Narcissists show all the traits online that they show in person, plus a few that are unique to the Internet. Here are a few of the distinctive traits I've seen in online narcissists:
Not belonging to web communities, except as a guru
Narcissists can’t bear to be part of the masses, and they sure as hell don’t share interests with the masses. They almost never hang out on forums like normal people. If you do find a narcissist in a web community, she’ll almost certainly be posturing as an expert or a guru—or she’ll be the owner, and she and her works will be center stage. It’s common to find a narcissist sitting like a toad in a hole in several empty forums and blogs, all dedicated to her.
Narcissists are also infrequent blog commenters unless they’ve attained an expert status that follows them from blog to blog. Normal blog comments ask for too much interest in other people and offer too much risk of being attacked where they don’t control the “delete comment” button. If you see a narcissist in someone else’s blog comments, he’s pimping his work, cozying up to his social superiors, graciously accepting the acclaim of his lessers, or starting a fight.
Attempting to control the conversation
When the conversation turns in a direction that's not to the narcissist's liking, the narcissist wastes no time setting things right. Her tactics include:
- Ordering the other members to get back on topic and stop derailing the thread. This may involve creative reinterpretations of the thread topic.
- Selectively net-nannying the thread. For instance, criticizing her opponents for using swear words, but ignoring it when her allies swear.
- Ordering specific members out of the conversation. "Your contributions are not useful," "I don't understand why you're here. Why don't you find somewhere more to your liking?", "Do not respond to me again."
- Ordering entire groups of people out of the conversation. "I want to hear only from other mothers-in-law, not from daughters-in-law," "This thread is for writers, not reviewers."
- Accusing her opponents of being trolls or bullies. Narcissists define trolling and bullying as "persistently disagreeing with me."
- Reporting her opponents for personal attacks or forum violations. Narcissists' definitions of "attack" and "violation" are strangely similar to their definition of trolling.
- Deleting opponents' comments or entire threads, when the site allows it.
- Deleting their own comments and leaving the conversation.
- Starting the same conversation elsewhere on the same site in the hope that the "bullies" and "haters" will be satisfied with the other thread and leave them alone.
When all these maneuvers fail, a narcissist may go off-site to get public sympathy and support for the horrible, horrible bullying she suffered. Whatever happened to her was a systemic problem that gnaws at the roots of the social structure and threatens to bring the website, even an entire section of society, down.
Their significant others are props
Narcissists’ partners don’t wander in and out of their blog posts or their anecdotes the way normal people’s partners do. They come onstage only at specific times, presented carefully, to bolster some point of the narcissist’s or prop up the image the narcissist is working to project. It’s part of the narcissist’s need to keep the attention on them, a reflection of the reality that other people don’t exist to them except as tools, and an instance of what Joanna Ashmun describes as "talking about family, work, life in general as if there is nobody else in the picture."
Narcissists probably write about their friends this way, too, but no narcissist I’ve seen has had friends to write about.
Unable to follow a line of thought for more than an exchange or two
Narcissists routinely give answers that make sense for the question just asked—as long as you ignore the context of the question, or the answer they gave one round beforehand, or any points anyone else brought into the debate. Pointing out the inconsistencies will get you another garbage answer. Narcissists act as though discussions were a tennis tournament and the goal was to win the current match. Why bother with what happened in the last match? That game is over. They’ll say anything they need to say to win this round, and act bewildered when someone points out that how they played this game doesn’t connect with how they played three games ago.
Narcissists ramble. At length. I don’t mean they write normal rambling posts that start with a trip to the grocery store and wander off into thoughts about the global rice shortage, something someone said to you about international travel, and the trip to France you took last year. They write posts that are supposedly about a single topic, but which wander all over the place, loop around the central question several times, and end without ever coming to a conclusion—but the writer thinks they’ve done a fine job of explaining themselves. You can see examples in Sam Vaknin’s article libraries. It's the one-player version of being unable to follow a line of thought for more than an exchange or two.
And they’re long. Always, always long. Writing long seems to be a universal symbol of crazy, whether narcissism or schizophrenia or querulous litigancy. Narcissists can bring off unfunny little one-liners in forum conversations, but when faced with an empty post box, they're compelled to fill it until it runs over.
Narcissists are weirdly unspecific. They don't give blow-by-blow accounts of events or recreate dialogues. Their stories have holes where other people's motives should be. If they fill in the holes—that is, if they're perceptive enough to realize other people find their accounts lacking—they pick motives with more emotional than logical resonance. ("Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center because they hate freedom.") It's easy to miss in the short term because normal people can spend long stretches of time without giving detailed accounts, but eventually even the vaguest normal person will give you a minute-by-minute account of meeting her future husband or going to her first concert. With narcissists, that moment never quite arrives.
(Unless they're confabulating.)
Narcissists avoid giving out facts. First, the facts don't matter to them, so they don't see why they would matter to anyone else. And second, it's easier to spin tales and blur lines when you don't give your listeners anything to go by except your own version of events. Normal people share entire IM conversations, screenshot entire forum exchanges, and link to locations where they found facts or where discussions took place. Narcissists claim they have the same type of proof, but they rarely get around to releasing it. Any screenshots they do post are likely to be cropped of all context and paired with screenshots from unrelated conversations, and getting a link to the originals is like pulling teeth from a grizzly. The narcissist would much rather deflect, complain that the debate is stalled, and move on to more productive topics far, far from anything documentable.
If you return later to a point the narcissist deflected, the narcissist says, "We discussed that. I don't see why we have to keep digging up things we've laid to rest." And as far as the narcissist is concerned, the topic was discussed. The fact that the discussion didn't go anywhere is a minor detail. She didn't want to give details, she didn't give details, everything ended quite satisfactorily.
Using pet words and phrases
The same way a foot fetishist's desires can be encapsulated in the words "white leather kitten heel," a narcissist's self-image can be encapsulated in a few powerful words. Each narcissist has a pet word to describe his opponents (idiotic, criminal, unstable, irrational) which is pure projection, and a pet word for himself (controversial, scandalous, powerful, challenging) which is a useful tool for sniffing out his sockpuppets. He has a half-dozen or so second-string words to act as a chorus line and give his pet words a good sendoff.
Outside of this handful of favorites, the narcissist's vocabulary is impoverished. He has huge, throbbing passions to express and a huge, empty hole where his empathy should be. Without empathy, words don't mean anything. They're just tools, no more expressive than hammers and wrenches. To express his surging rage, the narcissist throws hammers and wrenches at random:
- Criminal gangster bully
- Terroristic psychopath
- Ignorant little bitch slut-child
At first, each word has talismanic power, but saying it doesn't fully express the narcissist's rage. The narcissist builds on it, stringing together words of power without reference to anything except how loudly they boom in his head when he says them:
- Terrorist bully
- Criminalistic terrorist bully
- Criminalistic terrorist bully forum cop
The phrases become formulae, which he repeats whenever the debate heats up. A truly angry narcissist can write posts that are nothing but power phrases interspersed with particles.
Missing the little details and failing to fit in
Many (but not all) narcissists are so wrapped up in their fantasies of the ideal world that they fail to notice the real world around them. On the Internet, they may get the larger social cues but miss the smaller ones, and make gaffes like signing comments in communities where comments are usually unsigned, misusing tags, abusing smilies, or formatting their text weirdly. Unlike newbies, they don’t get a clue on their own, and if someone gently points out that something they’re doing is annoying, they will take a stand and do it even more. Repeated trouble tends to feed into their case of Galileo Fallacy.
In older narcissists, this failure to get it can manifest as a case of general web-unsavviness. The narcissist doesn't understand how the online world works, but admitting that would mean admitting a failure in her knowledge. Instead, she approaches the online world the same way she approaches the real world... and gets her ass handed to her again and again. Each minor advance appears to her to be the final key that unlocks the Internet; it never occurs to her, even after seven or eight failures in a row, that she's in over her head and she needs to step back and do some serious study before she plows in again.
It gets especially messy if she's the type of narcissist that feeds on failure, not success.