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The Bull Market in Narcissism

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The booming social media industry is obviously driven by narcissism.

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In the depths of my heart I can't help being convinced that my dear fellow-men, with a few exceptions, are worthless.
-- Sigmund Freud (being too mean, or too truthful?)

The fact that Fight Club, a film with a distinctly anti-corporate, anti-consumerist message, came out in 1999 is quite interesting.

Do you remember 1999?

The American economy was basically a great big hot tub party with room for everyone in the land.

The dot-com driven Nasdaq (INDEXNASDAQ:.IXIC) rose 86%.

The most common props in hip-hop videos were bottles of Cristal and shiny suits.

The business cycle was gone -- it was all up, up, up!

And in the midst of all that, we had Fight Club's Tyler Durden delivering this message:

I see all this potential, and I see squandering. Goddamn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very p*ssed off.

I can relate to this. To a certain extent, we all want to be a big deal and we all want to feel important. Though it seems that as you age, it becomes easier to settle for less and harder to fight for something more.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of playing for the New York Mets, even though I sucked at baseball. I mean, I was really, really bad. The biggest contribution I could make to my Little League team was being willing to get hit by a pitch so I could get on base.

In high school, I started dreaming of playing guitar in a big, famous band, even though I knew I wasn't putting in the work to achieve that goal.

And in college, I imagined I'd make a fortune on Wall Street, even though, once again, I wasn't putting in the work to make it happen. My grades were so-so and I had no evidence that I was some kind of investing prodigy. There was no chance of Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) knocking on my door.

Following my college graduation in June 2001, reality finally set in as job application after job application went unanswered: Maybe I'm not predestined to greatness. Maybe I'm not that talented. Maybe I'm gonna grow up to be a working stiff in a dead-end job that's just passing time until I die.

How did I delude myself so badly for so long?

The easiest, and to me best, explanation is that we live in something of an "everyone gets a trophy" society where everyone's taught that they're special.

I don't know, maybe kids should be told no one is automatically special or even interesting, and that the only special people are the ones that work to achieve special things.

Now the reason I bring all this up is because earlier this week, I came across what may be the most interesting datapoint I've seen about anything in years.

The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA released the results of its Freshman Survey, which is meant to identify demographic and attitudinal trends among college freshmen.

Surprise, surprise! College kids think they're awesome!

According to the new Freshman Survey results, there is a significant increase in the number of college students describing themselves as above average in terms of academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability, and self-confidence.

The BBC posted this graphic illustrating the trend:



However, while the drive to achieve is on the rise, study time is decreasing:

And while in the late 1980s, almost half of students said they studied for six or more hours a week, the figure was little over a third by 2009 -- a fact that sits rather oddly, given there has been a rise in students' self-proclaimed drive to succeed during the same period.

But even if study time stayed the same, the rise is still dramatic and increasing.

And interestingly, freshmen are least confident in their writing ability, which can actually be measured in the real world through grades and test scores.

What to make of all this?

I have my opinion. But I have to say that Dr. Keith Ablow, psychiatrist and member of Fox News' "Medical A-Team" delivered the best analysis of this trend:

Psychologist Jean Twenge, the lead author of the analysis, is also the author of a study showing that the tendency toward narcissism in students is up 30% in the last thirty-odd years.

This data is not unexpected. I have been writing a great deal over the past few years about the toxic psychological impact of media and technology on children, adolescents, and young adults, particularly as it regards turning them into faux celebrities -- the equivalent of lead actors in their own fictionalized life stories.

On Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), young people can fool themselves into thinking they have hundreds or thousands of "friends." They can delete unflattering comments. They can block anyone who disagrees with them or pokes holes in their inflated self-esteem. They can choose to show the world only flattering, sexy, or funny photographs of themselves (dozens of albums full, by the way), "speak" in pithy short posts and publicly connect to movie stars and professional athletes and musicians they "like."

The rest of Dr. Ablow's piece is very dark and bleak. As much as I'd like to be more optimistic about the future, I get the feeling he's delivering some truth.

There's a lot of talk about Millennials leading the economy into the future.

But is "narcissists" a more fitting word?

Every generation of youth gets told it's worse than the last, but the rise of social media exhibitionism is a brand-new phenomena. If you wanted to get attention when I was a teenager, you had to go out in the real world and do it in person, which at least required something resembling courage.

These days, if you want to get a reaction from the outside world, you can do it without getting out of bed.

Just post a picture of a cupcake on Instagram or a half-naked self-portrait on Tumblr. Drop a humblebrag on Facebook about how you hate buying a new iPhone every year. Tweet a snarky comment about a Kardashian you both hate and want to be.

Boom! Likes, re-tweets, re-blogs, etc., follow -- instant evidence that you're doing something interesting.

Right?

I'm as guilty as anybody because I've fallen into this trap myself. If I can use social media to fool the outside world into thinking I'm cool, than maybe it's true.

Of course, I haven't posted any revealing self-portraits on Tumblr yet, but maybe I would if I had a better body.

Social media has benefited me personally. If it wasn't for Facebook, I wouldn't have a job I love. I like knowing what's going on in the lives of family and friends, and social media plays a big role in my primary hobby, photography.

And if for some reason I found myself in need of a new job, I'd be all over LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD).

At the same time, I bemoan that social media is inadvertently creating a branch of society that views attention-getting via social-media exhibitionism as a "fun" activity -- that actual life experiences require constant broadcasting.

A couple of years ago, I went to see my favorite musical artist, Prince, in concert at Madison Square Garden. About a quarter of the way through the show, I started taking pictures and posting them to Facebook -- just like everyone around me.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

And if you are sitting on an exotic beach, are you actually there unless you share a picture of your feet surrounded by the beautiful vista?

Yes, there is an economic side to this story. I think that social media has inadvertently harnessed the basic human need to feel important, even if that feeling is completely artificial and distorted.

This segment of the human condition has resulted in untold wealth for investors in companies like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and the boom will last a lot longer than most people suspect.

Does that mean it's time to throw all your money at Facebook to get in front of a mega-trend that may be more mega than we ever imagined? I don't know.

But I gotta say, I'm thinking about putting my money on the line because at the end of the day, there's not just a want being fulfilled here, but also a need, just like cigarettes and pharmaceuticals. And it's a high-growth need.

We don't have many of those these days -- it ain't the good old days when cholesterol and toilet paper were growth industries.

P.S. Can you do me a solid and Tweet this?

And if you want to follow me: @MichaelComeau

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