Two days ago, as the world’s reigning A-list celebrity readied herself for another flirtation with the paparazzi; she broadcast, via social media, a photograph of herself in a fetching yellow dress. By the following day more than 300,000 of the nearly 12 million people who follow Kim Kardashian’s Instagram feed had indicated their approval by tapping on her post until it displayed a heart. A few hours after Ms Kardashian’s update the rapper Snoop Dogg (lately rechristened ‘Snoop Lion’ after a consciousness-raising sojourn with Rastafarians in Jamaica) shared a photograph of some yellow basketball shoes with the caption “Ol school Kobe. By Adidas get u some.” This elicited approval from 28,000 of his nearly 2.5 million followers. Yet, impressive as they are, these numbers pale beside those of the ubiquitous Rihanna. When she – with appropriate reverence – posted a photograph of Nelson Mandela on December 5, the gesture prompted no fewer than 4,000 comments from her 11 million fans, and it was liked more than 500,000 times.
With numbers like these it is easy to see why Facebook was willing to part with US$1 billion to acquire Instagram last year. At the time the company’s $500 million valuation seemed optimistic but since the purchase its membership has leapt from 30 million to more than 100 million, and it currently hosts more than 40 million images per day. Significantly, however, the site provides work for just 25 employees even though it is now worth more than the parent company of the New York Times, which employs more than 1,100 staff writers to say nothing of the many others involved in advertising, production, sales and distribution. It is sobering to realize that a venerable newspaper of record which produces more than 500 carefully edited stories each day is now worth no more than a negligible fraction of the microblogging service Twitter, currently valued at US$28 billion after a successful IPO.
The disruptions of the new media should raise more eyebrows than they do. At the moment the zeitgeist is primed for the excesses of endless, shallow self-reflection and investors are stampeding behind the opportunities they seem to offer. But the meteoric growth of online social networks, and the software that serves them, have created the conditions for a perfect storm of the “irrational exuberance” former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned of shortly before the dotcom crash. At the moment, however, it appears that neither Wall Street nor Silicon Valley is willing to look beyond the whims and infatuations of the moment. And why should they when everybody else is busy gazing into virtual mirrors?
When the social critic Christopher Lasch wrote his classic study of the “culture of Narcissism” in 1979, he pointed out that in Freudian psychoanalysis the term was used for people whose shallow sense of their own identities disposed them towards finding echoes of themselves everywhere. It is one of the less encouraging signs of the times, then, that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary recently chose “selfie” — “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website” — as their word of the year. (The OED’s editorial director wryly observed that: “The use of the diminutive -ie suffix is notable, as it helps to turn an essentially narcissistic enterprise into something more endearing.”) Even President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron found time for a “selfie” with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt during the commemorative ceremony for Nelson Mandela. With such an abundance of self-admiration in the air, it is no surprise that Facebook, the platform best placed to exploit the new culture, now has more active users than the population of Western Europe and the United States combined.
It is hard to overstate the speed at which new digital distractions supplant old ones. The image-based network Pinterest, for example, has recently attracted valuations of up to US$4 billion. But while the rise of each new digital forum or platform produces another round of visionary rhetoric the political realities offer a stark contrast to the utopian promises. The Arab Spring was hailed as part of a “Facebook revolution,” but next to nothing has been said in these same networks, about the political winter that followed.
Several years ago the technology critic Evgeny Morozov noted that although the Facebook cause, Saving the Children of Africa had attracted more than 1.7 million members it had raised just US$12,000 (or less than one-hundredth of a cent per person). Not only was the group’s lacklustre fundraising practically useless given the scale of the problem it sought to address, but “if psychologists are right and most people support political causes simply because it makes them feel happier, then it’s quite unfortunate that joining Facebook groups makes them as happy as writing letters to their elected representatives or organizing rallies without triggering any of the effects that might benefit society at large.” This abdication of political responsibility has proved to be a common pattern with groups that try to engage others in political activism online.
Social media has done little to alter the political crises in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. On the contrary, faced with the prospect of trying to understand complex news from the Middle East or the simpler pleasures of celebrity intrigue and consumerism, millions of us have voted with our thumbs for Kim Kardashian et al, or for shopping discounts, rather than an update from some far-off conflict zone. Self-interest used to be an economist’s phrase for the rational actions of consumers. It provoked debates about the power of enlightened individuals to move markets and develop economies. Today, however, it tends to be associated with something narrower: our collective penchant for boundless narcissism and the unexamined urge to market ourselves as though we were products competing for consumers.