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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Whats Facebook??

Throughout history, people have used tools to share plans, build relationships and trumpet their achievements. Only in the past they were more likely to use a telegraph, a pony messenger or a campfire story than the likes of Facebook and Twitter. That’s how the conventional wisdom goes at least.

But some experts are arguing that social media has fundamentally transformed not only the means of communication, but the content–and the people doing the communicating. And in the process, it is altering an entire generation’s career ambitions.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor at USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development and author of the new book Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity, contends that the confluence of a new corrosive celebrity culture and the growth of technology that enables oversharing has led to a spike in narcissism among young people. In an interview with Entry-Level Rebel, she explains why broadcasting what you had for breakfast on Facebook does more harm than boring your friends.

Is there any hard evidence that young people are more narcissistic on the whole than older generations?

There actually is. There’s been studies done that have demonstrated that there’s actually been a marked upswing in what they call the Narcissistic Personality Inventory since 2002.

What’s to blame for that?

The currency of celebrity in today’s society is oversharing. It’s all about this collective obsession about them as people rather than being film stars or looking gorgeous on the red carpet. It’s about these banal details of their lives, and since that’s the currency in which we create celebrities, anyone can play a role in that.

Facebook is such a perfect example of this. So many of us are spending so much time on Facebook cultivating these personalities, cultivating in our way a fan base through status updates about little, intimate details of our lives, and there’s no question that that’s just an incredible self-obsession at play.

Movie and sports stars have been around for decades. What’s the difference between celebrity now and celebrity in the past? Is it just that we’re more interested in who stars are married to and where they shop today?

Celebrity in current society doesn’t always have to do with achievement. If you look historically at celebrity, it certainly was associated with some sort of achievement, whether it was playing sports or starring in films, those things require real talent.

Now, as a society, there’s no question that we’re more interested in prosaic details than celebrities as icons of perfection. That may have been their entryway into stardom. Angelina Jolie certainly became famous because she is a beautiful, Oscar-winning actress. That was her channel, but what we care now about is, oh my gosh, she fed her kids Cheetos! And that’s totally strange and unlike anything we’ve seen before.

How do you think this change in the nature of celebrity is affecting normal, non-celebrities? Can you elaborate on social media’s role in this change?

The first thing is, of course, suddenly our stars become people “like us” if we want to use Us Weekly’s mantra. That gives us more channels to become our own version of celebrities. Reality TV stars’ celebrity hinges on us getting scoops on their day to day lives. If we look at Facebook “celebrities” it’s the same thing. The people on our Facebook page that get the most comments, that we spend the most time looking at, are the ones constantly sharing information about themselves and engaging with their public. The question is, to what end?

If you’re Angelina Jolie, if you’re on the cover you’re selling magazines, maybe getting more film roles, so there’s an obvious payback for your celebrity. But for the average person, spending too much time on oversharing comes at the expense of doing something else whether it’s reading a good book, applying for a job or writing something that could get published.

What do you think all this oversharing is doing to young people’s ambitions and their attitudes towards work?

One thing that seems to be clear is that being a celebrity and being famous has become a really important life goal for a lot of people. There was a Pew research study that showed something like 50 percent of 18-25 year olds wanted to become famous. That was their first or second life goal. That’s obviously not the same thing as saying I want an MBA. That desire for public recognition that’s divorced from achievement has to be taking the place of other life goals.

So do you think many people are focusing on style over substance when it comes to their careers?

Certainly some people are. There’s no question that a lot of people are still very focused and don’t in any way want to have some sort of huge collective public and they’re not oversharers. But for people who are susceptible to needing that kind of recognition, do things like Facebook distract them from more important goals? Does the desire to become famous replace a desire to get another degree or to work harder at the office?

I read a great post on a blog called wanderingstan recently that talked about how all the author’s Facebook friends have these shiny online personas that don’t accurately represent their less shiny real lives, and that following them gives him a sense of inadequacy. Has your research turned up anything similar?

What I think you’re getting at, which is so fascinating, is that there’s almost a dichotomy out there. On the one hand things like Facebook and Twitter enable us to share banality –- the “so and so is eating a bagel” “this is what I had for breakfast” stuff which is just totally not interesting and yet for some reason we find it compelling. On the other hand, when you look at people’s profiles they’re able to create this more glamorous existence than they really have. People always look great in their photos, they’re doing something quirky or interesting, they have very obscure music interests. They create this persona while also oversharing the stuff that’s not interesting. All of that it speaks to the way in which we, on these social media sites, actually cultivate a type of celebrity.

If you take out the fact that it’s your random friend from high school and not Angelina Jolie, they engage in the same kind of behavior. It’s the cultivation of a certain kind of outward appearance. It’s also that we’re fascinated with these really small details. So it’s actually not very different.

And the question is if we’re busy doing that are we not busy doing things that are actually important? Are we ceasing to link recognition with achievement? As a society do we stop saying the way in which we gain acclaim is by working hard at the office, by achieving, by promotion? Is it more like there’s a whole other way in which I can create my own version of a fan base?


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