no depth to the exchange beyond flattery and self-congratulation. It is a toxic and addictive cycle for those devoid of self worth or internal fulfilment.

The only thing the narcissist contributes in any given relationship is the production of false and carefully calculated flattery towards their victim/s in order to gain the necessary attention that they require. It is a game of looking in the mirror, making googly eyes at it, posing and primping seductively, stroking the mirror a little, and hoping the mirror will reflect the most gorgeous version of yourself back at you. Mirror, mirror on the wall… It is vital to the narcissist — as air, water or food is to the healthy person — that they receive such unconditional admiration, and also that there is no requirement to reciprocate. Narcissism is a one way street and we all suffer for its proliferation in recent times.

I write about narcissism because it is a term bandied about a lot, yet many don’t know of its extreme depths and the havoc and toxicity it can wreak upon those who fall prey to the worst of the narcissists: those with narcissistic personality disorder. Much has been written about this and as we edge closer to a reality in which narcissistic traits are becoming more and more prevalent; it pays to be educated and alert, so we are not complicit in the destruction of relating as we know it. Narcissism exists on a spectrum: from the healthy levels of self-worth or “self-first” behaviours needed for good internal and interpersonal functioning, all the way up to full-blown narcissistic personality disorder and malignant narcissism (which combines elements of antisocial personality disorder with narcissism). It is vital for our relationships and society that we mindfully temper our narcissism and balance it with robust levels of empathy, while also feeling whole within ourselves and being able to set and assert suitable boundaries.

After a recent relationship with a malignant narcissist, I have tried in vain to connect with new people via online dating, which is what has driven me to reflect on this issue. If my last experience — fourteen years ago — with online dating was seedy and unpleasant, add to this, this time round, the new-world-order that arose with the birth of social media and always “on” smart phones and greater digital dependence. It’s a toxic combination, and peoples’ behaviour both on and off dating apps has been utterly confusing and contradictory at times. There was the man who opened doors for me, answered all of my messages for weeks with care and great skill, who spent hours communicating with me and on dates, who one day just dropped off the radar. When asked politely for honest clarification of what was going on, obfuscation and avoidance ensued. I did not get an answer that was anything but evasive and it made me feel disrespected and like I was being put “on hold” like a product for later purchase. How is this consistent or respectful behaviour? I put such things down to the prevalence and acceptance of hideous behaviours such as ghosting and shelving in the dating community. Again, someone is valuable to you, until they’re not, at which point it’s ok to devalue and discard them without a thought for their feelings. Narcissism meets late-stage Capitalism. Or, you string them along with just-enough-of-a-hint-of-an-intention-to-reconnect-at-some-point-in-the-future so that they can be there for you when your current choice rejects you, or when you reject them for (probably) not being compliant enough. It’s a cruel way to treat a human being, and one that, thankfully, due to my recent abusive relationship, I’ve learnt how to spot.

Then there was the guy who supposedly knew a bit about the latest feminist mores and didn’t sexualise me prior to dating. I appreciated that. His latent assumptions about women and how they perform interest or desire came out later though when were discussing the prospect of having a casual, sexual relationship. He told me he was surprised I was interested in such an idea because the way I had dressed on both dates “hid my body”. Apparently that was a sign I wasn’t genuinely sexually interested in him. No matter that we had on similar outfits: jeans, cool jackets, practical underlayers and flat-soled boots. Enter the double standard. As a woman, my sexual interest could only be signalled, apparently, by donning heels, tight girly clothing, and showing my push-up-bra-supported cleavage. Where do these ideas come from? The patriarchy of course, the ideology of which social media and the internet help disseminate (yes, I chose that word carefully). My frank, verbal, sexual interest in this man didn’t matter apparently. My words and desire mattered little. My lack of “sexy” attire was apparently proof that I didn’t really want to fuck him. This attitude shows a sad lack of imagination and a barely disguised sexism that frankly shocked and offended me.

While I abhor ghosting people and being ghosted, it has its place when dealing with disrespectful types and abusers. Want a creep gone from your online dating app or social media account? By all means block them, no explanation needed if the person has been particularly disrespectful. I personally choose to let the person know if I feel safe and able to. It helps me to reach closure to decide I don’t want to be with such a person, and to tell them why. It also helps my self worth and esteem to articulate exactly what I do not want in a relationship and what I will not put up with. Having said this, I am talking about casual dates and people I’ve only communicated with for a few weeks, in most cases. In the case of more toxic people you may currently be enmeshed with, going totally no contact is the gold-standard recommendation for how to deal with a person with narcissistic personality disorder.  It is recognised by psychologists and experts to be the most effective way to stop such a person from contacting you, and the best way to move on and heal. It’s a simple concept. Narcissists thrive on attention. If you withdraw that attention, they will most likely decide you are of no further use to them and will hopefully move onto their next target, who they desperately need like the rest of us need food, water or air. If you do find yourself involved with such a person, please do seek professional help or advice before leaving; when you decide to leave a narcissist it can cause them to act out and inflict even more psychological or even physical abuse. It is often said that the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when someone decides to leave, so take all the care you can to protect yourself.**

Having experienced the murky swamp that is online dating over the past four months, I must say I am dismayed at humans and human behaviour. I am not having a fantastic time finding compatible people who remain compatible for long, or who don’t eventually ruin any hope I had by revealing toxic, sexist, or narcissistic behaviour. It usually comes out if you carefully wait and observe, and I’m grateful for that. Self-professed narcissist and writer H.G. Tudor firmly advises us all to steer clear of online dating. He states in no uncertain terms that it is a breeding ground for narcissists and that more often than not, especially if unprepared, one is likely to run into one of “his kind” there. I am intentionally using my time dating as a kind of extended practice session of a game I call “spot the narc”. Having devoted much of the last four months to researching narcissism and educating myself on how to spot it, I find it useful to put that learning into practice, as well as it being a way to practice being assertive, figuring out my relationship needs and wants, and enforcing boundaries. It’s tiring and rewarding in equal measure, and can obviously be upsetting when people treat me disrespectfully. I am, after all, human.

I hope that with greater awareness we can get this proliferation of narcissistic tendencies in society and in our selves under control. I genuinely fear for the potential of healthy, equal and respectful relationships when narcissism has become so prevalent in our every day lives, in the gadgets we hold in our hands, on the screens we stare at day-in-day-out, in our short-form methods of communication, in how we present performative versions of our selves and how we literally buy into the commodification of human relationships. When we are encouraged to participate in a collective, global delusion that revolves around an addiction to intermittent rewards and the resulting, short-term buzz that a moment’s attention can bring, we are rewiring our brains to prefer momentary, easy pleasure over depth and real connection. We learn what is popular and perform to please rather than acting and being from an authentic, complex core self. Connecting with humans in the physical realm is hard work, and we have become lazy. It takes courage, honesty, respect and authenticity. There is nothing to hide behind when we face another person, speak our truth, and risk disagreement or rejection. Have we become so afraid of one another that we are losing the ability to connect authentically? I hope not, but the time to strike and change the situation is now, before narcissism becomes an even greater threat to our relationships. A brave new world might be one in which we reassess the health of the online structures and systems that we have created and sanctify, educate ourselves about and re-evaluate narcissism and respect, and return to slower, closer, deeper connections. It is time to be brave.


*this  pattern is the cycle of narcissistic abuse and unfortunately it is becoming more prevalent within relationships and online culture generally.

**1800-RESPECT is the free, 24/7 national domestic violence hotline in Australia and provides expert advice and counselling on abusive relationships. For people in other countries, please google for similar services.

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