In November of 2013, Oxford English Dictionary elected “selfie” its word of the year. According to Oxford Dictionaries’ own research, the word’s frequency rose 17,000% since November 2012. That’s probably when the world realized that while previous understandings of selfie-taking were often couched as an activity for pre-teens and young girls, it was time for selfies to be recognized as a much broader cultural practice. We are all taking them. We are all posting them.
A selfie is a self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone. Selfies are often shared on social networking services such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. They are usually flattering and made to appear casual.
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.
The selfie has arguably become the greatest photographic trend of our time. Why are we so interested in taking and sharing selfies and how does observing an image of yourself differ from observing a picture of someone else?
Through our lifetimes we become experts at recognising and interpreting other people’s faces and facial expressions. In contrast, we have very little experience of looking at our own faces.
It has been demonstrated that when people are shown an image of themselves and asked to match it they are unable to accurately produce the same facial expression without being able to see themselves.
Given that we have a poor representation of what we look like, this is perhaps unsurprising. What is surprising is that people systematically choose images that have been digitally altered to make the person appear more attractive. This might in part explain our obsession with selfies. For the first time we are able to take and retake pictures of ourselves until we can produce an image that come closer to matching our perception of what we think we look like.
The selfie is a result of this new reality. The selfie links both sides of the dichotomy that Sontag articulated. It is a disengagement from the self as much as it is a promotion of the self. It is seeing and being seen at once, in the same act. There are some very beautiful selfies, but they aren’t properly art. Part of their attraction, especially with celebrities, is that they’re so intimate, unlike the high stylization that’s become so normal and all-consuming. Rihanna’s or Jim Carrey’s selfies don’t make them celebrities; they prove that they’re stars “just like us.”
Selfies are casual, fun, even addicting. But they are also important. They are a global movement, documenting the lives of world leaders, celebrities, and ordinary people alike.They provide an example of how culture, on a global scale, is influenced by the digital age. They are the things we say about ourselves to ourselves while other people are listening.