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).