The Dehumanizing Effects of Constant Performance
Audience-fueled narcissism is especially toxic.
I don’t remember exactly what it said, but I read a tweet in December of last year that said something to the effect of:
What if social media is a terrible place to be because it’s weird to post about your life on the internet? Social media attracts the weirdest of society.
And man, I haven’t been able to get that out of my head.
The best article I read in all of 2022 was a newsletter written by Gurwinder called, “The Perils of Audience Capture: How influencers become brainwashed by their audiences.” I highlighted it in my year-end wrap-up just a few weeks ago.
Gurwinder is a former web developer and writer who researches and writes about how we are fooled by our relationship with the internet. I’ve been subscribed to him for a while now, and his stuff is always worth reading.
The last paragraph of “The Perils of Audience Capture” is the most profound. It reads:
This is the ultimate trapdoor in the hall of fame; to become a prisoner of one's own persona. The desire for recognition in an increasingly atomized world lures us to be who strangers wish us to be. And with personal development so arduous and lonely, there is ease and comfort in crowdsourcing your identity. But amid such temptations, it's worth remembering that when you become who your audience expects at the expense of who you are, the affection you receive is not intended for you but for the character you're playing, a character you'll eventually tire of. So the next time you find yourself in the limelight of other people’s gazes, remember that being someone often means being fake, and if you chase the approval of others, you may, in the end, lose the approval of yourself.
There is so much I could say about this, and at the same time I don’t feel like I have anything to add at all. So I’ll just reflect a bit.
Over the years I have worked closely with famous people and studied internet culture, I’ve learned something: the Venn diagram of “internet influencer” and “toxic narcissist” is closer to a circle than anyone realizes.
I don’t say that out of cynicism, frustration, or anger toward anyone. I write a bit about this in my upcoming book The Wolf in Their Pockets, but when you consider the ingredients it takes to make an internet influencer, the ingredients it takes to make a narcissist are preetttyy similar. Of course that isn’t to say all people who have lots of internet followers are narcissists, nor is it to say that all narcissists would make for good internet influencers.
However, what it is to say is that the route one takes to become internet famous often simultaneously leads down a road of narcissism.
And what’s worse, especially as it pertains to this Gurwinder piece is this: narcissism rooted in an audience’s affections is even worse than run-of-the-mill narcissism.
What do I mean by that?
Run-of-the-mill narcissism find us saying, “I am a great person. I am amazing, and I deserve only the best.”
Audience-fueled narcissism finds us saying, “My followers think I am a great person. They think I am amazing, and they will give me whatever I want.”
When our audiences (followers, subscribers, readers, or otherwise) are the fuel of our narcissism, we find ourselves always wanting to please them. We post even when we don’t want to. We overshare about our lives. We serve our audience as if it is the source of our identity because it has become just that.
Ultimately, we are led to live in constant performance mode. Why? Because we need to maintain the awesome image of ourselves that our audience projects onto us, and in order to maintain that, we must create the kind of content they long to consume.
We dehumanize ourselves in search of ourselves.
What if social media is often a terrible place to be because it’s full of a bunch of people trying to fuel the fires of audience-based narcissism?
What if by trying to find validation by shouting into the void, we’ve fallen into it?