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.