Does Social Media Celebrate the “Narcissism of Similarity?”

Last June, Buzzfeed ran a piece entitled, ” People You Need to Unfriend on Facebook Immediately.”  In the post, the author suggests 1) signing into Facebook, 2) clicking links below various pop culture/political images, 3) seeing which of your friends has “liked” each of the pages, and 4) defriending these people.  Pages included in this exercise?  Nickleback, Guy Fieri, Two and a Half Men, Rush Limbaugh, Kim Kardashian, the Adam Sandler movie “Jack and Jill,” Dane Cook, and so on.

Adam Sandler, riding a jet ski all the way to a 3% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Source: http://s3-ec.buzzfed.com/static/enhanced/web05/2012/6/19/11/enhanced-buzz-20605-1340119128-0.jpg

While Buzzfeed’s post can be tossed aside as a throwaway attempt at garnering laughs and page views, is it indicative of a shared attitude on the Internet?  Do we all self-select our peer group online to the point that we are eventually surrounded by like-minded others that share not only our political views, but also our favorite TV shows, taste in music, and seemingly random (read: bacon, kittens, 90s pop culture) favorite things in general?  And what if you disagree with one of the things that your friends all seem to love – do you feel the need to keep that to yourself?

In his landmark 1985 work, “Habits of the Heart,” sociologist Robert Bellah explores some societal issues that might provide some insight into how we interact online today.  Of particular interest for the topic at hand is the notion of “lifestyle enclaves” that is introduced within the work.  

“Lifestyle enclaves” refer to areas that people live in by choice and are centered around similarity.  In practice, this areas can be anything from a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood to a retirement community.  Lifestyle enclaves fit the needs of those who seek them out, as they position a person amongst others of similar characteristics, be it by measure of income, cultural interest, or another condition.  So what exactly distinguishes a lifestyle enclave from our typical notions of a community? In Bellah’s words,

Whereas a community attempts to be an inclusive whole, celebrating the interdependence of public and private life and the different callings of all, lifestyle is fundamentally segmental and celebrates the narcissism of similarity (emphasis mine). It usually explicitly involves a contrast with others who do not share one lifestyle. For this reason we speak not of lifestyle communities, though they are often called such in contemporary usage, but of lifestyle enclaves…The different, those with other lifestyles are not necessarily despised, they may be willingly tolerated, but they are irrelevant or even invisible in terms of one’s own lifestyle enclave.

Reading this passage, one can begin to wonder: How easy is it for us to think we are within a “genuine community” when we are really within a “lifestyle enclave?”  And how easy is it for us to take a step back and see which of these we are building when we are helping to develop a group?  These days, these questions must not only be addressed offline, but they must also be approached within the context of our social experiences online.

Calvin & Hobbes: If you want to be in my lifestyle enclave, you must appreciate it. Source: http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/1992/08/29

In the digital sphere, as I’ve addressed earlier, we often serve as our own editors for the content that we receive.  The status updates that you see, the photos that are shared, the articles that are posted in your feed – it’s all because you decided to “friend” or “follow” an account (except, of course, for advertisements, but that’s another story).  So, when we log into our Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/etc. accounts, are we unwittingly part of a digital lifestyle enclave?

Lifestyle enclaves are by their very nature exclusive.  Due to the fact that they are centered around a particular interest (or set of interests), certain characteristics emerge: a language forms around the shared interest, certain abilities and pieces of knowledge are given value, and attempts by a member to show a difference in values or skills from the norms of the group are cause for conflict and exclusion.  Does this exist on the web?  If someone posts a view that you oppose online, do you tend to engage with that person, or do you exasperatedly ignore them?  If someone does not post any view, but does not go out of their way to support a view that you agree with, does that move them away from what you expect to see in your social media news feed? 

So, what is the impact of all of this if the general premise holds?  One might draw the conclusion that users draw themselves into somewhat of an echo chamber online that allows in one narrative and filters out disagreements.  Facebook, however, disagrees – a recent study of theirs contradicts some of this argument, although the debate is far from over.  It’s hard to read Bellah’s work in the modern context and not at least speculate that the social structures of the web perpetuate lifestyle enclaves just as it aids community-building.  As we learn to navigate the new digital tools in our lives, it is important for us to at least explore these questions to ensure that we aren’t moving forward blindly.  Gaining some broad understanding for how society reacts to and prepares for new avenues for communication will allow us at least properly contextualize the new opportunities and challenges on the horizon.

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5 thoughts on “Does Social Media Celebrate the “Narcissism of Similarity?”

  1. bearcatpearson

    As I look for material for my peer mentor development course, this seems like a good term to build around–enclave. Perfect cuz today we’re discussing appreciating individual differences.

    1. adamgismondi

      That’s a great practical application – I think it’s the sort of thing that we don’t always think about in higher ed administration in general (in addition to within social media). If you really get into it, it actually creates a lot of interesting questions that you can ask of your students, student groups, and of yourself as a practitioner. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Kevin R. Guidry

    1. These are good thoughts and echo some of the ideas in a Boston Globe article that has been making the rounds lately (http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/style/2014/07/26/college-freshmen-picking-their-roommates/WpXC9k0blmyZ0nvjCZzCTI/story.html).

    2. Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” continues to be influential on and heavily cited by people who work on this topic so if you haven’t looked into that book and subsequent works built on it then you should do so. It’s also very well-written and an easy read.

    1. adamgismondi

      Thanks Kevin.

      That article aligns a great deal with findings from my research work @ BC – we’ve asked students (over the past 3 years) among other questions, about their social media communication w/ peers prior to campus arrival, and their affirmation surprised me quite a bit. There are so many implications for practice that you really have to think these sorts of issues will be rich areas of exploration for years to come.

      So funny you should say that – Bowling Alone, Putnam’s other work, and a larger discussion of social capital are very much the backbone of my dissertation work. Bowling Alone was one of several books that I read as a freshman in college that helped me hone my interests. It has come under some fair critique in recent years, but I’d say that much of the social capital discussion still holds great value today.

      1. Kevin R. Guidry

        I’d also include Lessig’s “Wealth of Networks” among the must-haves in this area. Rainie and Wellman’s new(ish) “Networked: The New Social Operating System” is also essential work. They’re both compelling books by giants in their fields.

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