The modern-day selfie is beyond its cultural oversaturation point. It’s ubiquitous. It’s been folded into markers of the elite as the OED’s word of the year for 2013; it’s been turned into a mainstream network sit com that looks like a candidate for quick cancellation this fall; and it’s been spun into a pop music confection that offers a giggle and then disappears like a mouthful of cotton candy:
This ubiquity has resulted in repeated charges that selfie takers (particularly the young) are narcissists who are so self-involved that even when they encounter celebrities they’d rather snap a selfie than have a chat and make a personal connection with the likes of, say, Kirsten Dunst.
Outside the U.S., Muslims taking selfies during the hajj earlier this month were condemned by some as acting in ways that were disrespectful and inappropriate. Here at home there have been heartfelt warnings, such as this one from rapper Prince Ea, to stop regarding ourselves so much and to start regarding each other.
Yet we keep taking selfies, and keep scolding ourselves for taking selfies.
Megan Garber of The Atlantic argues that we’re in a “Plateau of Productivity” now: the hype cycle of the selfie is at its end. We’re getting sick of them even as we continue to snap them, she notes, and this is just the point at which they become interesting to study. I think she’s right. (And so does the university where I work.)
The selfie isn’t new; the technology with which we create them is. As others have noted, Rembrandt painted selfies, as did many other painters, well-known and not, and as have lots of other artists up to the modern day.
(There are also artists, it should be noted, who eschew the practice of self-portraiture.)
The pre-smartphone selfie, then, has a long history, through the ages of painting and the dawn of photography on down to our era of the camera that can be turned on oneself at whim. We’re further encouraged these days by trying to emulate the positive attention that celebrities get for their own selfies.
So have we always been narcissists at base, just waiting for the right technology to draw it out of us en masse?
The selfie is of a piece with our natural human impulse to declare ourselves, to make our presence known in the world (“Kilroy was here!”), to figure out and express who we are, and as I’ve written elsewhere in this essay from 2007 about the use of “I” in writing, it is in knowing ourselves that we might come to better understand and regard others.
And lest we think this is a uniquely Western phenomenon, we should consider the revelation published in Science earlier this month of the earliest known human selfies to date: a set of hands stenciled onto a cave wall in Indonesia that are believed to be at least forty thousand years old.
At least some of what’s going on here in America with reactions to selfies is probably a reflection of what de Tocqueville noticed about us during his visits to the U.S. in the 1830s: the tension that was evident between the populism that gave birth to our democracy and the elitism that we’d supposedly rejected in splitting from aristocratic England.
We still have the elitist’s desire to distinguish ourselves from the rest (“Look at me. Aren’t I good looking?”) while also condemning anyone who thinks they’re better than the rest (“Enough with the selfies, you narcissist!”) And in the critiques, it runs the other way as well: the self-restraining elitist condemns the masses who take selfies, and the masses keep taking them (while also frowning upon others who do so).
Context matters, of course, including the frequency with which one is inclined to take selfies. Kim Kardashian endlessly photographing herself is not the same as people wanting to take a selfie with the guy who caught Travis Ishikawa’s pennant-winning home run is not the same as prehistoric human beings blowing paint over their hands, leaving stenciled traces for their descendants to find 40 millennia later.
We quickly read each selfie and judge for ourselves whether we’ve got a narcissist, a braggart, an artist, or a human being making their mark, maybe having some fun. Maybe all of those at the same time. We have to take each selfie as it comes, including some delightful new plays on the word, such as shelfie.
So let me conclude by looking at one of mine. This is one I took on Father’s Day this year and then shared with friends on Facebook. I called it a “chestie.”
What have we got here? A series of messages that my friends might have read into the picture:
Check out this cool t-shirt my daughter gave me.
Aren’t I clever calling this photo a “chestie”?
A shout out to my fellow A’s fans.
Much love to Oakland.
How modest I am to not include my face.
Aren’t I a great and lucky dad to have received this present? And aren’t you jealous of my good fortune?
I was here on this day, at this time, doing this.
Did I think of all these at the time I took and posted the photo? No. Very happy with the gift, I put on the t-shirt, soon after saw people posting Father’s Day photos–some of them selfies–and decided to join in. I was conscious of the decision to call it a “chestie” and to celebrate the A’s (who were doing so so SO much better at the time), but that was about it. Snapped the selfie, posted it, and forgot it. Up until now.
What does my selfie mean? You be the judge.
And now I will finish this compendium by burying the lede:
I wrote this post partly for myself, out of a desire to personally bookmark some of the public discussions of the selfie that have been taking place of late, and partly for you, in case you’re interested, but mostly I wrote this for my current students, who will be embarking on writing some digital, multimodal essays about online identity in the coming month.
I offer this brief essay as an example to them, and I’m hoping to encourage them to let me share some of their work publicly here. Given their facility with technology, I’m sure they can do much more interesting things with digital tools than I’ve managed to do in this blog post. (Oh, look at that textual selfie he just took–so humble!)