‘Selfie’ was the Oxford English Dictionary word of 2013 the same year it entered the dictionary. Who defined it as; ‘A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media.’ In recent years selfies seem to be everywhere; you can’t look through your Facebook News Feed without seeing your colleague’s #newhaircutselfie.
In 2014 there was the ‘no makeup selfie’ campaign started to raise money for Cancer Research. There has been a recent celebrity selfie ban at the Met Gala and Ed Milliband made news in the UK election campaign after he was snapped taking selfies with a group of ladies on a hen party. Everyone who logged onto social media on Christmas Day saw their News Feed filled with friends posing with their new selfie sticks. They really have taken over. But what does the selfie craze really mean? And what does is symbolise about our lives?
This week, selfies hit the headlines again after a couple broke a piece off an Italian statue, which dates back to 1700 after they mounted it in an effort to take a selfie. In 2014 a Polish couple tragically fell to their deaths in an attempt to take a selfie at the edge of a cliff. David Cameron, Barack Obama and Helle-Thorning Schmidt also came under scrutiny for their selfie timing during the Nelson Mandela memorial service last year. But why do we, and why did these people, take sefies? The practice of taking a selfie has become so mainstream that recent studies have suggested that over one quarter of US citizens have taken a selfie to share on social media. Any practice, which has become so commonplace, clearly has more sociological explaination than simply dismissing it as mere egotism.
I think the selfie craze can be accounted for by various social and technological processes which have come to shape our lives. The most important of which being the interconnected nature of the post-modern, social media orientated, human condition. We are not isolated beings living separate lives. We are social beings who live in groups, and as such, our lives are fundamentally shaped by social relations. This process has become further hyper-exaggerated via social media. Just as our lives are defined in our relationships with one another the photos we take become photos, which are meant to be shared. The act of doing becomes blurred with the act of sharing; some would go further to argue that the act is now done to be shared.
As with the couple who broke the Italian statue, it could be suggested that the enjoyment is no longer perceived through the viewing of the statue itself, but through the appreciation of the viewing. The ‘likes’ on Facebook, ‘look what we’ve just seen’. As photos, which are meant to be shared, selfies are not individual acts; they are highly social acts. No one takes the ‘lets look natural I’ll pretend I didn’t know you were taking a photo and you can go behind me and get my silhouette drinking a piña colada on the beach’, photo for themselves. The photo is taken to be ‘liked’ in envy of your Facebook friends. The couple who mounted the statue did so because they thought it would make a humorous selfie.
Selfies, and our presence on social media more generally, is a part of what sociologists describe as ‘identity work’- the work that we as individuals do on a daily basis to ensure that we are seen by others as we wish to be seen. This can be reduced to very simple behaviours, such as the way we dress or the way we talk. We both consciously and unconsciously perform actions that dictate how we are perceived by others. This is far from an innate process, the process of projecting an identity has long since been understood as a social one. The selfies we may or may not take and share are done so to present a particular image of us, and thus, to shape the impression of us held by others. Most obviously done so with the enhancement of filters and other photo editing to portray us in our best light.
Impression management is far from new, sociologist Erving Goffman theorised such ‘identity work’ in the 1950s, although Goffman was not strictly talking about selfies he identified that when humans come into contact with one another we change our actions to how we feel the other will want to perceive us. This extends beyond a desire to be liked, but effects the very fabric of our social behaviour. Historical examples of identity work can be identified such as the artistic portrait wealthy individuals would pay artists to paint them a family portrait so they could dislay it in their home as a symbol of wealth, this is perhaps the most overtly visible projection of identity and has been adapted into the modern day selfie. The selfie is necessary for our modern day, social media orientated age – it will work our identity for us in our choice to take them, or not as the case may be.
The selfie is not, then, narcissistic and self absorbed it is the continuation of our projection of ourselves which has existed for centuries.
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