01/16/2013 02:55 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

Communicating Narcissism

Remember a few years ago the almost universal and somewhat quickly-executed movement that waged war on people who took their own photos in the mirror and then posted them to Facebook? Facebook friends would post comments like "nice mirror pic -- lol" or "Really? a ducky-face self-pic Sara?" and those comments quickly guilted most folks out of the practice and the downfall of the narcissistic self-pic-mirror-shots quickly ensued. It also helped that the new iPhones had reverse cameras -- no mirrors necessary.

Flash forward to 2013 and although the individual self-pic may have dwindled online, narcissism on Facebook may run more rampant than ever before. As a communication professor and probably more importantly an avid and active picture taking Facebook user guilty of narcissistic Facebook posts, I consider Facebook an excellent source of material for communication study. It also allows for excellent discussion of interpersonal and other communication habits, and my students enjoy using it when discussing these concepts because almost all of them can relate to the site which helps the concepts come alive. Of course, the sheer inherent nature of Facebook itself is narcissistic. It is the place where we put our stuff. Of course it is about us. However, through a revealing and energetic discussion with my college honors students the following narcissistic personas (and their modus operandi) emerged. Because of that day, I think a bit more before I post, and I thought others might find this either comforting or interesting.

The Brand Addict

This person takes a picture of something quasi-intending for it to be the primary content when uploaded to FB. Let's say it is the temperature outside as displayed by the car dashboard. The caption reads, "so glad I live in Florida -- 72 in January!" However, the picture is taken at just such an angle that we can see the luxury car logo on the steering wheel. Whether the poster is conscious of it or not, the caption actually becomes secondary as pictures are worth a thousand words. What becomes primary is what is in the photo -- and the students had a field day discussing their Facebook friends who do this with their designer goods. I found this quite interesting as well as quite common on my Facebook newsfeed.

The "to the person who" People

My class was not as certain if this was narcissism or evocation of empathy by the Facebook poster, but what they all agreed on is this MO has been worn out online. That is, the poster who begins his or her FB status with, "to the person who..." and finishes it with some kind of complaint. I notice this online a lot. Sometimes it comes from someone who is driving: "to the person who just cut me off on I95, thank you for being so careless." Or who is shopping, "to the woman in the store who is letting your kids run all over Target..." Or who is mad at Congress, "to the idiots in congress... get it together." One thing is for certain, posting these statuses is extremely cathartic. However, what purpose does it serve except the purpose of the poster? Is that then narcissism, or the purpose of having a Facebook? The class went around about that philosophy.

Dear "so-and-so" Who Will Never Answer

I brought this one up because my friends with kids do this quite often and I just don't understand it. It goes something like this: "Dear Steve, happy 5th birthday son, I love you more than life itself." Unless little Stevie has a Facebook at age five (which is becoming increasingly more probable), he is not going to see this status, nor appreciate it. Instead, hordes of Facebook friends are going to say warm and supportive things about how big Steve has gotten and how fast time has flown. Why not then just post a status that says, "I can't believe my son Steve is five already. Crap I'm old!" It gets the same response. The honors students couldn't explain that but they had their own ideas to offer. For example, "Dear Ryan Gosling, please make another movie" or "Dear President Obama, get moving on your initiatives." These "dear" statements offer a bit of deflection from the self and spare a bit more ego by being indirect -- and that may just well be narcissistic behavior. After all, the comment "the president needs to get moving on his initiatives" is quick and to-the-point. It also opens the poster up to direct ridicule from FB friends. Instead, writing this post in the form of a "letter" or "note" is more like speaking directly to the president in an "A-B" conversation which is safer for the poster. Anyone who feels otherwise can "C" their way out of the conversation. Make sense?

Look at Me, Look at Me

This Facebook posting is the one I'm probably most guilty of, and the one of which the students had the most to say. That is, the status updates about really great things (or at least as they seem to the poster). This ranged from taking and posting pictures of amazing concert seats, ball game tickets, letters of good news, designer items, posting about booking trips, to intentionally taking and posting pictures with really good looking people. Again, it is our personal Facebook page, what else are we supposed to post about? This question got thrown around class and the eventual conclusive answer was: everything in moderation. In my case, I know I need to lay off the palm tree and boat pictures. I just can't help it -- I'm excited to live in a place where I can do these things. The students said this was okay to post; just not every day... they were also quick to add the same is true with baby pics, dog pics, cat pics, and political statuses -- and it wasn't just me.

As Facebook gets further ingrained into society, we will continue to learn more about its effects on the population. It does offer excellent fodder for discussion and in my case communication context for discussion with my students. During this specific discussion, my class and I didn't think Facebook has gotten any less narcissistic since the days of the self-pics a few years ago. This then led to more questions -- isn't Facebook about the self? How much posting is too much posting? After the discussion that produced the personas listed above, the main overall theme was: everything in moderation. This seems to be a common theme in lots of things these days from TV time to food consumption. It only makes sense here as well. If we post the same thing over and over, will our followers become desensitized to it as it pertains to us? Perhaps they will. One thing is for certain, if you want to get the attention of your Facebook friends, take a picture of yourself in the mirror and post it online. You'll be certain to get comments. The kind of comments, though, depends on who you have as friends. Good luck!