Will the selfie ever go away?

Examining our ongoing love affair with ourselves

Photo: Chris Ford/The Peak

Photo: Chris Ford/The Peak

Max Hill
The Peak

VANCOUVER (CUP) — Before anything, check that the room is well lit. That’s the first step. Now take a good look at yourself in the mirror, and evaluate — is your hair tamed? Your shirt sufficiently buttoned, or unbuttoned? Is your lipstick the right shade of red, or your beard trimmed?

Test out a few expressions: silly, serious, flirty, flippant, daring, destitute, casual, classy. Cock an eyebrow, purse your lips, or wink an eye. Try to pick a look that says: I’m taking this seriously, but not too seriously. Make sure your camera phone is tilted upwards to a 45 degree angle — an unspoken but invaluable rule. Take a deep breath, strike a pose, and snap the photo. Choose a filter, pick the right border, tag your friends, and add a couple of hashtags for good measure.

Now press send.

Congratulations; you’ve just joined a league of more than one million people daily who take photos of themselves and upload them to Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Grindr, Tumblr, and dozens of other social media networks. Whether you’re looking for attention, wooing potential suitors or just trying to put on your best face for the rest of the world, you’ve become a part of one of the biggest, most persistent trends of this decade: you just took a selfie.

Famously, the selfie reached the zenith of its cultural status just last year, when theOxford English Dictionary awarded it the honour of being 2013’s Word of the Year, beating out harsh competition from similarly ubiquitous buzzwords such as twerk, binge-watch and bitcoin. When selfie took the title last November, no one could argue that it had earned the distinction: its usage had gone up by about 17,000 per cent since that time the previous year.

35 million selfies have been posted to Instagram — more than the population of Canada.

Unsurprisingly, the most active and vocal members of the selfie movement are millennials. The PEW Research Centre conducted research which concluded about 91 per cent of American teenagers have taken at least one selfie in their lifetime, and Instagram stats prove that about 30 per cent of photos posted by 18–24 year olds are selfies. Of course, there’s also a pronounced and vocal percentage of selfie takers who don’t fit into the millennial generation — look no further than the high-profile snapshots of Barack Obama, David Cameron and the Pope to see just how wide a net the selfie casts.

For the uninitiated, there’s plenty of selfie varieties and classifications, each with its own distinct style and message. There’s the workout selfie, the half selfie, the couple selfie, the no makeup selfie, the graduation selfie, the after sex selfie, the funeral selfie, the breakup selfie, the stealth-ie, the space selfie, the bathroom selfie, the pet selfie, the celebrity selfie, the food selfie, the duckface selfie; even the kicked-in-the-head-in-front-of-a-moving-train selfie.

More and more, casual, spontaneous self-portraits have begun to invade our social networks and Instagram feeds — but what’s behind this burgeoning trend? Is it narcissism, or identity building? Is it a new phenomenon, or just the next stage in an ongoing movement in art and culture? And, perhaps most importantly, will it ever go away?

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Though the term might be new, the concept behind selfies has been around almost as long as civilization itself. The history of the self-portrait reaches all the way back to, well, Bak.

The chief sculptor for the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, Bak’s self portrait is the oldest one anthropologists have uncovered — though it’s likely that older ones exist. Self-portraits were common practice in the Greek and Roman Empires, but didn’t really hit their first stride until the Renaissance, with the work of Albrecht Dürer, a painter famously obsessed with his public image. (Sound familiar?) Dürer painted dozens of self-portraits, usually painting himself facing slightly to the right — still common practice for selfies today.

Apart from Dürer, many painters dabbled in self portraits as a form of self-expression. Some, like Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Rembrandt, have become particularly well-known for their self-portraiture. Eventually, with the invention of the photograph, the camera became the tool of choice to depict oneself: one of the first documented photos of a human is a selfie of Robert Cornelius, an American pioneer of photographic technology.

Since then, selfies have become common practice for photographers, artists, and celebrities. Vivian Maier, Arthur Rimbaud, Edgar Dégas, Paul McCartney, Andy Warhol, Princess Anastasia Romanov, and JFK were all known to snap the occasional self portrait — way before it was cool.

The first known instance of the term selfie actually surfaced in 2002, a full decade before its Word of the Year title. As far as anyone knows, the very first “selfie” on the web can be found in a post on an Australian forum, three years before the word earned its own Urban Dictionary entry. Australians remain the world champion selfie takers — Canada comes in at number three — and the Oxford English Dictionary even recognizes the word as having an Australian origin.

Selfies gained popularity in the Internet age at first as “MySpace pics,” blurry, often sexually charged snapshots posted to the aforementioned website. They began as, and remained, predominantly a teenage phenomenon (because let’s be honest, who else used MySpace?). The trend actually came close to dying out in 2009, when the great MySpace exodus took most self-respecting users over to Facebook. Most users felt that selfies weren’t suited to the new social network, so they were pretty much uniformly scrapped.

If Facebook was the straw that almost broke the camel’s back, the iPhone 4 was the trend’s saving grace. Released in 2010, the new iPhone was the first North American phone to include a front-facing camera, making self-portrait photography easier and more precise than ever before. Suddenly, people could take selfies that didn’t depend on a bathroom mirror or an awkwardly maneuvered arm. It helped that three new social networks — Tumblr (2007), Instagram (2010), and Snapchat (2011) — were all coming to prominence around the same time. Add in a dash of narcissism and a sprinkle of identity crisis, and you’ve got yourself a new and powerful trend.

Nowadays, selfies are everywhere. Hell, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably taken one. I was convinced I hadn’t until I plumbed the depths of my iPhoto to find a few forgotten bathroom portraits from my years as a high school freshman. Predictably enough, the most popular Instagram photo of all time is the now-infamous group selfie taken by Ellen DeGeneres at the 2014 Oscars. And PicMonkey, in a study last year, claimed over half of American citizens had taken at least one selfie.

Overall, in the past four years, more than 35 million selfies have been posted to Instagram alone. That’s just over the entire population of Canada.

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Think you’re addicted to selfies? Think again.

Danny Bowman, a 19-year old from the United Kingdom, spent 10 hours every single day taking selfies — amounting to around 200 selfies daily — for four years, until his inability to take a perfect photo of himself led him to attempt suicide by overdose. He survived, and is currently in therapy for technology addiction, OCD and body dysmorphic disorder. He’s also become a minor celebrity in Britain, even appearing on the popular talk show Daybreak to discuss his addiction. He was introduced as the world’s first “selfie addict.”

It turns out that Bowman isn’t exactly a special case. Many scientists have spoken out against the perceived negative effects of selfies — Dr. David Veale, an expert on body dysmorphic disorder, has linked a spike in the disease to the rising popularity of the trend. “Two out of three of all the patients who come to see me with body dysmorphic disorder since the rise of camera phones have a compulsion to repeatedly take and post selfies on social media sites,” he told the Daily Mirror.

The disorder is characterized by an unhealthy obsession with one’s personal appearance, often focused on either minor or imaginary flaws. The reason selfies spark instances of BDD might have something to do with our brain’s perception of the way we look. According to Nolan Feeney at The Atlantic, since we’re so used to seeing our inverted faces reflected in mirrors and the like, the sight of your face the way others see it can be destabilizing.

Photographs, especially those we take ourselves, can be pretty deceiving.

He quotes Pamela Rutledge of the Media Psychology Centre: “Looking at yourself in the mirror becomes a firm impression. You have that familiarity. Familiarity breeds liking. You’ve established a preference for that look of your face.” Your non-inverted face, however, is unfamiliar — and much more prone to self critique.

Some have combated this effect by taking photos that are meant to look ugly, strange, and contorted. This trend, profiled in The New York Times, is meant as a reaction to the attempted perfection of selfies taken by celebrities, models, reality TV stars, and that one girl you went to high school with that you haven’t deleted off of Facebook. Some have even gone so far as to post double selfies: one in which they try their best to look flawless, and the other in which they scrunch up their face, muss up their hair, and generally give zero fucks.

It’s meant to make an important point, and it does: photographs, especially those we take ourselves, can be pretty deceiving.

Of course, if you are interested in getting as many views as possible with your selfies, you’re in luck: science has an answer for that one, too. Aditya Khosla, a PhD student at MIT, recently developed an algorithm that can predict which selfies will get the most likes and comments. It’s based on three key factors.

First, try to make your photo as colourful as possible: bright colours, like yellows, pinks, and oranges, fare better than dark blues and greens. Second, amp up the sexiness. It should come as a surprise to no one that, the more skin you show, the more views you’ll get. Third, if you’re one of those people who adds a million tags after every selfie, turns out you’ve got the right idea. Khosla’s research on Flickr stats shows that the more you tag, the more views — and subsequent likes — you’ll get.

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Beyond the science and statistics of the selfie, there’s plenty of debate over whether or not we should be taking quite as many as we do. A quick Google search will turn up dozens of think pieces on how the millennial generation is self-absorbed and narcissistic which cite selfies as a prime example — and, frankly, it’s a pretty valid point to make. But are selfies just proof of our generational narcissism, or is there more to it than that?

Stuart Poyntz, an SFU communications professor and expert on digital media, seems to think so. To him, selfies are “a way for us to communicate with each other through images. But what’s funny,” he says, “is that it’s just as much about ourselves as those around us — who we are, who I am. They’re our way of looking at the world, but they’re really a way of looking at ourselves.”

Can we use selfies to communicate both with each other and with ourselves? In a sense, selfies do the same thing for us that cameras and daguerreotypes have done for generations previous: to capture a moment, the people that we are at a specific time and place, and to do it in a very personal, direct way. It’s not just an attempt to express our identities or to share ourselves with the people we love — it’s also a tool for us to keep track of ourselves as we change and grow, a sort of visual diary. As Poyntz explains, “selfies extend the way that cameras allow us to organize and think about who we are, and how we are who we are.”

Poyntz also sees the transformative potential of the selfie: “As a form of image communication today, it’s amazing, and it’s significant,” he says. “There’s ase spectrum of images and stories that come to us through selfies which, otherwise, we wouldn’t see or hear.” Looking at it this way, selfies function as a democratization of the images we’re exposed to on a daily basis. People who aren’t often given exposure in the media — those with different racial backgrounds, physical or mental disabilities, LGBT people, and so on — can take selfies and create their own space to be seen and heard.

“There’s a spectrum of images and stories that come to us through selfies which, otherwise, we wouldn’t see or hear.”
– Stuart Poyntz, SFU professor of communications

Selfies have also been lauded as tools for feminism by several writers, much for the same reasons. In an article for Hyperallergic, Alicia Eler calls the selfie “an aesthetic with radical potential for bringing visibility to people and bodies that are othered,” and celebrates the popular hashtag #feministselfie, in which women and others are encouraged to post photos which don’t conform to the usual cultural conventions of “beauty.”

Though they have plenty of potential to make a radical statement about our culture, our society, and who we are as individuals, anyone who’s scrolled through the selfiehashtag on Instagram or Facebook will likely agree that not all selfies achieve this lofty goal. Rather than going against the grain and challenging the status quo, many selfies simply attempt to duplicate the imagery of the mass media: advertising, reality TV, beauty magazines, and the like.

Plus, it’s hard to deny that the selfie trend has more than a few shades of narcissism to it. As much as sex positivity and a healthy body image are important — especially for the development of young people, the majority of selfie takers — the oversaturation of selfies does seem to speak to our societal obsession with ourselves.

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario: do selfies make us self absorbed, or are they simply a reaction to our self-absorption? Where do we draw the line between positive self image and unhealthy obsession with the way we look?

Whatever the case, it doesn’t seem like they’ll be going away anytime soon. As far as Poyntz is concerned, the selfie’s “significance, its uniqueness, will fade. It’ll become a kind of regular thing, but I don’t think it’ll be as surprising to us, maybe three or five years from now.”

One can imagine that, given the limitations of the basic selfie, the creative potential of the medium will inspire photographers to try to break the mould. The #selfieOlympics, an Instagram competition earlier this year where users had to come up with the most creative, unexpected snapshot, is a prime example of the potential of the trend to inspire, provoke, challenge, and subvert expectations.

If the selfie really is here to stay, well, maybe that isn’t so bad. Despite the suddenness of its popularity, it’s pretty hard to imagine a world without a single selfie. After all, how am I supposed to let the world know what a good hair day I’m having?

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Will the selfie ever go away?