At bustling attractions such as amusement parks and landmarks, it is not uncommon to see people ranging from a gaggle of teenagers to a lone wolf take out their mobile phones and get ready to post pictures of themselves on their Instagram or Facebook accounts. They often find one or two selfies that are perfect, but marred by a few flaws, be it a strangely large jawline or a misshapen nose. When faced with such a dilemma, they do what most people nowadays are wont to do; open up an application and edit out the blemish. Without a second thought, they post the edited picture, complete with a bright filter and a few hashtags, and wait for their friends to “like” it. On social media, deception is Photoshop edits and sunny filters; it is inflated egos and exaggerated advertisements.
As social media becomes an indispensable part of the modern routine, the content that is actually being shared seems to increasingly distort reality. Nowadays, people tend to twist their stories for the sake of fake satisfaction, rather than fulfilling the purpose of communication by opening up their true experiences. Many came to question the credibility of social media under the current circumstances and tend to view it in a negative light. With the line between the virtual world of social media andreality becoming more blurred, what kind of lasting impacts will this have on individuals and society as a whole?
From Twitter to Instagram
Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook—these are the most popular social media websites that constantly provide users a vast amount of information and room for communication. The first successful social media platform in the mainstream media was Twitter. There exists a view that Facebook is the pioneer in the field, but it was limited only to college students and high school students during the time Twitter was rapidly emerging in 2006. Twitter utilizes what is called a “tweet,” a 140-word post, which is visible to one’s followers and the public. While there is a profile page, it only contains basic information of the user. In the world of Twitter, what defines oneself is what the individual thinks in written form. The users are judged simply by their tweets. While it recently became possible to upload images of oneself, it is mostly the tweets and the words that form the bulk of communication.
However, the advent of Facebook has very much changed this formula established by Twitter. Facebook has amuch more developed profile page, and it is possible to upload almost the entirety of one’s personal information, ranging from their birthday to their workplace. The fact that Facebook utilizes a more visual-oriented system indicates that the mode of communication has shifted from sharing ideas in a written form to sharing one’s private lives through photos.
To attribute Facebook’s success only to its profile page is definitely an understatement. Facebook’s popularity seems to stem from the various forms of content shared by users. Though one’s pictures, videos, and locations serve as the main features, more personalized functions such as one’s feelings and status can also be updated. However, the evolution of social media platforms has surpassed what Facebook had to offer, leading other platforms to gain substantial traction over the recent years.
Instagram was launched in 2010 and hasgathered an immense following ever since. The focus of Instagram is on images and pictures, which is the exact opposite of Twitter. There is hardly any written information on the profile page; it only consists of a brief introduction and the history of all the pictures uploaded. Instagram posts should always have pictures in order to be uploaded but can be posted without description, showing that images are prioritized over texts. Many Instagram users prefer to use hashtags (written as #) to list some keywords rather than using proper sentences. The hashtagsserve as a navigator to group up pictures relevant to the viewer’s interest.
This trend has now reached a point where people are becoming more comfortable with communicating via images than texts. According to Statista, as of January 2017, Facebook had 1,871 million users, while Instagram followed with 600 million, and Twitter with 317 million. Another statistic from the same institute shows that the growth rate of Twitter was the lowest among the major platforms, accumulating only 313 million in 2016, while Instagram boasted 400 million new users in the same period.
Smartphone Screens Became the New Mirrors
However, this transition has broughtabout the side effect of undermining the credibility of contents on social media. One such example would be the abuse of Photoshop. Since profile pictures have become such an important factor in social interaction, people try to look as attractive as possible. Mobile applications for better selfies, such as B612 or Cymera, have become increasingly popular over the years. More than 100 million downloads of B612 have been made in the Korean Google Play Store alone.
Aside from the overabundance of selfies, many either overtly or covertly show off their material wealth on social media, whether it is a picture of their newest luxury purse or a high-end vehicle. In a way, it has come to serve as a sort of stage for those who compete to be the flashiest and the trendiest, which in turn generates a sense of relative deprivation for the vast majority of users without such trappings of success.
So, what has prompted this latest phase of social media’s development that is better described as a place for selfpromotion? It seems that the answer lies in the famous Greek mythology of Narcissus. The beautiful hunter Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection, to the point he would do nothing but stare at his reflection until he died. This mythology served as an inspiration for the psychological term narcissism, which is used to describe an inclination to pursue gratification from egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes.
Professor Park Sun Woong (Psychology) states that narcissism canprovide an explanation for the increase of bluffing and showing off on social mediaplatforms. “While it may be conventionalto think the exact opposite, there is a newconsensus among the academia that themore self-conscious you are about yourlooks, the more narcissistic you are likely to be,” he states. He reinforces his claimby explaining that while narcissists are veryself-confident, they ensure their self-esteem by recognizing how others view them.
▲ Professor Park Sun Woong. PHOTOGRAPHED BY PARK TAE IN.
In a 2014 research paper conducted by Park, he and his team theorized that the distribution of tablet PCs and smartphones has created an optimal environment for narcissism to flourish. Smartphones have transcended the function of phones into high-quality photography, and selfies taken by ever improving graphics of smartphones is a surefire way to gratify one's superficial self-esteem. Coupled with such technological advancement, the social atmosphere that encourages individualism over collectivism seems to have triggered a latent desire in people’s minds to stand out from the herd.
To prove that narcissism has become widespread in Korean society, Park and his team used the method of Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). NPI is aseries of questions where a person chooses one of two sentences that better explains themselves. One example would be a choice between, “I am nodifferent from others,” and “I am greaterthan others.” A narcissistic answer equalsone point and the higher the total scoreis, the more narcissistic that person is. Park and his team compared the results with past samples to find that the average total score reached 17.35 in 2014 compared to 15.98 in 2000.
The intensification of narcissism can be combined with the aforementioned idea of narcissism’s focus on the perception of others, to explain the proliferation of bluffing and showing offon social media. Most social media platforms have the system of “likes,”which provides a measurable standard for these narcissists. The more likes they accumulate, the more confident they become about themselves. Since it is difficult to distinguish what is real and fake, small adjustments on their photos serve as means to boost one’s self-esteem and self-satisfaction.
Narcissism: Loving Oneself?
However, one is best advised not to take the rise of narcissism at face value. While those who are critical of the prevalence of narcissism warn against inflated egos and injurious swaggers, some are more sympathetic toward the trend. In light of the recent influx of homemade psychological tests and online quizzes designed to test one’s sense of selfesteem, along with a renewed emphasison believing in oneself, narcissism may bethe key to vanquish the beast of self deprecation. As such, a healthy dose of hyperbole could help people overcome their bouts of depression and instill in them some much needed confidence.This contention is enthusiastically supported by psychoanalysts, who claim that a dearth of narcissism may lead to self-hate and more seriously, undermine one’s psychological integrity.
In particular, narcissism could serve to counterbalance South Korea’s propensity to favor the community over the individual, a product of the country’s Confucian roots. Even today, countless employees attest to being suffocated by their employers’ emphasis on hierarchy and subservience, which is only exacerbated by Korea’s draconian military culture seeping into the workplace. By reinforcing individuals’ self esteem, narcissism allows one to combat the overbearing influence of the community and cultivate previously stifled faculties such as creativity.
Furthermore, many people approach social networks as a means to vent their frustrations over the daily injustices they suffer through. Similar to how those under immense pressure tend to stress eat, studies have shown that social networking, especially sharing one’s lives on SNS platforms, was conducive to relieving stress.While the veracity of these claims has been contested in the psychological scene, it is evident that stigmatizing a user for embellishing their experiences and photos will place a greater burden on their already stressful lives. Seen from these perspectives, narcissism is not as much an inimical influence as an antidote to the perpetual disease of self doubt.
Social Media Gets Abused for Profits
In the meantime, corporations have jumped into the social media scene, realizing that this is practically a goldmine of marketing opportunities. Corporations freely exploit these platforms to advertise their products and many advertisements on social media share similar characteristics. Unlike those of traditional media, the ads on social media are more subtle, up close, and personal. Many creators uploading their contents onto social media focus on experiencing products firsthand. These creators are not celebrities, but ordinary people. While the use of celebrities might generate more publicity, this format allows customers to relate to products on a more personal level, thereby gaining more exposure in a favorable way.
These content creators possess significant social influence since, in many cases, they have their own form of supporters—followers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and subscribers on YouTube. Their popularity is often bought by corporations seeking to market their products. While some reviews are real and honest, there are more than several cases in which the products are sponsored by companies. This unavoidably causes many to doubt whether such reviews are indeed unbiased and impartial. Customers who expected an honest review may realize that they were fooled only after they purchase the product.
Many cosmetics companies, for example, recruit Social Networking Services (SNS) supporters for advertisement. For instance, Aritaum, one of the most popular cosmetic brands in Korea, employs college student editors frequently. One condition the company requires from the applicants is to have active social media accounts. Even if the student editors did try to write genuine reviews, they cannot be free from the profit structure of sponsorship and the benefits they receive in return.
▲ Smartphones have become a new source of media. PROVIDED BY SHUTTERSTOCK
Nevertheless, while some people say that companies are taking advantage of consumers on social media, this sometimes seems to be the only viable option from the perspective of marketers in today’s information society. Living in a media-saturated environment overwhelmed with countless advertisements, advertisers need to make use of various mediums to promote their product and appeal to consumers. By delivering their advertisements on more personal level on social media, marketing strategists are able to increase brand exposure, thereby improving brand image.
In fact, aside from serving as a marketing platform for businesses, social media could actually help people filter information in some cases. Professor Sung Yong Jun (Department of Psychology) explained, “Nowadays, social media makes it easier for consumers to share information and filter out false information.” Due to the rapid advance of technology, consumers now have more power and information to decide whether or not an advertisement is worth their time. Also, customer reviews allow consumers to be more informed about a product without the advertiser interjecting, while at the same time allowing businesses to become exposed to new customers.
Regulation Required for Social Media Reviews
Furthermore, there are regulations to curb deceiving advertisements in Korea. Professor Choi Sejung (School of Mediaand Communications) mentioned, “Forpower bloggers, if someone receives sponsorship from a business, it is absolutely necessary to add a disclaimer, or else they can be punished.” Consequently, adding disclaimers could be a tool to assess the credibility of the information provided on a blog.
Furthermore, Professor Choi explained that, specifically with power blogging, if people feel like the blogger’s external motivation—which refers to behavior that is driven by external rewards such as money, or fame—is much higher than his or her intrinsic motivation (behavior that is focused more on meditative experience), people tend to disregard the writer’s compliment and consider it a waste of time. Misleading content on social media likewise can also reduce the effectiveness of advertising.
The problem is that, unlike blogs, Instagram and other well-known social media websites do not have this disclosure policy. If this absence of regulation continues, more and more clueless consumers will become victims of misleading advertisements. In turn, this could backfire from the perspective of marketers, as the credibility of their advertisements will suffer as a result. Inthat sense, more concrete guidelinesare necessary to prevent bothmisleading online social mediaadvertisements and damage to amarketer’s reputation.
A Tenuous Balancing Act
Both the rise of narcissism and the appropriation of social media for advertisement purposes are saddled with their own problems, but are not completely bereft of silver linings. Narcissism can induce deceitful behavior; it also serves as a means to relieve stress. Advertisements on social media could encourage advertisers to exaggerate or flat out lie about their products, but confers greater negotiating power to consumers and presents producers with a great marketing tool. Given that what ostensibly seemed asexecrable influences turned out to have both positive and negative aspects, a new conundrum arises; how can social media users phase out the latter while preserving the former?
One answer lies in excising the “like” system from social media networks altogether. Although not very feasible, seeing as how the ability to “like” another’s posts is one of the central and most popular features of Facebook, Twitter and whatnot, it can be a useful means to keep excessive narcissism incheck. Without the “like” system, users will no longer embellish their photos or exaggerate their experiences just for the sake of gathering attention, while those who seek self-gratification or stress relief will keep reaping the benefits of moderate narcissism. On the corporateside, advertisers who used to lie about their product to accumulate likes and increase product exposure will lack incentives for continuing to do so, hopefully leading to less deceptive advertisements.
▲ Kardashian promotes morning sickness pills. PROVIDED BY GIZMODO.
A more realistic solution is simply being more mindful of the deceptive nature of social media. Recently many people have become more cognizant ofthe uncanny valley effect; in otherwords, users have started to notice the almost imperceptible distinction between real life and embellished photos. Users’ newfound ability to distinguish between what is real and fake, along with the rising awareness of the prevalence of deception in social media, allows those who tend to post deceptive photos to continue to indulge in their activities while preventing other users from being deceived by said photos. In the case of advertisements in social media, users should take advantage of the comment sections; it only takes one user to comment about the deceitful nature of a certain advertisement for every user to become aware of the fact.
Navigating the Waters of Social Media
Social media, with Facebook and Instagram at its helm, has come a long way since the days when Mark Zuckerberg first came up with the idea for a small group of college students at Harvard. No one could have fathomed that this single website would revolutionize the way humans interacted with one another and that it would affect the bottom line of so many businesses worldwide. There seems be to no end in sight for the growth of social media, judging from the increasing number of new users each day.
Since there is no denying the formidable power of social media, it is imperative that its users fully grasp the consequences of their footprints and behaviors on social media. Otherwise, it is too easy to fall prey to the allures of the social media and become yet another social media addict with his or her head buried in the virtual world. As long as users take everything with a grain of salt and do not let their popularity or lack there of on social media get to their head, narcissism is not necessarily detrimental to one’s mental health, nor are endorsements by influencers. Only with responsible behavior and a good understanding of the forces at work can individuals make the most of groundbreaking medium of communication.