A potentially doomed attempt to remove narcissism from social media

By James Robinson , written on January 31, 2014

From The News Desk

If the social media "selfie" was a stock, following its fortunes would be an emotional roller coaster. Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year for 2013 was “selfie.” Then Selfies At Funerals blew up on Tumblr, and everyone seethed with outrage at growing societal narcissism. Then James Franco wrote an op-ed for the New York Times defending the "selfie," just to settle the market.

But not anyone has gone as far out of their way against the selfie as Paul Hawkinson - a reformed Wall Street investment banker now returned to his home town of Chicago on a two-year professional sabbatical - and created a social media platform designed to eliminate narcissism entirely.

“It got to the point where if I had to watch my daughter take one more selfie… well it was just overwhelming,” Hawkinson says.

unselfie_2LandID, Hawkinson’s self-proclaimed “anti-selfie” app, launched in December 2013 after four months of development and was funded by its founder’s own dime. For anyone who has used Instagram, it’s a basic tool to pick up, except on LandID it combines a photo of your feet and where you are into one image and allows you to write a couple of paragraphs about the significance of the place.

“There’s some great stuff on Facebook, but 98 percent of it is trivial. There was no way to parse through to the good material. I started thinking about a filter and wondering what that would look like,” Hawkinson says.

Hawkinson thinks that to root a social platform in the places that we’ve been and the things that are significant to us will create something more meaningful. In 15 years he hopes that LandID users could look back and see the geography of their life that meant the most to them. He’s seen people take snaps of grave sites and artwork on LandID, which he likes.

But LandID takes away a user’s ability to acutely craft their self-identity. Hawkinson’s concerns in trying to do so, are partly valid. “We can finely tune a blog through 16 edits. We put 1900 filters on a photo and we can look how ever we want. But it’s web confidence. The voice you have may not exist in a physical life. It’s wonderful and dangerous.”

The achilles heel for LandID is that ‘selfie’ or not social-media is fuelled on this narcissism: be it taking a moment of boredom to share your funny thought or resent how much more fun your friends are having at that point of time. Creating a less temporary social media could be like teaching a chicken how to swim.

There’s also no actionable way for Hawkinson to keep the selfie of LandID, aside from user goodwill.

“It takes some time for people to realise that it is okay to not use this that often,” Hawkinson says. He wants people to take time to think about what counts to them and what they would like to share about their story.

“It’s an anti-successful business model.”

Which is a concession of sorts that without encouraging its users to share all of the ephemeral minutiae of their lives always LandID is not going to be the new hip app that the kids go crazy for. Without people being compelled to check in and use it compulsively, it’s going to struggle to make any money. Social media dynamos at the core are mostly just advertising companies.

After a first month where only friends and family used LandID, Hawkinson says that 1400 have people have downloaded it.

“I think for us, going viral doesn’t mean a million downloads, or even fifty to one hundred thousand. I think if we got to fifty thousand downloads, that would be great,” Hawkinson says. He’s encouraged by seeing people he’s told to download LandID not show up at all on the platform for two weeks before sharing something all of a sudden. He can’t create community without a community, Hawkinson says, so LandID is set up now to be a tool that people use to share their posts on Facebook.

But when you’re not imploring users to check in and get addicted, you’re risking - if not encouraging - them to get hooked on any one of the blur of apps that come out each week and forget about you.

With just north of a thousand users, a couple of hundred Twitter followers and 700 fans on Facebook, finding the equity partner that Hawkinson concedes he’ll need might be tough. Outside of that, he imagines that maybe it might have a corporate use and he wonders aloud whether someone like a shoe company might take interest in LandID.

Hawkinson has clearly taken a stand in something he believes in. The question LandID might find itself on the losing side of is whether a social media without narcissism is like a cigarette without nicotine?

[Feature image via WikiPaintings, other image via LandID]