09/25/2014 08:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Do We Equate Smartphones With Narcissism? Web Savvy Has Little To Do With Self-Obsession


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ABC’s new comedy “Selfie” sets itself up as unsubtle update of “Pygmalion”: An “Instafamous” Eliza Dooley (yes, really) undergoes a makeover of self-improvement. Once you move past that elevator pitch, there’s something interesting about the extreme way the show uses social media to signify millennial superficiality. This is not “Selfie” specific. It’s something we see often in cable representations of image-conscious teens and 20-somethings. Conflating the Internet and narcissism has become the standard, but web savvy and selfishness are not the same thing.

Let’s start with Eliza. The show posits that because she has a ton of Instagram followers, she must have forgotten to make any friends in real life. “Being friended is not the same thing as having friends,” she says in a somber voice-over narration. Cue her savior, played by John Cho, who Eliza asks to re-brand her (or, as he sees it, “make her a better person”). He tells her to put away her phone, instructs her to ask people how they are doing and demands she dress “less slutty.” It’s all an absurd cautionary tale for how we millennials become entrapped in the need for attention to fuel our unbridled egos. Wake up and smell the coffee, the show’s strangely stern morality seems to say, and don’t Instagram it first, lest you become an awful person in need of a patronizing John Cho makeover.

Because this character depiction carries the narrative of “Selfie,” it's all the more obnoxious. Eliza is just a bloated version of young adult characters we see throughout primetime television: “Modern Family,” “2 Broke Girls" and even “Parenthood,” which has some of the most refreshingly complex teenage plot lines on TV right now, uses this trope. Staring at a phone is a symbol for being tapped out and self-involved, in need of a literal and figurative wake-up call (or at least parents at a dinner table grumbling about “that damn phone”). It has come to reflect this boiled down idea of the millennial as a narcissistic, entitled monster. Somehow, TV characters knowing how to interact with modern technology has come to represent everything Joel Stein would blame on the “Me Me Me Generation.”

There is some statistical truth to the presiding beliefs about millennials, though this is not the point. Even if we (shortsightedly) concede narcissism and entitlement as a fact of an entire generation, the way current technology interacts with that doesn’t make it a descriptor of those traits. By way of obvious example: You can be an avid Twitter user and also extremely well-informed. Often, it’s required.

Sure, Instagram (the focus of “Selfie”) is not the same thing as Twitter. There is a certain vanity to believing anyone has an interest in your pumpkin spice latte, but when we’re talking about that characterization of image-consciousness and self-obsession, it becomes a bit more valid. The cinematic representations in question, however, are hardly ever nuanced enough to focus specifically on one medium or its intricacies.

Consider the idea (as New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz has put forward) that selfies are considered a new art form. Or as Pamela Rutledge explained over at Psychology Today, they can be a type of self-expression that allows the subject to explore themselves in the context of their environment. That’s all a little advanced for the average of eight Kardashian-Jenner selfies uploaded daily or Eliza’s account as it’s represented. Still, the idea of selfies, even completely removed from web savvy, cannot be equated to self-obsession.

At one point in “Selfie,” Eliza has to describe the rain using an app (“medium rain against rooftop with overspill from gutters"). Do you get it yet, wayward, entitled, narcissistic youth? Don’t get lost in the Internet and forget to appreciate the world around you. The Internet is your way to interact with the world around you. Using a smartphone is basically required for maintaining relationships with other people. Not having one doesn’t mean you are selfless and tapped into the moment, it’s more likely you’re out of touch. Yeah, there are things being lost in the march toward singularity, but there are also things being gained. Either way, the greater dexterity with which millennials adapt to these growing necessities shouldn’t be a symbol for some kind of self-obsession. Besides, there's plenty of evidence that even the most vapid Instagram users appreciate the beauty that surrounds them. How else do you think they figure out that they're so #Blessed?

Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca



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