It’s easy to get caught up in measuring your impact online, and to suspect that your own self-worth is tied to it.
It’s easy, for example, to measure your popularity and self-esteem in terms of the number of “friends” you have on Facebook, the number of followers on Twitter, the extent of your professional contacts on LinkedIn, your cache of Feedburner subscribers, your Web site’s Google PageRank, tags on Flickr, comments, links, visits, clicks, referrals, Karma on Plurk, and—worst of all!—your Technorati degree of “Authority,” which implies a sort of collected clout and power that, for most of us, doesn’t really exist outside of the unblinking screen that is our dashboard to the world.
Those of you who don’t spend vast buckets of time online might be thinking that this is a peculiar phenomenon of people who do. But comparing yourself with others is no more a consequence of the Digital Age than is email to blame for unsolicited junk mail or the Internet is the cause of porn. It’s human nature.
There are always those who are smarter, better-looking, taller, better networked, cooler, more enlightened, and have better backhands, tighter asses, cuter kids, and newer and shinier objects than you do.
Or, as my wise, street-smart, boarding-school-educated and self-assured college friend Lesley used to tell me when we were all of 17—as she sucked deeply on her Marlboro, blowing the smoke dismissively in the direction of a gaggle of girls more popular than we were — “Well, there’s always someone richer, skinnier, and with bigger boobs.”
The metrics might change, but the comparisons remain. It’s just that the Internet’s immediacy and accountability makes some of those people irritatingly visible and, at the same time, makes it clear by how much, precisely, they are besting you. It’s the 2008 equivalent of your neighbor a generation ago parking his spanking new Mustang next to your Dodge Dart.
As my friend Matt recently griped to me a few days after an event we’d both attended, “There were no photos of me on Flickr.” And so, he started to wonder—maybe because he studied German philosophy — “was I really there?” In this age of digital stills and Flip video cameras, when an event or gathering is digitally captured, uploaded, tagged, grouped, viewed, commented on, and ranked, it’s a little disconcerting to realize that you’ve somehow been overlooked.
But here’s the thing: As much as the Internet feeds insecurity and narcissism (perhaps none more so than my own), by its nature it also encourages connectivity. As much as it opens us up to the whole wide world, it also makes that world smaller and cozier, linking together those who are the worst kind of insecure (or narcissistic or arrogant or humble or black or white…) and in doing so can make all of us behind our computer screens feel, oddly, like we aren’t alone.
I love the following video by the poet Taylor Mali (who, incidentally, wrote one of my favorite poems, “How Falling in Love Is Like Owning a Dog.”) Here’s how he responds to the simple question, “Where is your favorite place to write?” This captures—by taking it to the extreme of absurdity—how one might imagine the life of a smarter, better-looking, taller, cooler, cuter… narcissist: