Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Identifying Your Own Narcissism on Twitter

On Twitter, we are broadcasting short messages to the world about ourselves. Every tweet has some of its author contained in it, but not all tweets are narcissistic. What distinguishes a narcissistic tweet from a non-narcissistic one?

A narcissistic tweet is something that aggrandizes the author without giving anything of value to the reader. "Here's what I'm doing" or "Here's what I'm feeling" or "This is my opinion." It's all "I" centered, concerned only with the needs of the author. If you don't think that's bad, imagine removing you own name and reading the same tweet from someone else. Would you even care?

The simplest test of narcissism is whether the tweet would be compelling to the world regardless of who wrote it. If it's not meaningful with the author's name removed, then it's probably just self-centered crap, destined to be forgotten instantly.

The difference between narcissistic and useful can be hard to distinguish in your own tweets. Just because you are talking about yourself and your own activities doesn't make a tweet worthless. The question is whether the tweet gives stand-alone value to others.

We are all, at our core, narcissistic. We want others to love us! But some of us learn to step beyond this primitive urge and actually serve the needs of others. In the end, people should value you for how you contribute to their own lives, not just for being you.

It is not necessarily narcissistic to travel to some interesting destination and tweet photos and descriptions of things you discover along the way. If those observations are unique and interesting in themselves, they are useful to your readers. Even though the journey is centered on you (where you are going and what you are doing), you are still performing a public service. You are taking your own experience, filtering it and giving only the most interesting and useful parts to others. Traveling has inherent value to others, just like being in the middle of a major news event, but you have to find the parts that are universally meaningful.

Should you also tweet photos of yourself while traveling? Sure! If I was visiting the Taj Mahal, I would almost certainly turn the camera on myself in front of the monument and tweet that photo to my followers (hopefully geotagged with the Taj Mahal's address). Is this narcissistic? Certainly! Deep down, I am saying, "Look at me! I'm special because I'm in a special place!" but you get a pass on something like this if the photo is interesting in itself and contributes to the credibility of your tweet stream. There are thousands of photos of the Taj Mahal already on the web. The world doesn't need another unless there's something unique about it. Placing yourself in the scene gives your tweet stream some immediacy and makes people pay attention. It shows people that you are actually tweeting from experience, and this increases the value of whatever you subsequently tweet—which is the interesting and ironic things you find in Agra.

It's not so interesting to tweet your location in your own hometown when you happen to be meeting friends. "I'm at the Berry Barn, 123 Main St., with Joe and Sue." That's fine if your only friends are Joe and Sue and people who know Joe and Sue. For the rest of your followers, it's just noise, and if you tweet too much of this stuff they'll unfollow you.

If you aspire to having followers around the world, not just on Main Street, then you have to broadcast things with worldwide appeal, which doesn't include the Berry Barn. You tweet above has value to Joe and Sue's friends, but it has only a COST to everyone else. Someone in another country is forced to read your tweet while getting nothing out of it, and this pulls down the value of your whole tweet stream.

A narcissist thinks his activities are important just because they're his. Therefore, he spews lots of tweets about what he is doing and how he is feeling. He also thinks his own opinion is important to tweet just because it's his. He'll tweet, "I love Sarah Palin" or "I hate Sarah Palin," but in both cases, he isn't giving the world anything it hasn't heard already. You get a pass if you can say something clever and funny about Sarah Palin, but even then the bar is very high. It has to be funnier than the million Sarah Palin jokes already out there.

Unless you happen to be a celebrity, no one cares about your opinion! Instead, people care about insight. If you have new information to offer, something that's never been said before, then it's worth tweeting. If you're just adding your voice to a million others, then it's noise.

If you ARE a celebrity, then you can get away with just about anything. For a stream of pure narcissism, check out @KimKardashian. For some unfathomable reason she has almost 7 million followers, even though she says nothing of value to anyone outside her personal clique. If she didn't happen to be a celebrity (and constantly referencing other celebrities) she wouldn't have more followers than the average teenager.

The rest of us can't get away with that. We have to actually give value to people if we expect strangers to follow us, and it takes time for strangers to recognize this value. It can be a long, hard slog!

@CharlieSheen may be able to attract a million users overnight, but the rest of us have to fight for every 100. This doesn't matter! In the end, we will win and Charlie will lose, because Charlie will never learn how to gain self-worth by giving to others. He will be forever trapped in the most primitive form of narcissism: "I'm special just because I'm me." (Or in his words: "I'm tired of pretending I'm not special.") He'll never learn to modify his behavior to serve the needs of others, so eventually he'll self-destruct. Like other narcissists, he'll perpetually seek perfect love and adoration that can never be achieved.

We may all be narcissists at our core, but some of us get a clue: To be loved by others, we have to serve their needs. We have to step out of ourselves enough to see what those needs are and filter our own output to address them.

Reducing narcissism in your own tweet stream doesn't mean eliminating yourself from it entirely. Frankly, you SHOULD tweet about yourself from time to time. Use of "I" and "me" is not necessarily selfish. In fact, it may be essential! Why? Because if you don't insert yourself and your needs into you tweet stream occasionally, people will start taking it for granted as a free public service. It is important to let people know there's a real person behind this output and not a robot or organization. Otherwise, your efforts will never be appreciated.

Yes, you WANT people to love you, but it has to be for the right reasons. You want to be judged for what you DO, not who you ARE! Children are valued for who they are. Adults should be valued for what they do for others.

If your tweet stream does something for people, then you ought to be recognized for it. If that's narcissistic, so be it. It's good kind of narcissism: seeking love and appreciation by doing good things for others. That's a noble undertaking! It's not noble to just say: "Here I am. Love me!" Sadly, that's how most people think, because they haven't broken out of childhood. They expect to be treated as special without doing anything for anyone.

You can break out of that, can't you? Just work on giving value to others, without losing yourself in the process, and the respect of others will (probably) follow.

Also see my YouTube video: "How to Twitter (and How Not To)"