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Social Media or Digital Narcissism?

'Showroom Girls', a controversial project by a Dutch visual artist, has raised a debate on a topical issue. How does the Internet and social media affect users’ privacy?

by Efthymios Kotronias On November 16, 2011

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A controversial project by the Dutch visual artist Willem Popelier was exhibited at Amsterdam’s Foam museum this past summer. Popelier’s Showroom Girls project raised a debate on a topical issue: How does the Internet and social media affect users’ privacy?

Social media: opportunities and risks

The term social media commonly refers to web applications which allow the exchange of user generated content. Most visitors at the Showroom Girls exhibition named the social network Facebook as the first example of social media that came to mind. They used social media to “keep in touch with friends”, to “maintain the everyday and necessary communication with other people” and said that social media makes it “very easy to connect to people from everywhere” and “to have contact with people abroad.”

Carsten Rossi, Management Board member of the corporate communication agency Kuhn, Kammann & Kuhn, believes that social media helps us “open up horizons by getting to know people and things that would otherwise be out of our reach.” He adds that social media also offers an opportunity for “collaboration without frontiers, may it be to start an enterprise or a revolution and fosters creativity by giving us the chance to express without the intervention of gatekeepers.”

Does expressing ourselves online and more specifically via social media also entail risks? In some cases it does.

Two 14-year girls once visited a shop where customers could take pictures of themselves on computer webcams present in the showroom. The two girls ended up making 153 pictures and two video films of themselves.

Around the same time, the Dutch artist Willem Popelier was doing research on the various ways in which people use photography and photographs in their everyday lives. He decided for the needs of his project to use pictures taken on showroom computer webcams. Coincidentally, among the pictures he selected were also those that the two girls had taken.

One of the girls happened to wear a necklace with her name on it. Through a simple search on Google, Popelier was able to find her and her friend on various online social networks. In the forum section of the Foam museum’s website entitled What’s Next, commenting on privacy and Internet, Popelier presents himself as a “dirty 28 years old man, twice the girls’ age, who has been looking at them and collecting their digital traces.”

He is now able to make all his findings publicly available in his Showroom Girls project:

“I only used information which is already out in the open, ready to be found,” he explains. The girls’ identities are not revealed in the exhibition.

Referring to the girl with the necklace, Popelier says: “I exhibit her pictures and messages from Twitter, but she remains anonymous. She as a person is not directly traceable. Her face is not to be seen. When she is using Twitter, her tweets are immediately covered by a shadow as they are printed live out of a printer in the exhibition room so that you can see that she tweets, but not what she tweets”.

Are we all conscious social media users?

The majority of the visitors at the exhibition, representing a mixed group of men and women aged 20–55 from various social backgrounds, were convinced the girls’ experience could not happen to them. “It is not in my interest to do something like that,”  “I would never make pictures of myself in a public store and leave them there in public exposure,” “I wouldn’t expose my profile to people I don’t know,” they said.

A redacted copy of one of the girl's tweets from one year.

When asked, most visitors said they are aware of the risks they take when they go online and use social media: “I’m very conscious of putting personal information on the Internet,” a young student said.

They said they take the necessary precautions to preserve their privacy. “It’s a matter of being careful what you put out there,” “I’m never online with my real name.”

Just a few people admitted not being aware of the risks. “Social media doesn’t exist that long, I don’t think we have realised what kind of effect it has,” a woman in her early 30s said.

Some also said they consciously accept the risks involved because they believe the opportunities offered by social media outmatch the chances for their privacy to be violated. “What [the Internet] gives me is more than what I stand to lose,” “There are certain risks and there are certain opportunities.”

Popelier, however, is worried about the impact of the Internet on people’s lives. His main purpose in setting up the Showroom Girls project was to visualise and emphasise how photography and social media websites are used today. “I want to show you this in a different way than what you are used to, I want you to step out of your comfort zone and look at familiar things in a new light. I hope this will give you a new perspective on things you take for granted.”

Digital narcissism

Popelier takes this thought one step further. He assumes that people enjoy exposing themselves. “Being noticed is something we all want or need,” he says. Some visitors at the exhibition agreed: “People love attention,” “you want to be acknowledged.”

Furthermore, Popelier believes that people often expose themselves in an obsessive way and become fascinated by their own face and image. He calls this phenomenon “Digital narcissism”.

For communication specialist Carsten Rossi at Kuhn, Kammann & Kuhn, “narcissism is an absolute prerequisite for managing your online reputation successfully.” Some social media users among the visitors share Rossi’s opinion. Engaging in social media seems to help them uplift their self-esteem: “It feels good when a picture of yours is ‘liked’ by others,” “I like my picture being ‘liked’” and “I like it being ‘tagged’.”

“It’s nice to have a nice picture of myself” and “I am disappointed and sad if my picture is sometimes not ‘liked’.”

By seeking acknowledgement through social media, however, users increase their public exposure. “If your online reputation is your main benchmark for self-esteem, you will have a tendency to reveal more about yourself than you normally would or is good for you,” Rossi says.

Paradox

Popelier sees a paradox in this type of social behaviour:  “We don’t want the state to control our every step and listening to every word we say, we don’t want strangers in our homes and [we don’t] put curtains in front of our windows. When talking to a stranger we don’t share our intimate thoughts or our private life. But as soon as we are on the Internet, we forget all that and can only think of one thing: exhibiting ourselves, marketing ourselves as nice, funny, great, good people.”

Some visitors at the exhibition, however, were more relaxed regarding the topic of privacy and social media and define exposure as “normal”. “It is human,” a young man said, “we are social creatures.”

“Since everybody is putting stuff out there it’s not a big issue anymore. Privacy is already redundant,” he said. A woman in her late twenties said: “I don’t feel a picture reveals my whole being, it’s not everything about me, it’s just what I look like.”

“There is no good or bad in Internet,” reflects Popelier in the end. “It’s just there and we deal with it.”

The same applies for social media: it’s there and we deal with it. Internet and its applications, such as social media, are tools which we can use in any way we like. It is clearly a matter of the choices we make about how we want to use the medium. It is similar to driving a car: you can drive drunk and take all the risks that come with it or you can drive safely.

In Rossi’s words, “The biggest damage is done to yourself by yourself.”

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This article originally appeared in the European Journalism Centre Magazine.

Image Credits: Willem Popelier / Flickr CC marketingfacts

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