Which came first, the chicken or the egg-shaped avatar on Twitter?
No one knows. Well, @chicken probably does, but I'm not about to DM the guy and ask. I doubt I'd understand the answer, anyway, judging from his bio: "I am Japanese, therefore I will tweet in Japanese." (Despite this impediment, I was able to use my international visual skills to determine that @chicken crosses the road on a tricked-out 10-speed bicycle, of which he has tweeted many, many photos.)
I ask this philosophical question because a recent study by the University of Michigan has concluded that frequent use of social media might be linked to narcissism, though they weren't able to figure out whether narcissism leads to the social media use or if social media use unleashes the narcissism.
As tempting as it is to conclude that everyone born during the Reagan administration through yesterday is a narcissist -- because let's face it -- we should take a bit of a pause here. Maybe this isn't social media's fault. Maybe this exhibitionism and tendency to be self-pleased existed long before Twitter and Facebook. You remember those days, right? Back when we had to stand up, walk over to the door, open the door, take a deep breath and scream to our neighbors "COME OVER AND LOOK AT THIS PICTURE OF MY OWN FACE!"
Or, "I JUST LISTENED TO THE CURE! HASHTAG I'M SO SAD!"
Those were really hard days. Not everyone heard our shouts about ourselves. More than that, people who were minimally acquainted with us had no idea when it was our birthday. And nobody but the waiter and the friends at our own table knew what food we ordered at a restaurant. Untold numbers of people wanted to know these things about us so it was only a matter of time before social media would be invented through sheer necessity alone.
Today's methods of instantly sharing our thoughts make it all that much easier to talk about ourselves all day long, which I guess looks a lot like narcissism. This is what I think. Here is what I do. That is how I feel. Look at this thing I like. Look at this person I love. Look at me. Me. Me. Me.
But I don't think it's narcissism -- not entirely. With this amazing ability to connect and this wide-open world of friendship and mating possibilities, we might just live in the loneliest of all times. Or rather, the Reagan administration through yesterday babies do. The rest of us still know how to relate to each other in person.
Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram have shown us what has been true of humans all along -- that we are mere specks among specks upon this Earth. But at the same time, social media has amplified our sense of self and extended our reach, making us larger than life in our own minds. We are everything and nothing at once.
There is a newfound restlessness, dissatisfaction and an intolerable, frenetic boredom that comes with the social media territory. The need to always be in touch is almost reflexive, bordering on addictive. The thoughts we put out on social media might be about ourselves, yes, but they're mostly about other people -- about getting their attention and, ultimately, their admiration. It's the equivalent of slowly walking up and down your childhood street, bat and ball in hand, hoping some like-minded pal will see you and join you for some fun. Or decorating your locker with New Kids on the Block posters. Or wearing a Fleetwood Mac T-shirt. Or driving a 1957 Chevy. Or ... fighting in a war and saving the world (OK, let's skip that generation).
Far be it from me to defend the youth of this world -- many of whom quite seriously use the term "branding" to describe their own lives -- but I don't think they're quite as full of themselves as their Twitter feeds might seem. Narcissism might be part of the social media fabric, but in many cases the narcissism seems to be driven by loneliness and the fear that no one sees us.
But I see you, @chicken. And I like your bicycle.
Liz Farrell is the editor of Lowcountry Current. Follow her at twitter.com/elizfarrell.