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I don’t think I’m a particularly vain person, but whenever I’m on a Zoom call, I’m constantly looking at my own face instead of focusing on the other people. I’m not really admiring myself or scrutinizing my appearance. I’m just … looking. What is this doing to my self-image? Should I turn off the self-view to avoid becoming a total narcissist? —SEEN
Turning off the self-view would seem to be the easiest solution, but it’s not one I would recommend—in fact, I’d strongly advise against it. From what I’ve heard, the sight of one’s image disappearing from the gallery inspires, almost universally, anguish, terror, and in some cases profound existential despair of the sort that Vladimir Nabokov claims to have felt when he came across family photos taken before he was born. It feels, in other words, as though you no longer exist.
Your larger query—about the possible side effects of staring at yourself all day—is more complex and extends beyond the question of whether you’re a narcissist, which I will venture is unlikely. (Fear of narcissism, at least in the clinical sense, is self-disqualifying: Only those who don’t fit the definition worry that they do.) It’s not as though you’re alone in this fixation, in any event. People who would never dream of looking at a photo of themselves for more than a few seconds nevertheless report, like you, an inability to look away from their own face floating on the screen during virtual classes or PTA meetings, a preoccupation so intense that vanity remains, for me at least, an unconvincing explanation. Perhaps the more relevant question is not what the platform is doing to your self-image but, rather, what has already happened to it such that you—like so many others—are unable to stop staring at your pixelated reflection.
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Zoom, of course, is not an ordinary mirror, or even an ordinary digital mirror. The self that confronts you on these platforms is not the static, poised image you’re accustomed to seeing in the bathroom vanity or the selfie view of your phone camera—a blank slate onto which you can project your fantasies and self-delusions—but the self who speaks and laughs, gestures and reacts.
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