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And a Selfie Must Follow, as the Night the Day

Why a corona selfie is like the Yorick’s skull in Hamlet.

Antoine Beauvillain/Unsplash
Source: Antoine Beauvillain/Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic has reversed several facets of our personal lives, forcing many to ask existential questions about who they are to themselves and to others.

A “selfie," a self-portrait digital photograph, can act as a reminder of our presence in others’ lives. Unlike the healing properties of looking into a mirror, a selfie carries multiple meanings, cutting right at the heart of private and public identity questions.

In 2013, "selfie" was voted the Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionary. In 2020, velfies (moving video-selfies) are jumping from the urban dictionary to our everyday language. But while in the early 2010s selfies were by and large perceived as a teenagers’ vanity practice, in the 2020s, selfies have developed into a set of coded messages of one’s relationship to the world.

With lockdown travel restrictions, social media attention turned to celebrities' body journeys (e.g. selfies of grey roots, beards, or weight-loss/gain) and to a new obsession with Zoom backdrops. "Videochat selfies," that is screenshots of one’s face taken during a video meeting, have become a new way of signifying one’s presence at online events. "Shelfies" shared during live video chats have turned into unofficial awards for best bookshelves at home and "ussies" (group selfies) have taken on a new meaning with Zoom gallery photos of choir singers.

Selfies have always straddled the fine line between a narcissistic projection and an empathic response, triggering polarised views about their role in society. On one hand, social media allows us to propagate the cult of self and reveal some unsettling truths about what Richard Dawkins researched as the selfish gene. Kanye West’s selfies, for instance, have been described to reflect a “self-centered” and egotistical lifestyle. As the app market booms with face filter and social media apps, digital peekaboos move into more and more intimate, and often disturbing, regions of private lives.

When selfies document self-objectifying practices, they are correlated with negative outcomes, such as for example eating disorders. On the other hand, when selfies are used to signify reciprocity and group belonging, they connect to the benefits of asserting an individual’s space in society. Such selfies typically carry a political message and are used as a stamp of social (dis)approval. This was demonstrated by several Muslim women posting their selfies on Instagram in 2018 or the many women participating in the successful “No-makeup Selfies” campaign.

Facing our own online faces might be disturbing to some and gratifying to others, but we all want to look good. How to best portray our moods and experiences has preoccupied artists for centuries, perhaps most famously the 17th-century painter Rembrandt, known for his one hundred self-portraits. With the global availability of smartphones and the use of social media, selfie-propagation reached ripe conditions during the lockdown. The interesting question that emerges is the extent of human agency in curating our online portrays. With increased machine-learning and surveillance in society, the paintbrush is held by automated, non-human hands.

Soon enough, government and private cameras will request a selfie verification for entry to all virtual and physical spaces. When the civic and private existence becomes conditional upon the sharing of our own face, selfies enter a new era. This new era raises urgent, pragmatic questions about the longevity and ownership of personal data, as well as deeper, identity-related questions. Perhaps the younger generation is more skilled to respond to automatic selfies (see the example of one-year-old Evie Saxton's selfie). Or perhaps "coronials" will have even less control over their virtual appearance than we have today. What is certain is that to take or not to take a selfie: that is no longer the question.


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