The Rise of the Selfie! Is it the Hallmark of Digital Life?

Images are changing identity, relationship, and everything else

Posted Dec 16, 2013

According to the Oxford Dictionary folks, it’s official: “Selfie” is the word of 2013.  The selfie is pretty much everywhere; some 90 million photographs on Instagram have the hashtag #selfie. The generation gap disappears when it comes to the selfie: There was a five-year-old in my lobby the other day taking one with an iPhone I fervently hope belonged to her mother and a drunken Geraldo Rivera thought a selfie would prove that 70 is really the new 50. #patheticfailedattempt.

The selfie can be used to titillate when it becomes a sext, whether it’s a high school kid in Connecticut or Anthony Weiner in his skivvies.  It can be funny, self-deprecating, or just plain silly. It can humanize spiritual authority, as it did the Pope. But most of all, it’s a tool for the relentless self-promotion that characterizes the digital age—whether it’s used by Kim Kasdashian, a wannabe celebrity or a fifteen-year-old on Facebook—along with the practically ubiquitous need to let everyone know what you’re doing so that someone, or hopefully everyone, pays attention to you. #Lookatme!

On Saturday, New York’s Upper East Side was flooded with streams of young people dressed as Santa for the pub crawl known as SantaCon. What was noteworthy, watching them in driving snow and wind, was how often they stopped, either alone or in a pack, for a selfie. It seemed as if they shared a mutual concern: Had it really happened if you didn’t take a picture of it and share it? This seems like a digital variation on the philosophical question of the tree falling in the forest. #toobadyoumissedit

The lure of the selfie crosses social boundaries, and appears to be hard to resist.  How else to explain the selfie of the American President and the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and Denmark that seemed to dominate the coverage of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service? Or the tale of the robbers in Florida—one with a very long rap sheet—who posted a gleeful and triumphant selfie on Instagram, surrounded by loot and ammo, only to have it spotted by a police officer? If you Google “selfie leads to arrest,” you’ll see that this isn’t an uncommon phenomenon. The selfie is the age’s siren song, and it’s hard not to connect it to the grip narcissism has on the culture, as outlined by Jean Twenge and others.  #arentIsoimportant

The selfie is closely tied to self-image in the digital age because while it looks spontaneous, it doesn’t have to be. Selfies can be carefully edited to maximize their impact, and there’s no doubt that the selfie, when it’s uploaded or sent, is meant to have an impact.  (Yes, that’s the tree falling in the forest again. What’s an unseen selfie, after all?) There are plenty of apps at hand—among them, Perfect365,FaceTune, ModiFace—that can make your selfies picture-perfect.  Following the lead of the endlessly Photoshopped images of models and celebrities in magazines and online, you too can look wider-eyed, thinner, younger, smoother. There’s no need, in the digital age, to share the real you!!!  #whocaresaboutauthenticityanyway

 The selfie is part and parcel of digital braggadocio and the inevitable envy of all of those looking in on your enviable life on Facebook or following it on Instagram. A poll taken in Britain and reported by the Mail Online revealed the prevalence of what they dubbed the “braggie,” especially when it came to going on vacation (or, as the Brits have it, on holiday). People openly acknowledged that the purpose of these images was to make “friends” jealous, on the one hand, and to make themselves look more interesting and popular, on the other hand. And the more “likes” and positive comments garnered, the better. Some 5.4 million people admitted they’d posted a braggie within ten minutes of their arrival! #Iminbarbadosandyourestuckincleveland

But the selfie as braggie isn’t just limited to fun in the sun, the exotic places you’ve been or the famous people you’ve met.  #neverguesswhoImetatNeimans. The most popular blogger in Scandinavia, fitness expert Caroline Berg Eriksen, who is also married to a Norwegian soccer mega-star, posted a selfie of herself in a bra and panties, sporting a washboard stomach four days after giving birth!  There was an understandable firestorm of commentary.  #mirrormirroronthewall.

But does the selfie, along with the other photos we post on social networks, affect our relationships to others, other than making them green with envy?  A study at the University of Birmingham Business School in the United Kingdom found that they did but whether they made the relationship tighter or weaker depended not only on the content of the photos posted but the relationship between the people in real life. Close friends actually like seeing your selfies but aren’t so keen on the photos you post of yourself with other friends.  Close partners experienced decreased intimacy when photos of themselves and their partners were put up for public display.  Like beauty, the selfie is in the eye of the beholder.  #thinktwicebeforeyoushare

All of this makes perfect sense. No one likes seeing photographs of happy people at the party they weren’t invited to.  People don’t want to see you having a grand old time somewhere when you turned down their invite.  Your BFF isn't thrilled to see you communing with Sarah, the girl you just met, and the guy/gal you’re dating isn’t made happy by Jason or Jen’s posting that pix of you looking deep into his or her eyes at the bar.  And the steady stream of perfect pictures can get you down, as one woman confided: “I defriended her because I couldn’t stand the barrage of all those perfect photos. Perfect garden, house, kids, husband, dog.  It made me feel lousy, in fact.”  Not to mention an endless stream of photos of the summer in Provence, the quick trip to Kyoto, or that darling little cottage on the Vineyard, along with snaps of gorgeously set tables and artfully arranged flowers. 

So it looks like the selfie assures that Facebook envy, Instagram angst, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), and a host of other threats to our senses of well-being and esteem still unlabeled are here to stay until something new comes along.    

So, to change up a line from an old but famous movie, “Buckle your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”  #amItheonlyonenothavingfun

Copyright © 2013 by Peg Streep



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Victoria Woollaston, “Forget Selfies.  It’s All about Braggies.” 21 November 2013

Houghton, David, Adam Joinson, Nigel Caldwell, and Ben Marder.  “Tagger’s Delight?  Disclosure and liking behaviour in Facebook: the effects of sharing photographs amongst multiple known social circles.” Discussion Paper, 03/2013.