We live in a world of selfies. So what?
Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of talk about the “culture of me.” David Brooks writes about the rise of narcissism. Bret Easton Ellis laments how social media has driven us to be faithful to a “cult of likability.” And TIME dubs millennials the “Me, me, me generation.”
Whether this wave of self-centeredness is new or merely amplified by technology, there’s no denying that we’re in the age of the selfie. Excessive focus on how we represent ourselves can lead to a myopic worldview — narrowing our worlds to a Facebook network or Instagram feed, with each of us at the center.
Brooks and others argue that as people spend more time online constructing flattering versions of themselves, they become less authentic and more self-centered. The argument, taken up a notch, suggests that people are thus less likely to 1) become the best version of themselves and 2) create the most positive impact in the world.
Yes, “the culture of me” can be terribly annoying. But is it dangerous? Does digital narcissism lead to lesser people and a worse-off society?
An optimist would say no, at least when it comes to personal development. People are investing in self-improvement at increasing rates (growing sales of self-help book one proxy). Adult education and lifelong learning are on the rise with online learning tools like Coursera, Udemy, and the like; Coursera’s most popular course in 2015 was titled “Learning how to learn.” Americans are finally letting go of their lock-jaw on big box food with a demand for the “natural.”
Better minds and bodies lead to better citizens, right?
Perhaps. From #BlackLivesMatter to The Ice Bucket Challenge, thousands have taken to their phones and laptops to support social change. Donations among millennials are at 84% , which doesn’t account for Kickstarter’s 3.3 million backers in 2014 alone. The tech community, often lamented for its apathy, got involved in the net neutrality debate by the millions. Researchers even say that “online engagement is key to turning a protest into a social movement and in prolonging its lifespan.”
But “slacktivism,” or armchair activism, has its limits. Volunteer rates are static around 25%, with the lowest rates among youth. Less than half of 18–24 year olds voted in the last presidential elections, dropping to 22% in 2014 midterm elections. We’re talking a big talk, but few are getting out of their chairs (this lazy author included).
While it feels great and does good to sign an online petition or donate $10, my fear is that these micro-actions come at the expense of long-term change.
Just as attention spans max out at soundbites and tweets, so too do giving spans. We read an article about [insert tragedy / natural disaster / social injustice here], breath a collective “that’s horrible” sigh, and move on. But what of the 300 Nigerian school girls? What of 4.3 million Syrian refugees? What of rising sea levels and life-threatening droughts? What of the millions of Americans still looking for jobs, or those who have given up? What about the 1 in 10 people who live without access to clean water?
The list goes on. And it can be debilitating. So much so that we sigh, say that’s horrible, and jump to the next article.
Apathy is no longer the problem — it’s a collective overload, a bystander effect at a global scale. It’s time we start taking action like the world depends on it. It’s time 1 in 2 people give back their time, 4 out of 5 vote. And it starts with a deeper understanding of what’s really happening.
I wish I had a solution. But I just have me. So my personal challenge in 2016 is to stop sighing, stop waiting, and do something. Not for every cause or every time, but start somewhere.
To be continued.