Nobody likes a show off: The excruciating rise of the 'humblebrag'

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The Independent Online

My editor asked me to write a cover story for The Independent! She doesn't even realise that I'm a crummy writer...

Hang on, let's try again.

Wow, I can't believe a national newspaper asked little old me to write a big story for it!

Say hello to the humblebrag. As in those two sentences, the humblebrag is when someone, possibly unconsciously, manages to show off about something while simultaneously couching it in terms of self-deprecation – at least enough to give the impression that the author doesn't believe the hype.

The ubiquity of Facebook-status updates and – particularly – Twitter messages have made the humblebrag the de facto method of choice for those wanting to share their achievements with as many people as possible, often in lieu of having anything else to say.

Indeed, the worst offenders tend to be celebrities followed by tens of thousands of people on Twitter, who have a lot to brag about but maintain enough self-awareness not to wantonly show off about the luck that has befallen them. (There are exceptions. See: West, Kanye.) Outright showing off is much harder to do online than in real life. Without the nuance that body language affords, a post about how wonderful a time you had at the gifting area of the Emmy awards is likely to attract a considerable amount of opprobrium, rather than conspiratorial giggling.

So, adding a rejoinder about how you're in the gifting room in your sweaty gym shorts will hopefully give an impression of awareness of the superficiality of such a situation.

That said, it's not just celebrities minor to major filling up bandwidth with humblebrags – we're all prone to it. Being able to instantly publish and share can tempt even the most modest to fire off a message such as, "I can't believe it's three years since I graduated from Harvard", without thinking too much about how it looks.

The man making sure that the worst humblebrags are shared is US comedy writer Harris Wittels. Wittels works on comedy hits Parks and Recreation and Eastbound and Down but has devoted hours of his spare time making sure that no backhanded self-deprecation can pass unmarked.

Wittels set up the @humblebrag Twitter account in the summer of 2010 to snare humblebrags and, hopefully, remind users of the social network that it's perhaps best used as a forum for sharing news, ideas and analysis, rather than the fact that Brett Davern (who?) got "recognised at the grocery store in the same T-shirt I wore at the VMAs".

The Humblebrag feed, which simply retweets any glaring humblebrags, has since accumulated more than 100,000 followers and earned Wittels a monthly column with the ESPN-owned brainy sports and culture web magazine Grantland, in which he ranks the greatest Humblebraggers.

Wittels himself defined the phenomenon in the first Humblebrag Power List back in June: "A humblebrag is basically a specific type of bragging which masks the brag in a faux-humble guise. The false humility allows the offender to boast their 'achievements' without any sense of shame or guilt. Unfortunately/fortunately, humblebragging is very commonly used in our society and for some reason Twitter seems to be the perfect forum for people to do it."

As well as celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, the winner of three of the four Humblebrag Power Lists so far is the decidedly non-famous Totes McGotes (not his real name, it's a line from Love You, Man), a man who lives in southern California, seems to have a successful business and is clearly the greatest humblebragger alive. Here are some of the examples that Wittels listed at Grantland: "I love that my non-college attending, growing-up-ghetto ass is talking $2.4m (£1.5m) ad budgets with a client today. #NoExcuses."

"I just realised I've only showered in ONE of my FIVE showers since I've moved in here. This must change #totesproblems."

"Told the cpl renting my house in the Midwest, who both lost their jobs last month, not to worry about Nov/Dec rent. They have a little boy."

Wittels' commentary makes McGotes even funnier: "He is a bottomless pit of humblebragging, and I love him for it."

The whole idea of the humblebrag is obviously just a bit of fun, a light-hearted poke at the commonly held perception of social media and Twitter, in particular, as being devices solely for narcissist twaddling.

But the humblebrag betrays a serious point. Studies and books written over the last few years – including The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and W Keith Campbell – have made strong arguments for social media facilitating a growth in narcissism through the mechanics of the sites. Humblebragging is the outlier on a spectrum that ranges from people tweeting about their day to posting pictures of their new clothes. Wittels' humblebrag device is a minor, if very funny, check on why we're sharing in the way that we're sharing.

That said, most people who use Twitter acknowledge its genuine ability to act as a tool for social change. And by highlighting the lack of humility, accidental or not among Twitter users, it reminds all of us that what we're saying is not necessarily being read in the way we intended it – and that no one likes a show-off. Even a humble one.

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