The other day I came across a tweet that gave me pause for thought. It read: "I feel like I’ve had many conversations recently where I’ve come away knowing a lot about the other person but they’ve learned nothing about me."
This tweet struck me. As a naturally quieter person, it's a situation I've found myself in hundreds of times. But what I found interesting about this particular tweet was the 'recently' part. The number of likes and replies it had garnered made it clear that others felt the same. And it got me thinking; the internet is unmistakably the biggest 'recent' disrupter of our lives, so what impact has it had on our IRL conversations? As social media encourages us to promote our 'personal brand' (the worst phrase to enter modern culture), has it made us more prone to talking about ourselves?
In 1974, a guy called Harvey Sacks came up with a model for conversation analysis. Each 'turn' in a conversation is a 'unit'. A unit can be made up of a word, phrase or sentence. When one unit is completed, the speaker can choose to add another unit or the responsibility will fall to the other participant to add a unit of their own. But who gets to add the most units to a conversation? Sacks put the answer to this question down to 'hierarchical reasons' which feels like an incredibly flippant way to describe a construct I’ve spent my whole life trying to decipher.
The social media argument is worth thinking about, though. Chances are, before some well-meaning friend convinced you to sign up for Myspace, or Bebo, or even Facebook, the only platform you’d had to express yourself to an audience of any size was doing a presentation in class or performing in the school play. In short, pre-2005-ish, you’d had no experience conveying yourself to a large group of people.
Now, due to social media, you’re able to reach thousands of people every day. Combine all your social media platforms and there’s theoretically no limit to the size of your audience. This audience and their positive reactions (there is, of course, no dislike button so unless people take the time to comment, interactions are positive) reinforce that what you’re posting about must be interesting and, as social media is often a depiction of the self, that interesting thing is you. Is it too much of a reach to suggest that this could lead a person to the subconscious conclusion that talking about themselves more is a welcome addition to a conversation?
There’s not a huge amount of research into this (in school years, Instagram just started Year Four, which doesn't leave a lot of time for retrospection) but one study from 2018 – a joint effort between Swansea University and the University of Milan – makes for an interesting read. It investigated the links between problematic internet usage (PIU) and a rise in narcissistic traits.
The study took 74 students with an average age of 23 and monitored their behaviour over four months. It found that those who used social media excessively through visual postings "displayed an average 25% increase in such narcissistic traits ... as grandiose exhibitionism, beliefs relating to entitlement, and exploiting others."
Professor Phil Reed, one of the authors of the study, elaborated for me. He warned that I should be careful about making casual links between social media and people talking more about themselves but that essentially: "If you post a lot of selfies, then you run the risk of developing some narcissism traits later." These traits, he says, can range from a mild form of self-obsession (this will be only "vaguely irritating to others" and was probably what the original tweeter was on the business end of) to "grandiose views of self-importance … and a need to dominate others."
The study focused on visual interactions on social media so can’t be used to comment on text-based social media but Anne-Sophie Bammens, a psychologist and the founder and director of Headstrong Counselling agrees that social media has encouraged sharing about oneself. "[It] has provided people with new tools to observe and be observed within a platform where sharing is a central component of participation, creating a widespread flow of personal information," she tells me.
She continues: "[This] certain type of interconnectivity ... will inevitably have an impact on our in-person relationships."
However, talking about oneself doesn’t need to be narcissistic. The fight against mental health problems can be helped immeasurably by opening up about our feelings to others, provided it’s under the right circumstances.
"The first step towards better mental health is to have one’s mental health challenges validated," Bammens says. This helps us understand that it’s part of the human condition.
Bammens warns of a thing on social media called 'impression management', which is the presentation of the self in a way that will lead others to form a positive image of you. "Individuals present a 'front' where the backstage becomes hidden. The backstage includes those experiences and feelings that are unpleasant and may be more difficult to talk about within a social sphere." If you notice yourself engaging in this behaviour, it may mean that you're preventing yourself from sharing personal information in an authentic and useful manner.
Social media, it seems, could be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it may be contributing to creating a group of mildly self-focused individuals who like nothing better than talking about themselves; on the other, it may hold the solution to a growing mental health problem.
"Finding the right communities on social media, who will validate our experiences," Bammens says, can become "an important part of the healing process when we are facing mental health challenges."
For those just starting to get comfortable talking more about themselves, Bammens recommends taking it slow. "If speaking about feelings in conversation does not come naturally, it may be worth it to 'test the waters'. By taking small steps towards sharing your story, you'll be able to gauge what the responses will be from your peers when it comes to the really big stuff, and decide whether or not to move forward."