Narcissism on the net

by Alastaire Allday 13 February 2013 Digital and social, Guest posts

We need to talk. It’s not you. It’s me. In fact, it’s always about me, isn’t it? And that’s part of the problem.

The internet is a “me-first” medium.

It’s been well documented that narcissists and psychopaths flourish in the modern corporate workplace, where their glib and temporary charms allow them to quickly ingratiate themselves with others and perform a hit-and-run on the company, before moving on to their next target.

What is less well documented is that the internet works in a similar way – rewarding chronic narcissism and self-promotion while remaining anonymous enough to allow people to pretend to be something they’re not, and move on to the next victim should their deception be discovered.

Look at me!

Look at me!

I’ve written on my blog about how, in the early days of the social web, we talked fairly openly about our day-to-day lives on services such as Livejournal – still, I think, the best online community I was ever part of. We were honest. We were open. We were naive. Then again, it was 1999. Privacy issues hadn’t been invented yet.

These days, we are much less open and honest, but much more aggressive in promoting our digital personas on the web. We don’t shout from the rooftops when we’re feeling down, but when a new piece of work that shows us in a good light comes out, we sing like canaries, endlessly RT-ing our own praise.

It’s unfortunate but true that, to paraphrase Al Capone, while you can go far with good content, you can get much further with good content and a very loud voice – the internet often rewards those who shout the loudest, those who invest the most time in self-promotion, those who pour more energy into social media than into their actual work.

I have never quite understood the concept of being a ‘web celebrity’ – even though such a status clearly exists. I won’t name names, but it seems to me that many of these people invest far more time in self-promotion than in doing quality work. I’m sure you can all think of your own examples.

In his guest post on my blog, Tom has spoken highly of how well he feels my introductory pages – which feature minimalist text and three slightly quirky, off-the-wall pictures of me – really work as a great introduction, making you want to work with ‘Alastaire Allday’ rather than just ‘A Copywriter’.

I actually think that Tom’s gallery of images on his own home page, where he demonstrates the difference between writing and copywriting using real-world examples, is rather better.

When I was a teenager, my parents hit on the idea of buying a ‘Beware of the dog’ sign as a cheaper alternative to an alarm system. I suggested an improvement: to paint a homemade sign that said ‘Beware of the dog – He bites!’

This extra text made the difference between a boring, store-bought standard sign that could have been placed and forgotten about years ago, and a freshly painted, specific warning to act as a deterrent. That’s the difference between writing and copywriting. And it’s a difference that Tom’s homepage explains very, very well.

Tom’s gallery talks about the product, not the person. But the web isn’t necessarily about the best product. It’s about who’s got the loudest voice.

Five or six years ago, there were relatively few web copywriters. Now, there’s tens of thousands. Not only that, but we’re competing against aggregated job sites such as People per Hour and lower-grade content mills such as Copify, churning out words by the penny.

Consequently, the average market rate for copywriters has fallen – significantly.

Anyone who’s ever stepped into a supermarket will tell you that brand name goods sell for more money than their generic equivalent. Usually it’s because they’re better. Often, it’s because an advertising campaign has told you that they’re better (and ad campaigns cost money, of course). But when you buy a brand, the idea is that you’re buying a guarantee of quality.

And on an anonymous internet full of ‘generic’ services such as copywriters, web designers, and so forth, it pays to invest in building a brand name for yourself.

And that’s where the cult of the web celebrity comes in.

Throughout history, people have always sought to stamp their authority upon their fiefdoms with their image — from coins minted across the Roman Empire with Caesar’s head to the somewhat more risible cult of personality around every tinpot dictator from Stalin to Kim Jong-il.

If there is a flat market rate for generic services (I’d say a competent, ‘generic’ copywriter on People Per Hour will set you back £25 an hour), how do you charge more? How do you make more money?

Want to charge more money? You have to make a name for yourself.

It’s not enough to have a proven track record – raise your prices and watch how quickly your clients will swap you out for another reliable generic – you have to have a marketable brand name. What do you think makes a Damian Hirst spot painting valuable? Talent? No. It’s the name.

And so begins the endless, tedious, repetitive task of shouting about how good you are – or, if you’re really smart, figuring out a way to get everyone else to shout about how good you are.

My website was built around this premise from day one. I was never selling words, I was selling me. It worked.

Of course, the me that I’m selling is a carefully constructed image – unlike the good old days of Livejournal, where you whinged and whined to the point of depression or trumpeted your hedonistic, party lifestyle without thought to the consequences of your future career, these days we work hard to cultivate a polished, professional image of ourselves.

You wouldn’t know from my website or my twitter feed or anywhere else that I’m frequently chronically shy, more comfortable around computers and cats than I am around people, and can quite merrily go for days without seeing or speaking to another soul.

Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and wonder if this is really the same person who, digitally speaking, would plaster his face on a postage stamp if he could, and mail it to everyone in the world?

The internet rewards chronic narcissism the same way the corporate workplace rewards the pathological psychopath.

Shout louder, earn more money.

I don’t feel entirely comfortable about this. Firstly, it’s easier to spend more time promoting yourself than doing your actual job – to the point where self-promotion becomes your job (and I’m fairly sure many famous ‘internet celebrities’ no longer do the job they’re famous for, they farm most of it out) – but more importantly, it’s easier to do the psychopath hit-and-run job on a client, reeling them in with your name, then failing to deliver.

Copywriter Stephen Marsh recently commented on Twitter that he couldn’t believe the number of clients coming to him who’d been ‘burned’ by a copywriter online who promised the earth, then failed to deliver. He was appalled by the quality of the half-finished ‘work’ the client sent him to fix.

But the honest truth is, what do you expect from a community that rewards not the best work, but the loudest voices? I don’t mean the copywriting community, I mean the web at large. Viral phenomena create celebrities out of nobodies. Most web celebrities – from PSY to some of the more famous designers and copywriters – are just famous for being famous, nothing more.

Don’t look at the person. Look at the work.

It’s a problem. My advice to clients is to do their due diligence on the freelancer or agency they employ. Don’t just pick them because they’re #1 on Google, or because they’ve got a following on Twitter. Judge them on their actual work. Ask for samples. Make sure they can do the job.

By releasing a free e-book, I attempted to mix self-promotion with an actual way to gain a wider audience for my written work, proving that I’m knowledgeable about my trade. But it’s clearly still a gimmick that focuses on me.

For my money, that’s why Tom’s website is better than mine. Measure for measure, Tom clearly demonstrates better copywriting skills. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to offer – I’m quite good at the old “self promotion” gimmick for my clients, too. My copywriting’s not bad, either. You just have to look beneath the surface.

The question is, in the age of the “internet celebrity” where people are judged on their fame, not on the quality of their work, does what lies beneath the surface matter?

I think it does. Just ask any client who’s been burned.

The internet may reward narcissism, but in those quiet moments when the shouting dies down, quality still speaks for itself.

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