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Making Sense of Selfies

Taking selfies feels problematic because we aren’t used to them

We are awash in selfies. A selfie is a self-generated self-portrait, although calling them a “portrait” is a bit grandiose. Selfies are those pictures you take of yourself with, most likely, your camera phone. For things that are simple to produce, they generate a surprisingly strong reaction of either love ‘em or hate ‘em responses. Put aside your anxieties over rampant narcissism and the moral decline of the digital generation and exhale. Like every trend, the behavior will recede when the excitement and newness wears off. In the meantime, parents beware: the more you hate them, the more your kids will want to take them.

The name itself may be influencing different attitudes toward these self-generated photos, because a ‘selfie’ can have multiple connotations.

The “ie” at the end makes selfie a diminutive, which generally implies some affection and familiarity. From one semantic perspective, a selfie is a ‘little’ self, an aspect of identity. Alternatively, the diminutive can refer to the photograph rather than the self, which is quite different. Where a little self is a small bit of the self; a little portrait speaks to the sense of immediacy, insignificance and impermanence of a single photo.

Rihanna Selfie

While it’s true that nothing is really temporary on the Internet, that doesn’t change the intentionality. A selfie is the documentation of a passing moment, not a larger expression. Profile pictures can also be a self-generated and are, most definitely, self-selected, but we interpret a profile picture much differently than a selfie. Profile pictures have a role and meaning that we understand. Profile pictures are meant to represent us. And knowing this, we look for meaning in even the goofiest of others’ profile pictures and speculate on the choice of pet, body part, or group. By contrast, selfies communicate a transitory message at a single moment in time. We are more concerned with the context, the “what’s going on” than the projection of identity.

Thanks to advances in technology, portraiture has changed dramatically. We have gone from cameras with film that required long exposure times and serious expertise to digital speed that requires only opposable thumbs. Even our “formal” images are more informal and the freedom of representation has changed the standard for what is considered the most expressive of the “truth” of an individual.

Selfies are beyond informal. They are not meant to standalone as a single message or withstand the passage of time. Selfies are intimate because they represent a personal experience that is also social, taken for the express purpose of sharing. This gives selfies a level of self-conscious authenticity that is different from even a candid photograph—they are more raw and less perfect.

Mariah Carey Selfie

The human brain continually searches for patterns and meaning. With any photograph, we always look for the meaning beyond the content: “What is the photographer trying to say?” or “What does this represent?” With selfies, we know who the photographer was, so we wonder what about the moment, not identity over time.

Selfies frequently trigger perceptions of self-indulgence or attention-seeking social dependence that raises the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t specter of either narcissism or low self-esteem.

There is, however, a remarkable double standard about what types of photographs are acceptable. Part of the problem with selfies may be that they haven’t really been contextualized (yet). We don’t know how to think about selfies using our current mental models. We know what to do with pictures of babies, people holding trophies, or even those teens holding soccer balls smiling so proudly on the mantel. We know about mug shots in corporate brochures, portraits in school yearbooks and even profiles on social networking sites.

With selfies, we don’t have anything to really connect it to. The closest we can come is those county fair photo booths that deliver a strip of four consecutive shots. The sheer volume and publicness of selfies defies any models we have and we fall back on social norms. Unless you’re a celebrity, monarch or head of state, people aren’t supposed to self-promote or ‘brag.’ Especially females. In democratizing portraiture, selfies violate social rules of self-presentation and therefore something’s wrong. If the people in selfies aren’t famous or being paid to pose, then it must indicate a moral failing and they are labeled bragging, attention seeking, self-focused or narcissistic. Why is it okay for Chelsea Clinton and Rihanna and not the rest of us?

Hilary and Chelsea Clinton Selfie

But what if taking selfies is perfectly normal? The prevalence of selfies is one of many manifestations of the rise in self-publishing of all kinds of information and images. The venues, such as Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Vine, Twitter, YouTube and others, are practically endless. Social technologies have redefined “normal” as more public.sharable and searchable. Like most digital self-publishing, selfie-ing is easy. All you need is a camera phone and a Facebook page or Instagram app. This makes it ripe for exploration and identity experimentation, particularly among ages where identity formation and emancipation are key developmental tasks as well as for those who are still interested in looking at themselves. Both of these may contribute to why user demographics skew young.

Photo booth strips

But the truth is, we all want to be able to ‘try’ on a new image and imagine how we would feel as that part of ourselves. At the county fair, people used to love (and likely still do) having their photos taken with their face showing above stand-in cardboard characters from the Wild West or Elizabethan England. Those kinds of things allow us to take mini-adventures into another time and place, even if only briefly. They allow us to play, to have fun and to poke fun at ourselves. Selfies are no different. They can enable a brief adventure into a different aspect of self or a relaxation of normal constraints. Needless to say, there are some unfortunate uses of selfies. But that doesn’t mean the act of taking a selfie is a bad thing. Taking selfies is not something everyone will choose to do, of course, but just remember part of the reason it feels weird is that you’re not used to doing it.

More from Pamela B. Rutledge Ph.D., M.B.A.
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