Those who go looking for evidence of increasing self-absorption seem to find it everywhere these days. Inflated egos are apparently smiling in the selfies people snap, self-obsession woven into their compulsive online sharing. Even the tiniest language choices are revealing. First-person pronouns like "I" and "me" are crowding out "we" and "our" in all kinds of communication—from advertising copy to academic writing to newspaper articles to song lyrics.
The shift, some academics warn, is proof of narcissism run amok. It's popular to blame Millennials, of course.
In one high-profile study, researchers from the University of Kentucky used a text-analysis program to interpret the lyrics of the top 100 most popular U.S. songs—as ranked by the Billboard Hot 100—each year between 1980 and 2007. They found a steady uptick in first-person singular pronouns (I, me) and a decline in more communal first-person plural pronouns (we, our), according to their 2011 paper in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. All this singing about me, they concluded, showed the larger culture was becoming more self-centered and less socially connected. "Narcissism is like a flu," said W. Keith Campbell, one of the study's authors, in a television interview last year. "Everybody around you gets sick and you feel great about yourself."
But some linguists and music historians say the reality is more nuanced. For one thing, frequent use of "I" doesn't signal a haughtier sense of one's status but the opposite, according to James Pennebaker, the social psychologist who invented the text-analysis program used in the 2011 study of song lyrics. The higher a person's standing, the less frequently that person uses 'I' words, according to Pennebaker in his book, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. "A high-status person is looking out at the world," he wrote. "The low-status person tends to be looking more inwardly." Which helps explain why politicians so often choose the slippery "we," which can seem inclusive while it actually deflects responsibility. (Incidentally, according to Pennebaker, "People who tell the truth use the word 'I' more. They're owning what they're saying. Liars are tending to hold off, distancing themselves.")
No, "we" isn't necessarily such a communal word after all. It often comes off as presumptive and exclusionary, and can be seen as one group speaking—out of turn—for others. And we wouldn’t want that now would we? Instead, first-person narratives have emerged as markers of authenticity in an age when realness is a virtue. Internet culture is propelled by such perspectives at a time when most anyone can publish to global audiences in an instant. Institutions deal in "we," while individuals stick with "I"—especially individuals of lower status, which often means those who weren't previously in privileged enough positions to have their language choices scrutinized.
In other words, the rise in use of "I" and "me" might reveal as much about who's doing the talking as it does about what's being said. Women, for instance, use the first-person singular at much higher rates than men do, according to Pennebaker. And institutions that once opted for formal communication styles have noticed the shift toward first-person singular, and have in some cases adopted it themselves. Consider Taco Bell's hugely popular Twitter account, which is known for sending messages that sound like they were written by fans of the fast-food franchise: "I'm having Taco Bell cater my wedding," and "I could eat Taco Bell for the rest of my life." In journalism, writers are increasingly encouraged to adopt a conversational voice over a traditionally authoritative one. What used to be "formal, pure, and precise," wrote Jon Evans in an essay for TechCrunch last year about how the Internet has revolutionized the way we write, is now "first-person, colloquial, breezy, open, and personal." People increasingly gravitate toward those who address them like, well, people.
Even in science writing, where personal pronouns were once forbidden, some journals are now open to informal, active language—though "we" has gained acceptance more quickly than "I." (The most prestigious journals still strictly discourage first-person.) Yet for as rapidly as things are changing, the move toward first-person pronouns has had many prominent pioneers over several decades. "Even before the modernist period, you can see things changing," said Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. "Mark Twain, who predates the invention of the term modernism by some time wrote in a much more colloquial style."
And the mainstream shift toward "I" and "me" in American pop music dates back at least half a century. The Beatles actually cut back on their use of first-person pronouns after earlier songs like "Ask Me Why," "Love Me Do," and "Please Please Me" in the early 1960s. It was around this time that Bob Dylan rose to fame, and ushered in the era of the singer-songwriter with his warbly first-person anthems. Dylan’s ascent marked the dawn of another era characterized by hand-wringing over self-centered youth, and the beginning of what came to be known as the culture of narcissism. (The influential book of the same name was published in 1979.) Baby Boomers had yet to earn the “Me Generation” moniker at the start of Dylan’s career, but he was criticized right away as being a narcissist—including by fellow folk singers like Pete Seeger.
"Seeger's criticism against Dylan at this time was that he took the ‘we,’ and turned it into a 'me,'" said John Covach, a professor of music theory at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music. "But what usually triggers this narcissism criticism is that what somebody's telling you about themselves is not something that you want to hear. If they seem to be whining about their situation, or seem to be entitled, you tend to view it as narcissism. But if someone is saying something that happened to them and it resonates with your own experience, then you don't call it narcissistic. You call it poetry."