I have been an active member of multiple online communities. It all began with a simple Facebook group, and now, I am deeply enmeshed in a complicated Twitter group. It’s a trajectory about which other people might feel some level of shame, but I dress my cats in costumes; I know no shame. Given my years of experience, I can confidently say one of the constants of these communities is people in crisis. The anonymity of the internet coupled with a limitless desire by other people to throw animal gifs at a problem invite some really upsetting confessions.
In a lot of instances, trauma narrative are genuine expressions of need. But there are also master storytellers out there, who type hourly how terrible they are as bait to draw in sensitive souls who will cater to them. On a large scale, you are probably too savvy to get catfished, but perpetuating someone’s narcissism in a toxic friendship is the center square on the online community Bingo card.
It’s important to understand the visceral weight a friendship like this can have in someone’s life — because toxic relationships wouldn’t be able to flourish if participants in online communities weren’t reaching out into the ether, hoping their searching fingers might brush against those of another person looking to connect. When that happens, people find themselves genuinely attaching to people online as they would IRL. The shift from more conventional offline spaces to contact mediated through tech is just a shift in medium. The mechanics of the friendship function in much the same way.
“Research shows that it’s safer to be open and honest about our struggles, deficits, and anxieties with online buddies that we are unlikely to ever meet face-to-face,” says Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, LPC, LMHC, NCC. “We feel less exposed when we hide behind the keyboard.”
What could possibly be the downside? You get an honest interaction with another human being and you get to do it from the comfort of your own home. It’s living the dream. You can do it in pajamas. You can do it between bouts of unfucking your habitat. You can do it while eating an entire bag of Totino’s Pizza Rolls because no one else can see you or your greasy keyboard. All true. But, sadly, the internet is also a great place for strangers to design a persona for maximum personal gain.
“Some online friendships are built more on the projection of how we would like to be seen by others, not necessarily how we actually are in real life,” Degges-White says.
If you could create a version of yourself from scratch, you go full Count of Monte Cristo and make the best possible person you could, right? That makes it feel so implausible that someone would craft their online reputation around trauma. Like you could be a sentient driving glove if you wanted, so why opt for Eeyore or fragile flower as an identity? Because it is getting you what you want. It’s not just grandiose narcissists loving social media; studies also show the popularity of various platforms among vulnerable narcissists — those with a personality pie chart with big fucking slices of fragile self-esteem and insecurity. They live for this approach.