Humblebrag or Underbrag: which one are you?

After winning gold for both 100m and 200m in the latest London Olympics, Usain Bolt declared himself to be a “living legend”. This Jamaican Olympic star’s rather boastful comment brought up a small controversy. It wasn’t that Bolt’s remarks were completely ridiculous, but what annoyed some people was his lack of humbleness. So should we feel uncomfortable and cringe a little inside when Bolt says that he is a living legend? Oliver Burkeman says no. He says that in a today’s world where “every other Facebook status update is a veiled act of self-aggrandizement”, we shouldn’t be surprised when anyone expresses excess self-promotion and boastfulness. At least Bolt is faster than everyone else, Burkeman writes, and in his column titled I’d never boast about it, but I’m a master of the new art of underbragging, he argues that this kind of everyday bragging Bolt demonstrates is the “fuel that powers social media”.

Burkeman lists two different types of bragging present online. First is the humblebrag. It is a subtle way of bragging, when you brag but seem humble about it. Humblebrag, according to Burkeman, is a method of bragging to “surreptitiously [draw] attention to the bragger’s brilliance or privilege”. It’s a way to fabricate your boasts with humility and modesty, but really you’re just showing off. Harris Wittels, the writer of the (hilarious) television series, Parks and Recreations created @Humblebrag Twitter account, where he just retweets humblebrags of celebrities and normal Twitter users. It’s mostly of how you ran into Nick Jonas and you were wearing the same pants and how you can’t interview Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ben Affleck at the same time. You get the idea. The second type of bragging Burkeman introduces is the underbrag. “Underbragging”, Burkeman explains, “involves referring to an embarrassing pratfall or stupid error that has no redeeming aspects: it constitutes a ‘brag’ only because you are demonstrating that you can mention it without fear of being fired by your employer, grounder by your parents, or ostracized by our peers”. Burkeman quotes blogger Jen Doll, who sees the underbrag as the new humblebrag and writes, “it is the brag that doesn’t care what The Man thinks”.It’s a form of bragging in that I’m telling the world that I’m not ashamed of what I did, though you might be embarrassed for me. You probably don’t envy me, but that is the precise reason of underbragging. As Burkeman puts it, “I don’t care that you don’t envy me […] which is why you should envy me”.

Burkeman partly blames technology and social media for the cultural phenomenon of bragging as a whole. He explains that today we have too many channels that allows us to play with our public image online. “We are tempted to present ourselves as positively as possible”, Burkeman writes. I think this whole notion of wanting a positive public image ties closely with boyd and Ellison‘s definition of social networks. We  have agency in choosing who can be part of our “list of connections”.”The public display of connections is a crucial component of SNS”, boyd and Ellison writes, and they explain that people do not use social networks to meet strangers, but its primarily for “communicating with people who are already a part of their extended social network”. So, we are connected to people online via social media and according to Burkeman, we have the urge to impress them. We want our Facebook Friends and Twitter followers to think that we are cool, worthwhile people to follow and pay attention to when our profiles pop-up on their profile. Relating this concept to the bragging phenomenon, Burkeman explains that on social media, we follow and friend people “who don’t mind [our] boasts”, who readily becomes our “army of enablers, applauding [our] self-applauds”. We want more likes and comments on our online activities and we want to be acknowledged as a distinct identity online as we do offline. We want to be applauded.So in a sense, we are choosing our “army of enablers” and becoming one of the enablers when we are constructing the connection boyd and Ellison talks about.

Let’s be honest. We like talking about ourselves. Burkeman even gives an scientific reasoning behind this – a research done by Harvard neuroscientists – and apparently bragging has the same effect on our brain as eating or sex. No wonder we are constantly on social media talking about our lives. We post pictures of food, tweet about how bad the weather is and how much we need a vacation. It could be said that we are reporting our thoughts and daily happenings on social media, and this has become such a norm that sometimes we don’t even recognize the phenomenon until people like Burkeman points it out to us. In her book, Personal connections in the Digital Age, Nancy Baym introduces the process of domestication, which is when technology becomes “taken-for-granted parts of everyday life, no longer seen as agents of change” (24). Not only has tweeting and Facebook status updates have become domesticated, but according to Burkeman, bragging has also been “increasingly socially accepted”. It is okay to brag online and frankly, we don’t really mind people bragging – because we do it too. And in fact, we can simply ignore whatever we don’t like and scroll down the news feed to something else, if it’s really annoying us. The culture of bragging also can be applied to Baym’s discourse of social shaping, which states that both technology and people influence each other. We want to have a positive image online and social media offers us agency to construct our online profile via manipulating our personal identity and partly through bragging. We can over-exaggerate who we are to be more liked, to have more “army of enablers”, as Burkeman puts it.

Whether is be humblebrag or underbrag, Burkeman concludes that there’s no point in trying to stop the phenomenon. The @Humblebrag account is still hilarious to browse through when you are bored, and as long as we can still hear the voices that need to be heard, the bragging phenomenon isn’t too bad.

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5 comments

  1. I was actually unaware of this phenomenon until I read the definition of “humblebrag” and “underbrag,” in this post, and realized I was a victim of doing both at some point in my life. The other day for example, I posted on Facebook that I met Regina Spektor (http://reginaspektor.com/) in services for the Jewish Holiday, and that she was really nice. I knew some of my friends were her fans, but I had no intention of making them jealous or bragging, it was simply a status I felt like writing. It now has a good number of likes and comments, all positively reinforcing my status, which in a weird way made me feel better about my online identity. I think this relates to Baym’s social shaping discourse more than domestication. If my friends didn’t support my status, I wouldn’t be posting content like that as comfortably as I did. In that way, social media shapes how I choose to portray my identity online and offline. This actually goes back to our discussion of Slater’s article “Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline.” If people are humblebragging or underbragging to “[draw] attention to the bragger’s brilliance or privilege” as you quoted Burkeman on, is it really who they are, or who they want other people to think they are? Personally, I think my identities online and offline appear to be somewhat different based on the various social media channels I participate on, but my goal of creating an identity is somewhat consistent. I may not realize how I act in front of friends or family, or what people may think of the content I post on Facebook, twitter, Tumblr etc., but I’m still behaving in a way that reflects how I want others to view me. In that sense the lines can really blur between performance and authenticity. Your article will make me much more aware of when I choose to “brag” about myself both online and off 🙂

  2. I loved this post and how you tied together Usain Bolt, Social Media, and the readings from last week. I really enjoyed how you connected Baym’s concept of domestication with bragging online. I must say that I partake in ALL of this. I am not the kind of social media user that shares all my thoughts, good, bad, and whiny. I only want the people I went to high school with, my exes, and the random strangers that follow me to see how “awesome” my life is in New York with my “incredible” internships and blah blah blah. In reality, I spend most of my time laying in bed eating dessert and reblogging pictures of cats. So why do I paint this portrait of myself on social media, through bragging, as something greater? I’m not really sure, perhaps you can offer an answer.

    I think I may do so because I see social media as this permanent archive and documentation of our everyday lives, and by making my persona greater online, perhaps more people will view me in that way. It gives you complete control over first impressions and chance encounters with people that know you better from your online profile than they do IRL.

    I guess my big question is: So what? What does this say about our society as a whole? Also, why do we celebrate bragging online and not IRL? For instance, Scott Disick of the Kardashians is a Tumblr god, revered for his honesty and pompousness, but in popular media he is portrayed as a KanyeWestian pretentious know-it-all.

    It’s an interesting topic to ponder, and I’m curious to see if some of the taboo of bragging will ever carry over into the virtual humblebrag.

  3. I was actually unaware of this phenomenon until I read the definition of “humblebrag” and “underbrag,” in this post, and realized I was a victim of doing both at some point in my life. The other day for example, I posted on Facebook that I met Regina Spektor (http://reginaspektor.com/) in services for the Jewish Holiday, and that she was really nice. I knew some of my friends were her fans, but I had no intention of making them jealous or bragging, it was simply a status I felt like writing. It now has a good number of likes and comments, all positively reinforcing my status, which in a weird way made me feel better about my online identity. I think this relates to Baym’s social shaping discourse more than domestication. If my friends didn’t support my status, I wouldn’t be posting content like that as comfortably as I did. In that way, social media shapes how I choose to portray my identity online and offline. This actually goes back to our discussion of Slater’s article “Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline.” If people are humblebragging or underbragging to “[draw] attention to the bragger’s brilliance or privilege” as you quoted Burkeman on, is it really who they are, or who they want other people to think they are? Personally, I think my identities online and offline appear to be somewhat different based on the various social media channels I participate on, but my goal of creating an identity is somewhat consistent. I may not realize how I act in front of friends or family, or what people may think of the content I post on Facebook, twitter, Tumblr etc., but I’m still behaving in a way that reflects how I want others to view me. In that sense the lines can really blur between performance and authenticity. Your article will make me much more aware of when I choose to “brag” about myself both online and off 🙂

  4. Gérard Louis-Dreyfus recently said, “I hate the culture of personality.” (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2113172,00.html) I think this applies to the phenomenon you are discussing here. It is only recently that the concept of individual personality became real – before there were ways to create an external identity, I think the idea of standing out based on one’s own personality was unfathomable. Now we live in a world where everyone expects to be celebrated or rewarded simply for being themselves – this is evident through reality show culture. As a result, there’s a social pressure to be the most popular personality. How does this manifest itself? Through bragging – or, as this article points out, humblebragging. I think this term implies that there is a subtlety to the act. You are not outright boasting, and you are saying something to up the value of your personality. And humblebragging seems to be something that only occurs online – I doubt I’ve ever heard it in the physical world. I’m curious if it’s possible for a social interaction to only be effective in the online world.

  5. Though Burkeman makes a strong argument (re: partly blaming technology and social media for the cultural phenomenon of bragging as a whole) I think he might be missing the fundamental element that we read earlier in Baym’s text – the preservation and storage element of the Internet!

    Both humblebrags and underbrags have been widely popular in stand-up comedy technique and still are today. Woody Allen is definitely the biggest offender of this method, while bringing it to the forefront of popular comedy, while other comedians like Kathy Griffin have re-cornered the market on this technique – with her reality show “My Life on the D-list.” (Personally) I’m not mad at Woody Allen for making the mundane seem enticing, and similarly don’t feel manipulated by Griffin’s successful lie, that she is living her life on the “D-list” of fame. It’s interesting, because the audience is never meant to believe comedians are performing “characters” yet they’re so often characterized by their comedic style. Maybe Burkeman would say the same thing about Allen and Griffin’s comedy, but is this because he’s not a fan of their work or because he thinks their comedic style of both humble and underbragging is overly self-indulgent? I wonder if Burkeman is more offended by 140-character humblebrags and underbrags (that are preserved more or less) or just the whole discourse in general. I know it’s certainly easier to forget something annoying if I’ve overheard it in the halls in Silver before class, than to read someone’s “humble” tweet who I respect enough to follow on twitter. Obviously what I’m trying to say here is that both Burkeman and I feel as though those 140-characters REALLY count, so make it good!

    I unintentionally brought up another interesting aspect of the humblebrag / underbrag discourse. Here I go, being humble and stuff: something that would be particularly fascinating to research is the gender binary relating to humblebrags and underbrags. Is there a correlation at all? Maybe not. Maybe we’re all just people who need to talk about how humble or basic we are, but (more importantly my intellectual incite now:) if there are more boys and men “humblebragging” than there are girls and women “underbragging” could we draw parallels to gender socialization and ultimately “identity performance” via social media outlets? Is it more masculine to humblebrag than to underbrag? If I (a lady) was feeling too masculine in my offline life, would I be more tempted to change my facebook status or tweet something “underbragging”?

    My head hurts a bit right now. After I read The Use and Abuse of History by Nietzsche (for class, k? I am definitely omitting the fact I read this while abroad in Berlin – but it was NYU in Berlin so all my classes were in English. Humblebrag or underbrag?) my professor asked us to “live unhistorically.” Spoiler alert, the feeling you get from trying to live unhistorically feels like the most violent thing you can do to your mind, however it’s kind of like trying to compose a facebook status or tweet without humble or underbragging. Both humblebrags and underbrags have become such a popular and typical style of sharing thoughts on SNSs I feel like I’m … trying to live unhistorically.

    (http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40133879?uid=3739832&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101238742377).

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