Narcissus is one of my favorite characters from Greek mythology.
If you’re not familiar with his story, it’s a simple yet powerful and cautionary tale.
As Narcissus walked by a lake, he stopped for a drink. When he leaned down, he saw his reflection in the water and was surprised by the youth and beauty staring back at him.
Narcissus became transfixed by his reflection, how young and handsome he looked.
He died on the bank of the lake from sorrow because he could not reclaim the beauty of his youth, and he could not look away.
Narcissus would have loved social media and the ability to see his image reflected back at him on platforms such as Instagram, in pictures and posts, all searchable with hashtags and keywords.
Narcissus would have died in front of his computer screen with a mouse in one hand and his smartphone in the other.
Beyond the myth, we have Narcissus to thank for the oft-used term that describes our obsession with seeing ourselves on social media: narcissism.
Today’s Narcissus is not myth. He and she are alive and well, and now we have data to prove it.
In the December issue of Computers In Human Behavior, researchers Antonia Erz, Ben Marder and Elena Osadchaya of the Copenhagen Business School identified what drives social media influencers and followers to use hashtags and other “look at me” strategies for self-promotion.
When looking at Instagram, Erz’s team found telltale signs of narcissism.
“Influencers... are heavy hashtag-users,” Erz’s team noted. These influencers also had a high followers-to-followings ratio, which means they had a high number of followers, but they didn’t really follow many others in return.
They also found that influencers were driven by motives of self-presentation through hashtags and “look at me” status-seeking on the image-sharing platform.
Influencers in this study had high scores for narcissism, extraversion and self-monitoring traits. In other words, influencers spent more time looking at themselves on social media, with deep concern over how they were seen by others, rather than making stronger connections to their followers.
Erz’s team found that, in recent years, some social media platforms have “experienced a growing number of influencers and microcelebrities, who use social media to connect, not for the sake of community but for the sake of broadcasting themselves.”
And apparently influencers love hashtags.
“We show that users who chose Instagram to seek status, were largely driven by self-presentation motives, which in turn increased the propensity to add hashtags and use many hashtags in a post,” Erz’s team added.
If we’re caught up in the endless cycle of searching for likes and shares for the content and witty hashtags we post, it’s time to look away from our social media reflections.
After all, legend has it that Narcissus is still admiring himself in the afterlife, searching the waters of the River Styx for his reflection.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about communication and relationships, parenting and sports. He writes a weekly column for The Vindicator newspaper on social media and society.