Last week I had an interesting Twitter discussion with @jgabelas on, of all things, the selfie. Is it a symbol of narcissism, in a world where self-promotion rules and media is our friend? Or is it maybe something more? A growing self-confidence and self-awareness, perhaps? We’re all aware of and possibly bewildered by the vanity that constant exposure implies. Let’s take a look at the other side of the selfie phenomenon, the side that gives us opportunities for positive self-development, altruism, solidarity, creativity and humour….
I’m sure there’s no need to tell you what a selfie is. The word “selfie” was named Word of the Year for 2013 by the Oxford English Dictionary, for its ubiquity and representation of popular culture. Pretty much all of us have cameras in our pocket these days, and have either seen friends’ selfies or shared some of ourselves. And who can forget the role the selfie plays in international leadership, with informal images of Obama and the Pope hitting the front pages. Volumes have been written about the phenomenon and its impact on the young psyche. It’s even the subject of study at prestigious universities.
One theory I’ve been reading about recently is the correlation between the selfie and the rise in narcissism among the young. The selfie, the argument goes, places a huge emphasis on looks, and the popularity of this form of expression shows how vain we have become. We love how we look, so obviously we want people to look at us, and at the same time, if our selfies get a lot of “likes”, that obviously validates that we are extremely good looking.
Now, I’m sure that these experts know what they’re talking about, and have data to back it up, but data can be interpreted in so many ways, and the conclusions very much depend on from which direction you approach it. It’s worth starting, I think, with a look at narcissism. What is it? Narcissism is defined as an “inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity”, or “an exceptional interest in or admiration for oneself, especially one’s physical appearance”, according to the Google Dictionary. It is considered a clinical mental disorder that isolates individuals, destroys relationships and can ruin careers. It is not the same as egocentrism, in which sufferers don’t know how to show empathy and care about others. Narcissists know how, but they don’t care to.
Of course the motive behind a good percentage of the selfies out there is vanity, since a good percentage of the human race is vain. In fact, studies have shown that the younger generation is more narcissistic than ever, and since they are the main “sharers” on the web, it follows that many of the selfies in circulation are taken with self-aggrandisement in mind. But is the selfie the cause of this disturbing trend, if indeed it is a trend? No, it’s more the extension of a personality trait that goes back to the beginning of civilisation, a personality trait that has been the backbone of society and culture since we started keeping records: the desire to connect and share with others.
I don’t think that the “here’s a picture of me!” philosophy of selfies is inherently vain. I think that it is more about the sharing and connecting philosophy of the web in general. Anyone who works in social media knows that your audience connects with you much better if they know what you look like. They can visualise you, you become a person, they imagine your personality based on your physical features. So it makes sense that selfies are just that, a way to deepen the potentially superficial connections of the internet. The selfie phenomenon is not so much a “here, don’t I look great!” thing as a “this is what I look like right now, what do you look like?” thing.
Diving into deep research, I asked my 12-year-old daughter, the subject of many ridiculous selfies, if she thought that selfies were a symptom or a cause of vanity. She looked at me with a bewildered expression. “What have selfies got to do with being vain?”, she asked, genuinely flummoxed. So I asked her what she thought it was all about. “Having fun!”, she replied. “Making people laugh! Seeing what your friends are doing!” Sure, we want people to see us. But not because we love how we look, more because we’re comfortable with it.
Natural selfies, laughing-at-myself selfies, what-can-I-do-with-this-hair selfies… These are the best representation of the genre, the we’re-all-in-this-together attitude that motivates the vast majority of the selfies out there. Pop singer Lorde’s tweet of a selfie of herself with acne cream on her face, model Ireland Baldwin’s silliness, Jessica Alba’s sweaty post-workout selfie… Not a lot of vanity there, but quite a lot of encouragement for others who also sometimes feel awkward, and will hopefully realise that it’s ok to. Selfies can help us to feel good about ourselves, but not because we think we’re gorgeous. With selfies we’re not “teaching” young girls to see themselves as decorative, as some have claimed. We’re “teaching” them to not be afraid to be who they want to be, and to put themselves out there. C’mon, don’t be shy. (No space here to get into a debate about feminism and self-image, nor the social difference between male and female selfies… Unfortunately, it would be fun.)
And, importantly, selfies create memories. Not so much of occasions or places, but of who we were at that time. We have no shortage of holiday snaps looking out at the scenery, the buildings, the people we were with. But photos looking “in”, at ourselves? I bet you have relatively few. Which means it will be hard for you to remember yourself in those settings. A selfie gives you the chance to see yourself as others see you, in a foreign setting or even a familiar one. And that can be humbling and refreshing. Most of all, it gives you greater protagonism in those memories. Personally, I can’t imagine wanting to take a selfie of just me (I think I look terrible in photographs, is there a name for that syndrome?), but I have on a couple of occasions taken a picture of myself and the person I was with, to commemorate being together.
Is the opposite of the vain selfie, the altruistic selfie? The strength of the selfie as an icon of self-expression gives it considerable media power, which can be used for good causes. We’re seeing examples of selfies used to transmit important messages, such as this ad from Ford, (thanks @jgabelas for bringing it to my attention!):
The attention that selfies attract can be used to raise money for causes, much like the ubiquitous Ice Bucket Challenge. The hashtag #nomakeupselfie was appropriated for a campaign to raise awareness for Cancer Research UK, and raised over £2 million in 4 hours.
And the #unselfie trend (get it? for “unselfish”?) is quite lovely: you take a selfie, but cover your face with a notice of a good cause.
And, of course, you have the selfie as the art form. “An art form?”, I hear you say, “Are you kidding?”. No, who’s to say it’s not? I went to a Pop Art exhibition at the Museo Thyssen last week. No shortage of selfies on the walls.
It is, after all, an image, and images can be composed, crafted and added to, to produce work of great creativity. One of the assignments in my daughter’s art class last year was to take a selfie with their school ipads, and then embellish them with computer graphics. According to the teacher, some results were bland, others were startling in their originality. I love the idea of using an image of yourself as a creative starting point – it helps to develop a distance between you and a photo of you (it’s not you in the picture, it’s a base for an art project), which can in turn lead to a healthy disrespect for the superficial.
Some of my favourite examples of the selfie as an art form include @mirrorsme’s painted mirrors:
Selfies are so much part of our culture, now, that they have to some extent become a parody of themselves. The selfie as self-mocking irony. You have animal selfies:
And Google Street camera selfies. The cameras are now roving around museums, mapping them with images. And museums often have mirrors:
There’s even a pod for the Minecraft game, which allows you take selfies of your Minecraft persona:
(images from Gearcraft)
The desire for recognition is not a mental illness, it is a basic psychological need. The lack of it makes employees unhappy at work and people unhappy in relationships. And while the selfie can take that need to disturbing levels, it is, in its basic form, merely an extension of our need to feel part of something. The internet has given us a medium to connect with others on a completely unprecedented scale. The selfie phenomenon is one of many ways in which we are taking advantage of that. It is merely a part of the new, creative and sharing community that is spreading everywhere, and that we are still struggling to adjust to. It is a genre, not a universal truth. As with all creative media, there are awful, cringe-making examples, and there are selfies of people like you and me, reaching out, contributing, and having fun. Vanity and narcissism aren’t going away, but I believe that the productive uses will predominate, and the selfie will become just another form of self-expression, like the diary, the blog and the first-person novel. Let’s give the selfie room to breathe, and see where it takes us.