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Seeking spotlight, narcissists can’t stop sharing

JIANG JIANGUO | 2018-08-10 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Taking photos before dining and enjoying a view has become the norm, spawning a new internet symptom—“sharing addiction.” Photo: 669PIC


The rise of online social networks has drastically changed our way of life, especially since real-time “one-to-many” communication has been made possible by the WeChat “Moments” feature, which creates a powerful clustering effect. With the popularity of emojis, photos and videos, internet users have grown accustomed to an image-oriented culture that revolves around sharing photos online.

Despite the large amount of studies done on social networks, there is a relative lack of academic discourse on addiction to online sharing. The issue has a number of facets that are worth exploring, including identity anxiety, decorative consumption and narcissistic cultural communication.


Identity anxiety
Like other types of social communication, online photo-sharing is an important channel for internet users to seek social recognition and integrate into group life. Photos can supplement written interaction to promote understanding, express emotion and strengthen friendships.

However, some people compulsively and thoughtlessly post photos on the internet regardless of time, place, identity and consequence. Instead of using photos as a means of sincere communication, their object is to gain fame and a sense of superiority.

To them, the goal of photo-sharing is to project the illusion of a perfect life. Sharing addiction is a subset of a wider group of internet behaviors, such as compulsive online gaming. Sharing addicts live for the possibility that their content go viral on WeChat Moments, and these tendencies have developed into a widespread symptom.

Unlike other forms of internet addiction, sharing addicts see themselves as content producers and, in many cases, “processing producers,” because most of the selfies they post on the internet have been modified and contain a deliberate effort to cultivate a certain public image. This kind of self-modification has led to the widespread popularity of “revisionism,” making selfies and post-production a joint process and creating more eye-catching and decorative photos. In the end, people live their lives on WeChat at all times and transform their lives into images, through which they communicate with friends and establish relationships. To a great extent, the relationships between people are being supplanted by interactions between images.

Sharing addicts always confuse the online self with the real self. They tend to gain a sense of self-worth through showing off and receiving a “thumbs up,” which is in reality alienation from an authentic image of oneself. As a value distortion, online sharing addiction has profound social background and psychological factors. In the internet age, the standards of measuring individual value are more diversified, and so are the ways of self-achievement. However, it is not easy for ordinary people to become famous in a saturated market.

The social circle established by WeChat breaks the boundaries of time and space, making the display of self-value more convenient and diversified. In particular, the rise of the “grassroots” online celebrities and the “miracle” of some internet users becoming famous overnight have inspired many to seek new selves and obtain new social identities in cyberspace.


Decorative consumption
The main purpose of daily consumption is to meet one’s material and spiritual needs. However, for sharing addicts—whether shopping, traveling or dining—the objective is to display value and gain “face,” or mianzi in Chinese.

In their opinion, the value of goods come from the appearance more than the content, so they treat trendy and luxury goods as a representation of their own worth. This is especially true in the cyber community, where online media acts as a consumer mentor, encouraging ordinary people to develop unusual tastes, to see themselves as a privileged class different from others, and to live a life of exquisite comfort and delicacy in their imagination.

With the popularity of the smartphone, many internet users embed their daily consumption into it. The norm in socializing and travel is to prioritize taking photos over actual consumption. Therefore, the purpose of consumption is not for enjoyment, but to provide images and landscapes for others, so as to obtain the capital of showing off. We call this kind of consumption, which intends to gain likes or admiration through photo-sharing, decorative consumption.

It is evident that the essence of decorative consumption is not to reflect the meaning and value of consumption, but to treat consumption as a performative act. The products sharing addicts consume have more value as a symbol of fashion, status, taste and trendiness. No matter where they are, sharing addicts try to please, invite, or beg the audience to watch, craving their approval. They are not only consuming themselves, but also forming a consumptive relationship with others. Posting on the internet is not just about sharing your life, but about turning your photos into a “business card,” showing their symbolic significance and capital value.

The excessive display of “beautiful life” has evolved into a competition of performative consumption. In reality, daily life is full of joys and sorrows, and setbacks and unhappiness are not uncommon. However, sharing addicts intentionally overlook the flaws in life and dress up in “perfect disguise,” creating an illusion that everything they experience is beautiful and pleasant in order to prove their social and psychological superiority. We might argue that such consumption is snobbish and decorative.


Spread of narcissism
Like internet addiction, sharing addiction has developed into a widespread social disease. Internet addicts isolate themselves in their online selves, but sharing addicts yearn for a huge stage to put on their performances. They mistake themselves to be the protagonist and demand the audience’s constant applause and praise. Without the audience’s likes, they lose momentum and sink into anxiety, mania, boredom and emptiness. On the one hand, they need others, but on the other hand, they despise the audience, who are merely tools to gratify their vanity. This excessive self-focus is indeed a personality disorder, or in other words, narcissism.

In most cases, sharing addicts’ target audiences are not even acquaintances because social networking in the internet era no longer requires a “business card,” which is now a simple scan of a QR code on WeChat.

As a result, the definition of a friend has also changed. A friend who one barely knows could be the target audience. In front of many friends whom one has no emotional bonds with,  in front of semi-acquaintances or strangers, sharing addicts just put on a show to seek comfort and brag about their lives.

However, sharing addicts hardly gain a sense of self-worth in the process. On the contrary, they tend to have a stronger sense of anxiety and drifting. Competition at work, stress in life, and emotional troubles are inevitable for anyone, but, as narcissists, they try their best to avoid self-reflection and have a strong fear of exploring their inner selves. They are unwilling to face the reality, so they think that online photo-sharing is a good way to cover up their difficulties. They dress up as successful people and get a sense of superiority by using the audience as an analogue.

However, such an understanding does not come from confidence. With modified photos, they pretend to live like aristocrats on the outside, but deep inside, they have to face real-life suffering. Their performances are marked by schizophrenia.

It is worth noting that there is a big difference between occasional photo-sharing on the internet and sharing addiction. It is normal to occasionally post photos and expect to be lauded, which is a justifiable need for social validation. In contrast, sharing addiction is a kind of greedy “monologue” that constantly demands praise from society, which leads to the spread of online narcissism culture.


Nowadays, sharing addicts ride on the convenience of internet technology to promote narcissistic culture by means of self-re-creation. Online photo-sharing and “teasing” are important sources of online and mass culture. To some extent, “teasing”—a Chinese term for expressing discontent— represents dissatisfaction with society or others, whereas photo-sharing mainly brings out the good side of oneself.

As most sharing addicts display their photos on social media and the narcissistic culture they spread rarely directly endangers the public interest, society is quite tolerant. However, the widespread popularity of such narcissistic culture has great harm to personal physical and mental health.
Such excessive attention toward an unreal self misleads values, which leads to confusion in self-cognition and the blind pursuit of vanity, eventually causing a loss of identity and even a split personality.

At the same time, sharing addicts are indifferent to others and social affairs, and lack basic communication skills and humanistic spirit, which have a great negative impact on social atmosphere.
Therefore, we should pay close attention to the narcissistic culture engendered by sharing addiction. Through psychological counseling and value guidance, we should help sharing addicts realize the harm of narcissism, find the inner gyroscope and return to the correct track of self-awareness.

Facing the spread of narcissism, we should locate its roots in cultural and psychological perspectives, identify its social harm, fight against a hypocritical view of fame, and uphold the correct outlook on online consumption, reputation, friendship and values, thus promoting a healthy cyberspace.


Jiang Jianguo is a professor from the School of Journalism and Communication at South China University of Technology.


(edited by YANG XUE)