The age of mass narcissism

Just because we can record every drunken moment or schoolboy prank – and post them online – doesn't mean we should. The YouTube generation will regret it, argues Michael Bywater

Wednesday 12 May 2010 00:00

It would have done for me, for a start. The day I got my hand stuck in a park bench while attempting to talk my girlfriend into coming home with me. Riding my poxy little Mobylette moped from Leckhampton to my college, standing on the seat. Riding it through the college court, naked. God help us. Failed glider aerobatics (don't ask). Amateur dramatics (don't ask). Professional dramatics (don't even think of asking). Dressing up as a clown, wandering about with a silver-topped cane, ditto green nail varnish and eyeshadow, ditto Spanish riding boots. Humping. Almost certainly, humping. Yes. There'd have been humping, and trailing that chap who went mad through the night streets of Bruges, and now I come to think of it what about what happened in Heidelberg and indeed that evil night in the Lake District and, oh yes, that other evil night in the Lake District, not to mention Minnesota and, oh God, Beverly Hills and that damned Cessna 206 Stationair and the Grand Canyon, that was a do, that was. Oh dear.

Oh dear and thank God, because it was all private. It's all over. It's all in the past, and that's the thing about the past: things used to be in the past, but now they're not. They're on YouTube (motto: "Broadcast Yourself") and Vimeo and Facebook and Idiotvids. Everything that happens – the seedy phrase is "life experiences" – is sucked into the voracious eye of the camcorder or the jittery blur of the video phone, uploaded (3G, broadband, Edge, you take your pick but they still get your money), transferred into Flash and made available to the world.

For ever.

The idea of "in the past" is in the past. Impossible to put aside childish things because Google knows where they are; and even if you take them down, the Wayback Machine will cache them for all time. So that's that for the past. You want to know the future? You want to sup full-on horrors? There's a poll for that, done to promote the Flip MinoHD, a thing the size of a packet of cigarettes – remember them? We had cigarettes when we still had privacy; now, we'd film ourselves smoking them behind the bike sheds – that shoots up to an hour of high-quality video. The survey says that a third of 18-24 year olds "see a time when they would post videos on social networks every day".

It's all happened rather fast; the children who have grown up with the phone-vids-on-Facebook culture are about five years old. At the turn of the millennium even rich middle-aged gadget guys were boasting about their massive zooms, not their multi-megapixels. It was 2001 before Sharp introduced the J-SH04, the first mobile phone with a built-in camera, 2005 when three ex-PayPal employees thought up YouTube, and, 18 months later when they sold it to Google for $1.65bn (as of last year, YouTube still hadn't reportedly turned a profit but isn't it fun?) Facebook and Twitter have only been around since 2006. This stuff is new; but, gosh, we're loving it. Or, rather, they're loving it. And they're posting videos.

Videos of themselves drinking. Videos of themselves drunk. Of themselves playing the guitar, playing the harpsichord, playing silly buggers, playing with themselves. Falling over, dressing up, mugging, doing that thing where they put their tongue out which makes me want to really, like, punch them in the face. College boys in beanies. Strangely sombre Japanese people at the seaside, pointing at giant inflatable bananas. Emo schoolkids thwacking themselves in the nadgers as they come off their skateboards. Incompetent free runners leaping from one building smack into the wall of another building. That kind of thing.

It's called "Lifecasting". "Organise and Enjoy!" encourages the webpage – Flash video of course; you'll have gone off the whole idea by the time the page loads – for FlipShare; "Create it Yourself! More than Video! Share Privately! World Premieres! Show-on-the-Go! Home Movie Night!"

What the hell happened to irony? What happened to all those Punch cartoons predicated on the – unarguable, back then – idea that the nadir of human existence was looking at your friends' holiday movies/slides/photographs? How is it that something which was once the marker of a staid and suburban middle-aged lunacy – the quiet sort, as though its practitioners had grown a sort of woolly bobble hat inside their skulls – has become a staple of youth culture?

You've Been Framed – which could more honestly have been called You've Been Carefully Set Up And This Is The Third Take – has a lot to answer for, not least that its bastard spawns have given governments, all of which, always, have the instincts of the Stasi, reason to suspect that the next generation of electors regard privacy as something which, like the Turks, they don't even really need a word for. From the narrowcasting of pre-selected idiots to the webcasting of self-selected dolts, all that the would-be net narcissist was waiting for was the technology. And now we've got it. It's in your phone. It's in your Flip. It's perched at the top of the computer screen, pointing at you, as the Numa Numa guy (type him into YouTube and watch him doing an amusing dance – why not, 35 million other people have observed him) found out and earned himself global fame.

The instinct to make arses of ourselves in public and forever must be strong in the young. Why? Attention at any price? The hope that some tall beautiful sad-eyed girl will think "that dude with the do-rag falling off the beach café roof: he's the one for me"? A sort of personal immortality? A kind of seedling belief that YouTube is almost telly, so that being on YouTube is almost like being a TV star?

"Nobody's looking at you," my mother used to say. Now I could just point her at my stats. "647,031 unique views in the last six weeks? Hardly 'nobody', I think. And that's not taking into account my TwitVid of the rook chasing my radio-controlled racing car or the Vimeo one where I land my Flight Simulator™ Space Shuttle at Biggin Hill or the ones on Facebook of me getting up, shaving, wearing my new hat und so weiter. No, you OLD BAT, I think PLENTY of people are looking at me."

And yet ... yet, I yearn for a Flip MinoHD. Even if I got bored waiting for the page to load, I know I want one. I could film myself writing this piece. I could film my Nespresso machine. I could film my shaving brush. I could film ... everything. And share it. In grainy stuttery 30-second takes. I could document it all. I'd be the star of my own life instead of being (as is the reality) just a walk-on. I'd be famous. And it wouldn't matter a jot that everyone else was famous too.

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