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Social networks and the narcissism epidemic

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Ages ago I was a senior vice president at a company getting ready to go public. When the IPO prospectus (an SEC document for potential investors), came out, I learned that a colleague had negotiated a better compensation package than I had, and I guess he learned the same thing. I don't know if that made his day, but it sure as heck didn't make mine. I was pretty upset.

Did it help to know that he was getting a better deal? Actually, it did. I learned how to avoid that sort of thing in the future using what's known as a "most favored nation" clause. Of course, I'd used those types of clauses in customer agreements for years. That's why I was so angry -- I should have known better.

In any case, information is power. To the extent that knowledge informs your thinking or gives you an advantage of some sort, it's a good thing. But there can also be a downside. In the above example, the information was useful. But the truth is that it distracted me for quite a while, which didn't help one bit.

Conversely, sharing information gives up power. No, I'm not talking about information that should be shared so people can do their jobs effectively. I'm talking about information that nobody needs to know but you share it anyway. Most people do way too much of that, especially these days.

You see, we live in an era where more information is spread faster and wider than ever before. The amount of information that passes through data centers or the Internet "cloud" is mind-boggling and growing every day. And we're encouraged to share.

These days, everyone has a voice, an opinion, a social media presence, a website, a blog. We post all sorts of information on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. And we're virtual voyeurs of everyone else's information, as well.

In the past we've talked about how sharing too much information can get you fired. If you didn't read it, you should. It'll sober you right up. But there's another aspect of our contemporary culture that can cause you even more problems, a growing epidemic called narcissism.

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Narcissism is an overly positive and inflated view of self. It's when you constantly seek attention, value appearances over reality, and lack the ability to emotionally connect with others, to paraphrase from "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement" by noted psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell.

Well, there's an aspect of narcissism that you're probably not aware of, and you should be because it relates to our social networked and "always on" culture. In my opinion, it's remarkably insidious and can also damage your career.

You see, narcissists are very big on engaging other people. Influencing others or bringing them into your sphere, so to speak, is a narcissistic tendency because it provides an immediate reaffirmation of your power and ego, a real-time reinforcement of an inflated self-image.

In a culture where anyone can comment on anyone else's blog or Facebook timeline, where you can literally tweet your favorite media personality, a famous actor or athlete, even the President of the United States -- and maybe even get a response -- the narcissistic tug to engage is enticing and growing.

Back in the day of my little run-in with an SEC document, there were always attention seekers who tried to get a rise out of others or got themselves all worked up over a coworker getting away with a promotion she didn't deserve or who knows what. They're probably the same people who are always noticing and complaining about every little thing their neighbors do, as well.

Today, the infrastructure, gadgets and applications to behave that way on a large scale are at our fingertips. Indeed, our culture and society encourages it. Today, you can literally mind everybody else's business. What you may not realize is that there's a huge downside to doing too much of that. It's narcissistic behavior, it's addictive behavior, and it doesn't bode well for your career or your happiness.

Last month a popular Forbes article claimed that big company CEOs were doing their companies and shareholders a big disservice because 70 percent of them had no social network presence. Maybe those CEOs know exactly what they're doing. Maybe they know something you don't. Maybe there's a lesson here. You'll be happier and more successful if you focus on minding your own business. That's the lesson.

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