Why We’re a Generation of Digital Media Narcissists

Questioning why we post what we post, and why some stories are deemed more media-worthy than others.

Standing at the eL Seed exhibit at Art Talks not too long ago, I watched as some of the artist's Manshiyet Nasser family walked in to find the walls lined with the art they recognized from their neighbourhood – except the art was now being ogled by people with plenty of money and far too much wine. Actually, it wasn’t the art being ogled – it was they. I watched as the proverbial hawanem Garden City uncomfortably eyed the quiet yet pleasant older man in the galabeya – it was either that, or they gathered around him to take pictures, wine glasses in hand. As twentysomething hipsters took selfies with one of the little girls against the backdrop of a multi-thousand EGP piece of art, her face expressed a discomfort she was too young to understand.

Fast-forward two months to when I fell in love during my first trip to Aswan; I fell in love with the serenity, the Nile, the culture, and the people who call this place home. Between talking to strangers and taking it all in, I pulled out my phone to capture the scenic beauty of my momentary paradise. Then, as I felt compelled to sneak in a photo of two older men sharing tea and talk on a sunny porch – smiling as they enjoy the Nubian vie quotidienne that I so wanted to embrace – a wave of guilt washed over me. It felt wrong - voyeuristic, even. I remembered that same little girl and realized I was being those twentysomething hipsters, and that wasn’t okay.

It seems that we – the generation of digital media – have become narcissistic well beyond our own awareness. We're driven by likes, shares, followers, and clicks; we get our sense of gratification by refreshing our social media pages and seeing how many people have found us worthy of their digital acknowledgment. Aside from the fact that this is going to result in a boom for the therapy industry in the near future, it’s problematic because we're often compelled to capture the world around us not solely because we find beauty in it, but primarily – though perhaps not consciously – for the purpose of being the ones who captured and shared the beautiful moment, bringing the attention (and the affirmation in numbers) back to us. 

We don't post and think, "I hope this brings attention to the beauty of Aswan and makes people visit it." If we're honest, we think: "I hope people see how beautiful Aswan can be through my eyes because it took me forever to learn how to take such a kickass #NoFilter photo; I hope putting a thing or two about this Nubian man in the caption of my selfie with him will give a human element to the post since people have been obsessing with Nubians lately; I didn’t get the best shot, but hopefully this long and sentimental – albeit superfluous and actually meaningless – caption will make up for it.” Sometimes we even go so far as “Since I just bought this little purse designed by these refugee children whose names I’m not going to bother finding out, I should probably take a selfie with them and the purse… Oh, note to self: don’t forget to use #ethnic #authentic #supporttherefugees #artisan.”

It’s not about whatever it is we’re capturing – it’s about us.

When we start finding ways to benefit at the expense of other human beings – say, those who’ve found themselves involuntarily in our camera lenses – then something’s amiss.

Zoom out a little and you’ll find that the media functions on a very similar premise – independent media outlets, specifically. They’ll use rhetoric like "telling human stories" when it really entails only telling the tales of certain people whose demographic is currently in the spotlight; on the one hand, they’re doing good and informing the masses by sharing their stories, but the reality is that they’re only telling the hot topic stories that will drive more attention to their platform.

Borrowing the words of a friend as she explores Lindsay Lohan's recent claims of racial profiling, "But with [Muslims, Syrian refugees, people of colour] being the underdogs du jour, [far too many people are] sure to make headlines on the backs of human beings who are actually discriminated against, racially profiled, and denied refuge because they’re the wrong faith."

Activism and the plight of the underdog sell more than sex, with everyone hopping on board for their own personal gain. Suddenly every company is invested in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – the fancy term for big buck businesses giving back to the community – and everybody and their mama has become a social media activist for whatever is current and relevant – something dictated by those who’ve established a platform that echoes loud enough to be influential, often piggybacking off someone else’s struggle and making it their own.

So it was no surprise when my social media timelines flooded with Christian Egyptians wondering why the recent displacement over 80 Coptic families from their homes in North Sinai's El Arish after a man was shot in the head and his son burned alive – all following a video statement by an Islamic State affiliate group in which they declare Egypt's Christians their 'favourite prey' – was barely making headlines. To them, the question still remained: why does it seem like nobody else gives a shit?

Once again, it fizzles down to a fairly simple media reality: who cares? 

What do I gain? Can this be written off as ‘just another incident’? Is there a relevant hashtag we can use to gain traction? Will our demographic care enough about this to interact with it? Are enough people – nay, the right people – talking about this yet for it to be worth expending my resources?

At its core, media entities are far more concerned about the hits on their platforms than they are about the actual humans involved – as are we as individuals in our use of digital media.

It seems the right question to ask would be, “How long it will take for a (likely white) public figure/media personality to feign selfless pity for Egypt's Christians and take them under his/her influential wing, campaigning to shed light on their plight and making them a 'hot topic' that will get enough clicks to be worthy of headlines?”

Perhaps the issue is then that the media, and our present use thereof, is merely a manifestation of our subconscious narcissism – a projection of the invisibly rampant inferiority complex that plagues a generation that would sell its digital soul for some intravenous self-validation.

This isn’t about undermining the plight of Syrians, Muslims, people of colour, or any similar group; if this is what you’ve concluded, put aside your privilege and start reading again. It's about challenging the notion that some people’s plights are worth unabashedly spotlighting under the guise of humanitarianism while others barely get a self-indulgent ‘I Stand With Syria’ temporary profile picture.