In these hyper-connected, over-shared times dwell two kinds of people: those preoccupied with taking and uploading photos of themselves and those who have never heard of the selfie.
The goofy, poignant or sensuous self-portrait has been a common sight since phone camera met social media. Now, nearly a decade since the arm-extended or in-the-mirror photos became a mainstay of MySpace — duck face or otherwise — selfies are a pastime across generations and cultures.
Justin Bieber puts up plenty with his shirt off and Rihanna poses for sultry snaps, but a beaming Hillary Clinton recently took a turn with daughter Chelsea, who tweeted their happy first attempt with the hashtag #ProudDaughter.
Two other famous daughters, Sasha and Malia Obama, selfied at dad’s second inauguration, pulling faces in front of a smartphone. And Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide earned a spot in the Selfie Hall of Fame with a striking, other-worldly shot, arms extended as reflected in his helmet outside the International Space Station last year.
“It just comes so naturally after a point,” said Elizabeth Zamora, a 24-year-old marketing account coordinator in Dallas who has taken hundreds of selfies since she got her first iPhone two years ago, with the front-facing camera that has become the selfie gold standard.
“You just take it and you don’t even realise it and then you’re sharing it with all your friends,” she said. “I try not to go crazy.”
If we’re not taking them, we’re certainly looking, regardless of whether we know what they’re called. We’re lurking on the selfies of our teens, enjoying the hijinx of co-workers and friends and mooning over celebrities, who have fast learnt the marketing value — and scandalous dangers — of capturing their more intimate, unpolished selves.
The practice of freezing and sharing our thinnest slices of life has become so popular that the granddaddy of dictionaries, the Oxford, is monitoring the term selfie as a possible addition. Time magazine included the selfie in its Top 10 buzzwords of 2012 (at No 9) and New York magazine’s The Cut blog declared in April: “Ugly Is the New Pretty: How Unattractive Selfies Took Over the Internet”.
On Instagram alone, there’s #selfiesunday, along with related tags where millions of selfies land daily. More than 23 million photos have been uploaded to the app with the tag #selfie and about 70 million photos clog Instagram’s #me.
What are we to make of all this navel-gazing (sometimes literally)? Are selfies, by definition, culturally dangerous? Offensive? An indicator of moral decline?
Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist from Beverly Hills, California, sees narcissism with a capital N. “The rise of the selfie is a perfect metaphor for our increasingly narcissistic culture. We’re desperately crying out: Look at me!”
But Pamela Rutledge doesn’t see it that way. The director of the non-profit Media Psychology Research Center, which explores how humans interact with technology, sees the selfie as democratising the once-snooty practice of self-portraiture, a tradition that long predates Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.
She sees some key differences between selfies and self-portraits of yore. Unlike painted portraiture, selfies are easily deletable. And “bad or funny is good in a way that wasn’t the case when people had to pay for a film to be developed” or for a professional painter, she said.
“Albrecht Durer’s self-portraiture is these incredible self-reflections and explorations of technique. And then when Rihanna snaps her picture it’s just self-aggrandizement, or it’s promotion, so you have a fairly interesting double standard based upon who’s taking the self-portrait,” said Rutledge, in Boston.
In selfies, we can be famous and in control of our own images and storylines. As for the young, the more authority figures — parents, teachers — dislike them and “declare them a sign of a self-obsessed, narcissistic generation, the more desirable they become”, she said.
The word selfie in itself carries multiple connotations, Rutledge observes. “The ‘ie’ at the end makes selfie a diminutive, implying some affection and familiarity.” From a semantic’s perspective, the selfie is a “little self” — a small, friendly bit of the self, she said.
There’s a sense of immediacy and temporariness. “Granted, little is really temporary on the internet, but it is more that by definition. Transient, soon to be upstaged by the next one,” Rutledge said.
Self-portraits tagged as “selfie” first surfaced on Flickr, a photo-sharing site, and on MySpace in 2004, Rutledge said. The earliest reference in Urban Dictionary was to “selfy” in 2005.
In historical terms, elites in ancient Egypt were fond of self-portraits, Rutledge said. And then there was the mirror, invented in the 15th century and allowing artists such as the prolific Durer in Germany to have a go at it in more meaningful detail.
While the self-involved Narcissus stared at his reflection in a pond in Greek mythology, it was the mirror that “really was the first piece of technology where an artist could see his own image long enough to paint it, other than just painting self-impressions”, Rutledge said.
Fast forward to the 1860s and the advent of cameras, launching a new round of selfies, though they took considerable skill and expense.
Leap with us once again to 2010 and the launch of Instagram, and on to 2012, when 86 per cent of the US population had a cell phone, bringing on the cheaper selfie as social media and mobile internet access spread.
“What’s most interesting to me is how we’re trying to grapple with what it means,” Rutledge said. “We know what it means when we see somebody’s picture of their kid holding a soccer ball. We’re OK with that. And we know what it means to have a portrait in a high-school yearbook or of a real-estate agent on a business card. We know how to think about all of those things, but we don’t know how to think about this mass production of self-reflection.”
Is it possible the selfie doesn’t mean anything at all?
“In the era of the Kardashians, everyone has become their own paparazzi,” mused Rachel Weingarten, a personal-brand consultant in New York.
Another New Yorker, 14-year-old Beatrice Landau, tends to agree. She regularly uploads selfies, from vacation shots on Instagram to fleeting images using Snapchat, a phone app that deletes them after 10 seconds.
“I know selfies are ridiculous, but it’s definitely part of our ‘teenage culture’,” Beatrice said. “You don’t have to have a person with you to take a picture of you, when you can take one yourself.”