Selfies are pictures you take of yourself tagged with #selfie or just with #me. They are showing up all across social networks like Facebook or Instagram—often but not exclusively posted by women. As the numbers and frequency of selfies increase, the phenomenon has garnered attention. In our globally connected 24/7 world, anything that gets attention, gets talked about. Some view these self-created self-portraits as proof of cultural—or at least generational— narcissism and moral decline. I, on the other hand, view them as a by-product of technology-enabled self-exploration.
Western civilization has a rich history of self-portraiture that continues to expand with technological innovations. Where once they were the province of the elite either in status or skill, cell phones and Instagram have democratized self-portraiture, making them less precious and more fun. Voila selfies.
Selfies aren’t new, in spite of the recent surge. Self-portraits tagged as #selfie began to appear on the photo-sharing site Flickr and on MySpace back in 2004 and the first definition of a ‘selfie’ gained entry on UrbanDictionary.com by 2005 (albeit spelled ‘selfy’). But camera phones, especially those with front and back lens action, have made taking selfies faster and easier than ever.
Young women are the biggest population of selfie-posters and you know it’s going mainstream when marketers jump on the bandwagon. The Fashion Conglomerate Westfield launched a contest called “Selfies Style” soliciting selfies that highlight individual style after research indicated that six out of every ten women used their mobile device to take self portraits, most of which end up on Facebook.
Humans have long demonstrated an interest in self-exploration. From early Greeks to present day, people have used self-study and self-observation to explore identity and sense of self. Trying to figure out who we are and what we’re about is a distinctly human pursuit for almost everyone, whether you are trying to find greater consciousness or figure out what moved you to buy the blue shoes.
It’s not a big leap to go from a pursuit of self-exploration to the desire for self-portrait. As far back as Ancient Egypt, people of wealth and power have commissioned self-portraits, although less for self-exploration than glorification. Nevertheless, a number of technological breakthroughs throughout history have continued to lower the barriers to the creation and display of self-portraits.
We take mirror for granted, but their invention in the 15th century let artists paint themselves which some, like Albrecht Durer, did with gusto. The camera in the 1860s launched a new era of selfies, but the technology demanded skill and expense. As the camera evolved, more and increasingly creative versions of self-portraiture appeared. Digital cameras freed portraiture from the cost and time lag of film.
Then mobile phones became cameras, too. By 2012, 86% of the population of the US had a cell phone, lagging behind a host of countries like the UK, Italy, Spain and China. You might not always take your camera with you, but you always have your phone. The floodgates were open on our ability to not only document everything at no marginal cost, but share them as well. (Mobile Internet access allows easy real time posting but people can also post to a Facebook page using text messaging.)
Western civilization has a rich history of self-portraiture that expands with technological access. Cell phones and Instagram have democratized self-portraiture, making them less precious and turning them into selfies.
In spite of the wealth of negative headlines, there are several reasons for selfies that have nothing to do with narcissism.
And maybe it’s okay to celebrate yourself along the way. What’s your opinion about selfies? Let me know here.