The mirror of Narcissus

There is a chapter (naturally) on smartphones and Instagram in Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants, his very readable and eye-opening history of the attention industry from its beginnings in the 19th century up to our day; its title: “The fourth screen and the mirror of Narcissus” (308-317).

This choice is very apt indeed. After all, the ancient myth, more or less vaguely recalled in popular culture, goes somewhat like this: the youth Narcissus encounters his own reflection on the surface of a deep pool of water, becomes fascinated and enamored with it, despairs over the impossibility of such love, and dies (becoming transformed into a beautiful flower as a result of the entire process).

As a youth, Narcissus is a paradigmatic member of Instagram’s target audience; moreover, the preoccupation with images (rather than, say, music or dating) would suggest this particular social network is the obvious choice. Instagram basically encourages you to present yourself in images: the profile wall of today’s Narcissuses is literally an endless stream of “pictures of me”. And the reward mechanics of “being liked” and “commented upon” ensure the fascination and enamoration (which we call addiction today) of which the myth speaks. This damages real relations with the external world (other people in particular), and thus inevitably like Narcissus users end up transformed into a passive kind of plant rather than active human beings.

Striking though these analogies are, there are some differences, too: nowhere in the fable is a profit-making machine in the background which benefits from the attention (time spent behind the screen) by reselling it to advertisers. That, of course, is Wu’s main focus, and as far as this is concerned, the poetic imagery (“Instagram as mirror of Narcissus”) is just a nice touch, indicative of good writing skills.

Perhaps more interesting is the difference in what exactly causes the fascination effect. In the myth, it is Narcissus’ image itself — albeit reflected in the water, which may account for some distortion or purification —, whereas in the social networking narrative, it is rather the validation and confirmation of one’s status. The reflection of oneself, one’s “Image” in the social world, is a kind of psychological feedback mechanism. It’s the sum of that feedback which causes the addiction, not the pictures themselves. (We might bring out that point if we consider a similar social network that works exclusively with audio recordings. Such a network might have the same mechanics of “likes” and “comments”, and produce the same kind of addiction, without being primarily visual.)

Finally, there is a much less subtle difference when it comes to the end of Narcissus, i.e. his death and enflowering. The modern narrative’s counterpart has a rather weak warning in that place: people’s real-world relationships might wither. Compared with the immortalization of Narcissus as a beautiful flower, this falls rather flat, and perhaps indicates that there wasn’t all too much depth to the analogy, after all.

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By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.