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Let the Twitter backlash begin: Times calls Twitter users narcissistic


With the massive growth in Twitter over the last year, a backlash that wasn’t related to the now historical, and perhaps infamous inability to keep the service up was bound to happen.

Andy Pemberton in The Times leads the charge, with an article that calls Twitter users narcissistic among other things. Some choice quotes:

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

Quoting Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

“Receiving a tweet is like a friend whispering something in your ear,” says de Botton. “We all want people to whisper secret messages to us. Children like to play ‘I have a secret to tell you’. It’s great fun, but what they say is often not very important.”

“To ‘follow’ someone is to have a fantasy of who this person you’re following is, and you use it as a map reference or signpost to guide your own life because you are lost,” says James. “I would guess that the typical profile of a ‘follower’ is someone who is young and who feels marginalised, empty and pointless. They don’t have an inner life,” he says.

What a complete load of bollocks. Well, to a point.

Saying all these things falls into the stereotype category; while it’s true for some, it’s not for all.

As someone who has been on Twitter for more than 2 years, back when my then 400-500 followers placed me in the top Twitter users in Australia (depending on the service, I’m now anywhere from top 10 through to top 30) I certainly can say that I don’t tend to use Twitter as some sort of stalking tool to fulfill my life. Indeed, Twitter, particularly in the early days was very much a social networking tool where people with similar interests, or in a similar geographic location shared. I also don’t tweet everything, although I do tweet the mundane; I tweet when I feel like, and don’t try to paint a picture of someone I’m not. It’s probably to my detriment, but I’d rather 5,500 followers who care to follow me for me, as opposed to 20 or 30,000 who are following for some picture of me I’d paint that isn’t real. Life is to short for that, although I don’t begrudge anyone who does :-)

But I digress. Twitter is rapidly changing. What was once the near exclusive domain of those with an interest in tech, or related fields (it had a strong tie in to blogging communities before it became big), is now mainstream in a big way, and that includes big stars. If you said to anyone on Twitter 18 months ago that the top people on Twitter would be a Barack Obama, and a range of actors and sports stars, they would have laughed.

Stars bring in followers, and the picture painted by The Times for a sizable portion of the new comers isn’t inaccurate. Nor is it for the stars themselves; no doubt some are manipulating Twitter for self promotion.

But having said that, there’s a real purity to at least some of what we see with stars on Twitter. Be it Stephen Fry stuck in a lift, or Shaq O’Neil meeting fans in a restaurant. Twitter cuts out the middle man, so that “stars” can communicate honestly, and directly with fans. That, when done properly is a radical change in the norm, and one for the better. I’m the first to admit that telling the difference between controlled message and real is sometimes difficult, but it’s fairly clear to those who watch which stars are being open and honest upfront, and those that are spinning a line.

Because I’m completely narcissistic, you can follow me on Twitter here :-)

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23 Responses to “Let the Twitter backlash begin: Times calls Twitter users narcissistic”

  1. Pablothehat

    LOL I see the New York Times has around 68 Twitters and the Finanicial Times has around 8.
    Sounds like they are abit scared of Twitter to me, almost instant reporting from around the world, differing points of view from the mainstream media.
    The Telegraph and the Guardian seem to have embraced Twitter as a news portal, so why the reluctance from the Times?

  2. Boyhowdy

    It would seem to me the Times is right, the majority of people I know who Twitter (and I acknowledge there is an exception to every rule) try way too hard to make their life seem overly glamorous in their twitter updates. It is narcissistic to think that my day will be better for knowing what you are doing at every moment.

  3. tumblemoose

    Since I just started being followed by “NYTimes” I find this especially inane and a little sad. But hey, that's just ol' narcissistic me talkin'.



  4. dan

    while I do somewhat agree with you, twitter's status box does ask: “What are you doing?”

  5. ontarioemperor

    To imply that narcissism is isolated to Twitter users is missing the point. (How should one classify psychologists who are quoted in the Sunday Times?) Twitter, like any other tool, is just a tool, and you can be just as narcissistic (or not) with a fax machine or a spray paint can if you so desire. As for me, my true narcissism is my feed that records every song that I play via (Thankfully I'm not a Brightkite user.)

  6. Captain Jack

    They say that for micro blogs will be replacing companies like the Times.

  7. MsUnreliable

    Great article! The Times article seems to entirely miss the point of Twitter – it's not all glamour headshots and self-promotion – it's actually about forming contacts, if not friendships, and becoming part of a network of people who share your interests, no matter how diverse or obscure. It's about having conversations with people who you otherwise may not have met, but are all the richer for meeting them, even if you're limited to 140 characters!

    When I call friends (on a telephone, remember those?), one of the first things I ask is “What are you up to?” I ask because I'm curious – I like to know what my friends have been doing with their time, not because I want to be a voyeur or somehow fill a void in my own social life. Likewise, I like to tell my friends what I've been up to if I think it might be interesting to them, what I've been watching, listening to, reading, finding inspirational. If people don't care what's going on in my own little world, if they don't share the same interests, they either interrupt, tune out or just hang up. Twitter is no different.

  8. cami

    i am totally new to twitter and understand the social idea of staying in touch with close friends, family, business associates and the like. But in my short-lived foray into twitterworld, i scoped out some of the celebrity sites, too, and aside from being cleverely disguished marketing tools, it is rather sad it being used in a way the article describes.

    For example, for people like demi moore, where you have what seems to be a lot of people without real lives and their own interests voyeuristically checking in with their celeb “friends.”
    While on the other hand, you have the celeb “friends” making sure their loser followers know just what overseas adventure they are missing out on, what oscar party they are NOT invited to (but here, you can look at the kitchen, but we can't invite you “in” to the party, you loser!).
    It's hilarious if it weren't also so sad.

    Then you have the “friends” oohing and ahhing over darkly lit photos of moore saying how “young” she looks.
    Why does she feel the need to post a darkly lit photo of herself so people can comment on how beautiful she is — or ask for her secrets to staying young?
    Really? These people never heard of liposuction and botox? Really?
    they're on twitter — that so-called socially-advanced modern hip computer creation – but never heard of the old fashioned sucking out the excess fat machines and poking a needle in your forehead?
    Really? they use twitter and yet never heard of the $300,000 or so she poured into a full body makeover?

    Yet, these folks still feel the need to have all that expense validated by total strangers. Strange….

    How about admiring yourself and others who come by it naturally and through common-sense eating and exercise and never spent a dime on needles and fat-sucking machines, et al?
    Why not spend as much effort on yourself, so you not only look and feel good about yourself, but are successul in your own personal lives and maybe you will be too busy with your own family and friends and trips and events to really not have the time to twitter your imaginary friends.

    Sorry, but I think the Times is on to something….and if folks are so wrapped up in an imaginary life, it might be hard to miss.

  9. Jason Weaver

    I should imagine most of The Times writers are now using Twitter to crowd-source their lifestyle articles, so this not only seems inflammatory but somewhat hypocritical. The UK press is utterly obsessed with Twitter right now, because of the celebrities who use it. Oliver James doesn't seem to think that's unhealthy.

  10. Mark

    Yep – totally misses the point. It may have been narcissistic at one point, and maybe that's the type of people the Time's author talked with for the article, but it's much bigger than that now. It's a national (and international) stream of consciousness – small opinions that add up. For me and my friends, we rarely reply or 'recognise' each other's posts – just a way to constantly say what is (minutely) important or upsetting to us. A constant drip of information. There's something much bigger behind the simplicity of facebook and I'm not surprised that an old-school media author would miss it.

  11. Claudia

    Seems to me the Times people don't really understand what#s going on. It's a whole new dimension that's happening.

  12. Cyndee

    Marketing starts with WIIFM (What's in it for me) so we are all in our own little bubbles sometimes. But I would argue that the best twitter users have a legitimate reason for using the platform.

  13. Mr. Qwerty

    Twitter asks every user: 'What are you doing?' “Too busy admiring my own reflection in response to anything else anybody says or is doing” is my reply on behalf of 99% of the users I've come across on this overblown, over-hyped method of communication.

    I've contributed over 150 updates on Twitter and can barely get a response from most of the followers or others I've met there. It's a variation on American High School mentality; it's about who's popular and about which clique you're in. It's not about connecting with people and sharing information as it claims. Lastly, of all the social sites I've visited in my 12 years on the internet, it's the least sociable and welcoming – it definitely does not encourage conversation or getting to know more about new people.

    It seems on Twitter everyone thinks they're the center of attention. It's very much a product of the 'me me me' generation. Trouble is, in Twitterland, if everyone's a star, then nobody actually wants to be part of the audience.

  14. Anonymous

    I agree….Twitter is boring, narcissistic, tedious and those that use it rarely have anything informative, interesting or relevant to say. It is the equivalent of the bore in the pub that hogs the conversation , makes regular announcements on his private affairs and generally makes a nuisance of himself.
    What is this obsession with publicising one’s most intimate, embarrassing and tedious details?

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