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.
Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto. He can be found on Twitter at @navalang