Web 2.0 Fuels Narcissism, Is Destroying America

Posted on July 18, 2007
Filed Under Culture & Technology |

I figured it was time for a sensational headline, and I finally found a topic worthy of one. The opinion section of the San Francisco Chronicle had an interesting article this past Sunday entitled “Too much self-esteem spoils your child.” In it, Andrew Lam of New America Media comments on the level of narcissism that exists within Generation Y (also known as the “MySpace Generation”) and provides an intriguing cultural comparison:

Take Jeong-Hyun Lim, 24-year-old business student in Seoul. Popularly known as Funtwo on YouTube, his rock rendition of Pachelbel’s “Canon inD” has turned him into a global phenomenon. Lim’s dizzying sweep-picking — sounding and muting notes at breakneck speed — has had some viewers calling him a second Jimi Hendrix. His video, uploaded by someone on YouTube has been viewed 24 million times so far.

But Funtwo is self-effacing, a baseball cap covering much of his face. No one knew who he was until Virginia Heffernan wrote about him in the New York Times last August. She called his “anti-showmanship” “distinctly Asian,” adding that “sometimes an element of flat-out abjection even enters into this act, as though the chief reason to play guitar is to be excoriated by others.”

Some in the West with this kind of media spotlight and Internet following would hire an agent and make a CD. But Lim told Heffernan, “I am always thinking that I’m not that good a player and must improve more than now.” In another interview, he rated his playing around 50 or 60 out of 100.

Lim’s modesty is reassuringly Asian, echoing the famous Chinese saying: “Who is not satisfied with himself will grow.” In a classic 1992 study, psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler compared academic skills of elementary school students in Taiwan, China, Japan and the United States. It showed a yawning gap in self-perception between East and West. Asian students outperformed their American counterparts, but when they were asked to evaluate their performances, American students evaluated themselves significantly higher than those from Asia. “In other words, they combined a lousy performance with a high sense of self-esteem,” noted Nina H. Shokraii, author of “School Choice 2000: What’s Happening in the States,” in an essay called “The Self Esteem Fraud.”

The article points out that a 2006 study found that two-thirds of college students who took a Narcissistic Personality Inventory evaluation had above average scores, representing a 30% increase since 1982. This growth is linked with the “self-esteem movement” that teaches American children that “I am special.” The result has been “super-sized American egos.”

San Diego State University Professor Jean Twenge, author of “,” believes that this self-esteem movement has resulted in the “MySpace Generation.”

Certainly, it would be naive to argue that Web 2.0 services like MySpace are the cause of this problem. The self-esteem movement started long before Web 2.0. But I would argue that Web 2.0 services like MySpace and YouTube have served as a sort of positive feedback loop, fueling the increasing narcissism of America’s youth. After all, these services make it so easy to show off “what you’ve got,” to express your “individualism” and to scream “look at me!” Web 2.0 is literally a narcissist’s wet dream. Before, only the people you knew could be reminded on a constant basis how great you are; now you can now tell the world.

So what does this all mean and why should we care? The United States faces some of the most crucial economic challenges it has ever faced. Countries like India and China are now hubs of innovation and China in particular is on a fast track to become the world’s economic superpower. The amount of wealth being created overseas is staggering and much of that wealth creation is coming from the transfer of our wealth (i.e. foreigners fund a huge portion of our debt and are increasingly acquiring American companies). The dollar is sinking, reflecting declining confidence in the United States economically and politically.

I think narcissism plays a major role in this and I believe that Generation Y is ill-equipped to deal with these challenges. In fact, its philosophies are likely to make the situation worse.

Take, for instance, the impact Generation Y is having, and will continue to have, on American business. A number of articles have been written about Generation Y as it enters the workforce. Fortune published an interesting one that noted:

When it comes to Gen Y’s intangible characteristics, the lexicon is less than flattering. Try “needy,” “entitled.” Despite a consensus that they’re not slackers, there is a suspicion that they’ve avoided that moniker only by creating enough commotion to distract from the fact that they’re really not that into “work.”

Never mind that they often need an entire team - and a couple of cheerleaders - to do anything. For some of them the concept “work ethic” needs rethinking. “I had a conversation with the CFO of a big company in New York,” says Tamara Erickson, co-author of the 2006 book “Workforce Crisis,” “and he said, ‘I can’t find anyone to hire who’s willing to work 60 hours a week. Can you talk to them?’ And I said, ‘Why don’t I start by talking to you? What they’re really telling you is that they’re sorry it takes you so long to get your work done.’”

And though Gen Yers will eventually have to grow up - like all of us, they’ll lose their parents, face layoffs and suffer insane bosses - they are stretching the transition to adulthood well into their 20s. “If we don’t like a job, we quit,” says Jason Ryan Dorsey, the 28-year-old author of 2007’s “My Reality Check Bounced!,” “because the worst thing that can happen is that we move back home. There’s no stigma, and many of us grew up with both parents working, so our moms would love nothing more than to cook our favorite meatloaf.” It’s a position borne out by the numbers; 73 percent of Pew’s respondents said they see their parents at least once a week, and half do so daily, a fact that, however sweet, sort of makes you want to download “Rebel Without a Cause.”

With this level of parental involvement, it’s a miracle that Gen Yers can do anything on their own. “It’s difficult to start making decisions when you haven’t been making decisions your whole life,” says Mitchell Marks, an organizational psychologist and president of consulting firm Joining Forces. He points to one of his recent projects at a software development company. His client, which had one health-care plan, was acquired by a bigger firm that offered five more.

“The twentysomething software developers were up in arms about having to choose,” Marks says. “That was their No. 1 issue - not ‘Will I lose my job?’ or ‘Will there be a culture clash?’ but this -because they were just so put off that they were put in what they viewed as a very stressful situation.” One can’t help but wonder how stressed they’d be with no health insurance at all.

But even for the Gen Yers who try in earnest to succeed, Marks says, the way they’ve been raised can still be detrimental: “They’ve been made to feel so special, and that is totally counter to the whole concept of corporations.”

Gen Yers still respond most of all to money. There’s no fooling them about it; they’re so connected that it’s not unusual for them to know what every major company in a given field is offering. And they don’t want to be given short shrift - hence the frightening tales of 22-year-olds making six-figure salary requests for their first jobs. One could chalk that up to their materialism and party-people mentality, but author Erickson has a different take. “They have to get some money flowing because they have a lot of debt to pay,” she says.

No one joins a company hoping to do the same job forever. But these days even your neighborhood bartender or barista aspires to own the place someday. What’s more, the ties that have bound members of this age group to jobs in the past - spouse, kids, mortgage - are today often little more than glimmers in their parents’ eyes. So if getting Gen Yers to join a company is a challenge, getting them to stay is even harder.

Dorsey - who in true Gen Y style dropped out of college to write an earlier book, “Graduate to Your Perfect Job,” without having either graduated or gotten a job - recommends starting small. Business cards are an easy way to make young employees feel valued. Letting them shadow older employees helps, as does inviting them to a management meeting now and then. And marking milestones is major, says Dorsey. No birthday should go uncelebrated, and the first day on the job should be unforgettable.

Admittedly, I’ve cherry picked the worst of the article. As a member of Generation Y myself, I don’t think Generation Y is all bad. But the philosophy that is popular with members of Generation Y often consists of:

No matter how you spin it, none of these philosophies borne of the self-esteem movement are good for the United States economy even if Generation Y does have unique “capabilities.” In the global marketplace, the United States faces competition from nations that have risen from second and third-class status because their cultures supported an approach that Generation Y’ers would immediately dismiss.

At the end of the day, many members of Generation Y are ill-equipped to survive in a global marketplace that is highly-competitive and cares little for the individual. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and for Generation Y’ers in the United States who think they are above-average and going to change the world by the age of 30, the news is not promising: of the more than 6 billion people who reside on this planet, many are smarter than you, more mature and most importantly, because of the challenging circumstances they faced growing up, more hungry and willing to put in the hard work required for success. Their values and priorities are different, and they probably didn’t have mommy and daddy around to support them and tell them just how great they are. In many cases, these people don’t simply carry their individual dreams and aspirations on their backs; they often carry the dreams and aspirations of an entire nation on their backs. Call their nations communist, socialist, authoritarian, dictatorships and just downright “backwards.” I’ll call them what they are: our new owners.

In the one minute it takes you to view the photo gallery of a guy on MySpace flexing his muscles in front of his new souped-up Cadillac Escalade (leased, of course) or to watch a girl on YouTube “shaking what her mama gave her” to a Shakira tune, our national debt increased by over $1 million. Much of the money used to finance this debt comes from foreign investors. Web 2.0 may not have created the narcissism beast that I think is contributing to the economic decline of the United States, but it’s certainly feeding it one MySpace profile at a time, one YouTube video at a time.

By the time you finish watching this video, the United States will have added over $2 million to the national debt. That’s money that we, and our children, will pay back one way or the other at some point in the future, most likely sooner than later.

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17 Responses to “Web 2.0 Fuels Narcissism, Is Destroying America”

  1. Erik Kalviainen on July 18th, 2007 2:32 pm

    Lovin’ it! Another great post. Maybe generation Y’ers would stop obsessing about what others think of them if they realized how infrequently others thought of them. People are too busy obsessing about their own identity to give someone else the attention they think they deserve.

  2. Drama 2.0 on July 18th, 2007 3:46 pm

    [Start Narcissism]

    Thanks Erik! I’m such a good blogger, don’t you think? Which paragraph did you think was the best? I liked paragraph 4, but paragraph 10 is also really good. My mommy called me to tell me that she liked 10 the most.

    [End Narcissism]

    [Start Reality]

    I think you make a valid point. At the end of the day, the people that most Generation Y’ers are showing off to don’t really care about them. Narcissists often befriend other narcissists simply to improve their own images (and to pat each other on the backs). There’s nothing sincere or genuine there. Unfortunately, the narcissistic behavior that individuals engage in to express their individuality (and superiority) is most frequently a major turnoff to the people who do matter.

    [End Reality]

  3. Michael Camilleri on July 18th, 2007 10:33 pm

    New York Magazine had an article, The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids, related to this topic back in February that’s worth checking out if you want to read more on this topic.

    While I think there are definite dangers growing out of increasing narcissism I think you might be playing up the boogiemen of India and China a little much, at least from the innovation angle. India and China are hubs of economic activity but I’m not sure many would consider them hubs of innovation. I could be wrong but the last thing I recall the Chinese giving the world was the firework and the noodle.

    Whether innovation moves overseas, though, may increasingly be irrelevant thanks to globalisation. Not everyone’s an innovator and the benefit of innovators in the past has been that they help employ other people [em]in their country[/em]. The problem narcissistic Generation Yers face isn’t that there won’t be any innovators amongst them, but that those innovators will simply outsource work overseas to those willing to, well, work.

  4. Drama 2.0 on July 18th, 2007 11:43 pm

    While you are correct that India and China aren’t yet the leaders in technological innovation, I think they have innovated in some other key areas (manufacturing processes, etc.). The following articles provide some interesting insights on this topic:


    Lest it appear that I’m playing up the “boogiemen” of India and China, they’re not the only countries that we should be watching. In Asia, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan are all formidable competitors. European nations like Sweden and Estonia have been the source of innovation in the technology sector, and the amount of technical talent in the former Soviet countries is significant. In the Mideast, the United Arab Emirates is building Dubai Silicon Oasis, a 7.2 million square metre science and technology park for the microelectronics and semiconductor industry.

    I look at what’s happening and don’t have any doubt that the balance of power has already shifted and innovation is only one component of this shift. Things like government policies and culture have all played a key role.

    I agree with you that Generation Y will have innovators, but the problem is that significant innovation (I’m not talking about “innovations” like Facebook and Digg) typically requires a number of things, including research & development and execution.

    The United States has been rather rapidly losing its strength in the fields most critical to R&D - science and engineering:


    On the execution side, it’s hard to envision that a nation of narcissistic youth is going to produce the next generation of leaders we need. Great leaders know how to execute, are decisive and can balance the needs of the group with the needs of the individuals within the group, benefiting both in the process. I personally see a lot of Generation Y’ers with tons of ideas but no skills to actually execute on them. Ideas are a dime a dozen. If you’re too busy to actually get shit done and want to outsource the creation of your idea to a country where people aren’t lazy, I’m afraid that you’ve already lost the battle.

    Additionally, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for Generation Y to do anything when our nation is bankrupt (technically it already is). Foreigners fund our budget deficit, invest in our stock and real estate markets and are increasingly buying American companies outright. It will be interesting to see Generation Y’ers try to outsource the creation of their “innovations” when their currency is worthless.

  5. Drama 2.0 on July 18th, 2007 11:56 pm

    By the way, thanks for posting that article, Michael. Great read.

  6. Michael Camilleri on July 19th, 2007 5:50 am

    I apologise for the comments below. I realise I’m now going off on a tangent and I should make clear that I think by and large you’re correct in identifying several problems about Generation Y. Well, without further ado…

    Those three articles provide some definite food for thought but I’m still a little sceptical. Some of that scepticism stems from my experience with Japan. In the 70s and 80s many of the same arguments being made about China (and India) were being made about Japan. Here we are 30 years later and while there are certainly areas in which Japan increasingly dominates Western companies (automotives), there are nowhere near as many as many predicted back at the time.

    Having worked in the Japanese education system there may be a simple answer why this is the case. While the West may be guilty of implementing an education system that rewards mediocrity Japan (and my guess is this is true of many Asian nations) have implemented education systems that rewards rote learning and hierarchical deference. It is incredibly difficult to get students who have been taught within these systems to think creatively or innovatively. I have stories to reel off into the wee hours of the morning of students set the most basic tasks who fail dismally because they required independent thought.

    When you consider that innovation is largely about the conceit that everyone who came before you was doing it wrong it’s not hard to see how a system that indoctrinates the belief that your superiors are, well, superior would prevent this kind of thinking. Part of me hopes that my experiences are not indicative of the system as a whole — or at least the systems of other countries — but I’m not holding my breath.

    I’m also not so sure debt is as big a problem as you make it out to be. Without a doubt it’s a concern but countries like Japan and China that help facilitate easy credit in the West do so because in some respects it is in their interests to do so. Should the dollar continue to plummet the immense foreign currency cash reserves these countries hold will become worthless and the cheaper cost of labour and materials that help give their economies an edge will disappear. I do think there will come a point at which Generation Y has to realise that credit means you owe money to someone else and that is a big problem but I see this more as a problem because of the dangers debt can cause to the fabric of society (depression, family breakdown) as opposed to the ownership of Western companies.

  7. Drama 2.0 on July 20th, 2007 12:34 pm

    In regards to Japan, I think you have some interesting insights as you’ve obviously worked there. The one thing that I keep in mind when it comes to other countries: many have histories of innovation. The Chinese invented such things as gunpowder, the compass and paper. In my opinion, it’s not too far-fetched to assume that the ebb and flow of history will see shifts in which countries take the lead in innovation.

    In regards to the debt, to a certain extent it is correct that nations like China have an interest in making sure that our dollar does not evaporate. They loan us money which we use to buy their products and they earn interest on it. It’s beautiful for them. However just as savvy investors know, there comes a time when you have to cut your losses, and the pressures on the dollar from a plethora of sources are significant. As countries like China develop their own consumer markets (and strengthen relationships with other nations that have strong consumption), I think you’ll see that these countries will place less importance on the United States market. In fact, many economists are increasingly noting the sentiment around the world that the United States just isn’t as important as it used to be. There was an article I read recently detailing how many key people in the governments and financial sectors in other countries believe that if the United States was to enter a recession or depression, the impact on them would not be as great as Americans might expect.

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