This week, the Oxford dictionary people announced that the word of the year is "selfie" - - referring to those increasingly ubiquitous self-taken photos, usually produced using a smartphone and a mirror, that have flooded the internet. Now that Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram are packed with these mass-produced self-portraits, are we entering the most narcissistic and least private age in history? Or have we developed a way for people to control their own public images as never before?
Putting us on ‘overshare autopilot’
The Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2013 is “selfie.” Great, you’re thinking, time for the equivalent of a cyber shrug: quick break from work spent googling the suddenly ubiquitous lists of “Seattle selfies of the year,” “top celebrity selfies” and “selfie dos and don’ts.” Even five years ago, these kinds of pronouncements seemed far more revealing. In 2008 Websters Dictionary gave “overshare” word-of-the-year status. It is, they gushed, “a verb and a noun” and “a new word for an old habit made astonishingly easy by modern technology.”
Two new words, both entering the official lexicon in the last five years and both driven by the same phenomenon, what I call ‘peep culture’ – the internet-enabled pop culture of watching friends, family and strangers around the world go about their everyday lives. But the words are subtly, importantly, different.
Emerging four years after the founding of Facebook, overshare was a gentle rebuke to the growing numbers of people uploading way too much information. Now fast forward to selfie. Facebook is just about to turn ten, competitors from Instagram to YouTube to Twitter to Snapchat are nipping at their heels, and the notion that one even can overshare seems increasingly quaint. Overshare, isn’t that the whole idea? Isn’t that why we’re running around snapping selfies of ourselves in the first place?
Overshare was moderately judgmental in tone. Selfie isn’t judgmental at all. It’s reflexive, even imperative – stop everything, I have to take my picture and share it! While the word overshare evinced uncertainty and underlying opprobrium, selfie has a new and far more confident tone. No guilt, everybody’s doing it! For a sense of just how far we’ve moved in terms of our social norms around self-exposure, consider the zine scene at its height in the late Nineties. Back then, one of the most prevalent and groundbreaking genres fuelling the mini-magazine publishing craze was a genre called the perzine, the personal zine. The act of writing down and publishing raw, intimate depictions of the everyday lives of everyday people, was inherently subversive, an important challenge to the mainstream.
Now even the most radical perzine comes across as quaint, a product from a sleepier, slower time.
The mainstream-ing of peep has obviously benefited the new entertainment titans. These are the creators and promoters of social media sites and apps, depositories of a torrent of hurriedly snapped and uploaded content. Their ventures, often valuated in the billions, depend on us continuing to generate millions of selfies every single day.
But it’s less clear what the rest of us are getting out of all this. When I visit colleges and talk about social networking, I often ask the students why they use sites like Facebook. The typical answer is: ‘I’m just using it to talk to my friends.” I point out to them that while they’re chatting with friends, they’re also very often broadcasting a steady stream of videos, photos and comments to as many people as care to tune in. Do they realize that for the first time in the history of mass communication they are both the broadcaster and the audience? Have they thought abut the fact that though they make the content they lose control and even ownership of it as soon as they post it? Do they know that as audience they are subject to an unprecedented level of surveillance regarding what they click on and look at?
Not unlike the perzine, Facebook was originally aimed at those first adopters, college students. Now, of course, social networking services have users all over the world from all walks of life. Incredible growth, but even the original cohort, students, are still struggling to understand what they’re doing. Five years later, we’re becoming selfies on overshare autopilot. And we’re still waiting for a word to help us understand why.
Hal Niedzviecki writes about individuality, technology and pop culture. He is the author of eight books including The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors (City Lights Books).
Giving us a new sense of self
For those who feel modern technology is both coarsening and cheapening modern life, what better rallying cry could there be than “Selfies at Funerals,” a collection of teenagers taking self-portraits with their smartphones at occasions of mourning? And now that “selfie” has been named the word of the year, we can comfortably say that the doom of an entirely self-involved age is upon us, right?
Not so fast. The selfie, goes the argument, is the effect of the Age of Kanye and Kim, a narcissistic obsession with the self and the meaningless minutiae of day-to-day life. That glib take on a new social phenomenon, however, makes at least two mistakes: first, it assumes that the selfie is about being overly self-concerned; and secondly, that the phenomenon is complete new. Not only are those assertions arguable, it’s also worth thinking about how the selfie reflects how digital technology has made a public self available to so many more people.
It is common to hear that the selfie is both selfish and self-centred: they are, after all, pictures of one’s self. The trend has erupted particularly among the young, who not only insert their visages into all manner of pictures, but through services like Snapchat and Instagram, also use the selfie as a form of visual conversation.
But as author Kate Losse puts it “the self is the message and the selfie is the medium,” and as such, the self-image is a way of conveying something about who we are to others. Rather than simply being narcissistic, instead, as technology critic Jenny Wortham has argued, “selfies strongly suggest that the world we observe through social media is more interesting when people insert themselves into it.” It sounds counter-intuitive, but by putting the self into a picture, it humanizes it and makes it more social, rather than selfish. And as cultural critic Sarah Nicole Prickett has argued, posting pictures of yourself is also a way to control your image in a life of ongoing documentation – to force others to see you as you want to be seen. It is important to mention, too, that these ideas are coming from female thinkers reacting to yet another insinuation that activities undertaken by women are somehow more flippant or need defending from accusations of excessive self-concern.
Certainly, one might argue that it is the documentation itself that is a sign of narcissism. Yet, forming and reinforcing our identities by making them visible to others is a fundamental part of being human. Before writing existed, humans would find their sense of self in speech with others, and in how others described them. Further, the diary in Victorian culture, the portrait, family photos and so on were all ways to communicate something about who you were to the world. It’s built into who we are, because our selves are never simply inside us. One might think that this is narcissism, but everything from daily routines to how we introduce ourselves at dinner parties to how we dress is part of the ongoing relation between our identities and how be we and others see ourselves.
Where the Web differs, however, is in how that fundamentally human process becomes public. The kind of open-to-all performances of identity we associate with Facebook or Twitter used to be the domain of the famous or the notorious, people who could amass and hold audiences. Now that so many more people have access to a space to put their identities out there, it may seem like people have suddenly become self-involved, when in fact, all it means is that there is a new more potent medium and shape for an old social fact.
The selfie is thus a symbol of a slightly shifting sense of self, one that is more aware of how we always function in at least two modes at once, the private and the public, the internal and the external. For so many of us, that constant double vision of who we are manifests in the relation between our bodies and our online profiles, our self-image and our selfie-image so to speak. It’s also why the selfie as “word of the year” is something that should be celebrated, not mocked: those images are, after all, a reminder of what it is to be human.
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