If a picture is worth a thousand words, epic autobiographies are being written daily by people all across the world—in selfies.
Selfies, or photos taken of oneself by oneself, provide a uniquely telling, authentic portrait of the individual. That’s what actor James Franco argues anyway, in his mawkish 2013 piece for the New York Times, “The Meanings of the Selfie.”
Without selfies how would we derive such intimate insight into what an individual, especially a celebrity, is like in his or her candid, private moments? Franco asks rhetorically. “Of course, the self-portrait is an easy target for charges of self-involvement, but, in a visual culture, the selfie quickly and easily shows, not tells, how you’re feeling, where you are, what you’re doing,” he writes.
Well, if one takes a selfie or two on a whim and posts it online surely it’s not such a big deal. Even a great artist like Rembrandt was known for completing numerous masterful self-portraits hundreds of years ago. But the undeniable fact is that the larger trend of selfie-taking and image-obsession has become much more than an occasional lark.
In full disclosure I myself have taken selfies numerous times when another person wasn’t there to take a photograph I wanted of myself in a certain place or time. Or what about when a group wants a photo but the photographer also wants to be in the picture? Some sort of modified selfie or using the camera timer could well be in order.
The selfie per se is not the issue. The compulsion to take selfies frequently in all sorts of random and boring situations while self-consciously crafting facial expressions and then craving online reactions and feedback is the problem, or at least points to the problem. Indeed, selfies and their associated social media platforms have become a staple of self-expression in Western society.
Everything from dinner to family outings to meeting your childhood hero or favorite sports star now has an immediate payoff and short-term goal: Snap a selfie before the moment fades. It used to be that the majority of families sat down to dinner and maybe even prayed before their meal; now we can see what someone had for dinner by seeing a selfie of them with their dinner—by all chances a TV dinner, on the couch, alone.
On the surface many selfies don’t seem that different from a tourist asking a passerby to photograph them in front of a tourist attraction or mom and dad taking a photo of their children at the park; the main distinguishing factor is that with the selfie inheres control. It also invites the subject to photograph many private or unremarkable situations they never would have in the past, often affectedly, or with some vague attempt at irony. A selfie lets the subject capture their image on their own terms, including the angle, lighting, background, timing, and expression.
It’s all about controlling and managing the presentation of one’s own image. While not all selfies are about showing attractiveness and some may show a comical face or somber situation, they are all about self-packaging and self-conscious presentation. The selfie may also indicate haste or the desire to capture a spontaneous moment the way one wants just as it happens, rather than trust in the judgment and timing of a photographer.
Selfie was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2013 Word of the Year; in fact the dictionary compiled research showing a 17,000 percent rise in the usage of the word selfie in 2013. Pope Francis even took part, allowing Vatican visitors to take a selfie of themselves with him in it.
In any case, Franco’s commentary is particularly interesting for two reasons: One, celebrity perception and endorsement of the rise of self-image obsession that they themselves are so tied up in is telling of a number of interesting and not entirely desirable social phenomena; and two, Franco seems to have spoken too soon.
Indeed, as we now know, things didn’t exactly turn out well for Franco on the selfie front, with reports surfacing several weeks ago that he attempted to seduce a 17-year-old girl via Instagram, using selfies of himself as proof of his celebrity identity. Some maintain that Franco’s recent mishap was only a staged publicity stunt for his upcoming film about an age-inappropriate relationship, but there’s also a pretty good chance it could be what it looked like: An ego-bloated Hollywood star trying to avail himself of a young female fan using the precise visual medium he trumpets as genuine and meaningful in a sloppy, spur-of-the-moment fashion for the apparent purpose of arranging a sexual encounter. It wasn’t about who he was really, it was about who he was as a celebrity symbol deserving of infatuation. Even if it was a stunt it was in poor taste.
Selfies have come to purportedly represent a direct access route to the candid, everyday moments of those in the limelight, and conversely, a supposed means of conveying our own true identity, emotions, and experiences to others.
But what do selfies really say about self-identity and the lives of others? Are these self-styled photographs providing the viewer or photographer anything deep or any lasting human connection?
As Hamlet insists in Act I, Scene II, “‘Seems,’ madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’” But our internet age is all about “seeming,” from the self-preening before a photo to the various personae we end up inhabiting in our online interactions. We’re urged to become celebrities in our own little worlds. Indeed, the compulsion to take frequent selfies has an inbuilt, if sometimes small, element of narcissism. Mental health professionals such as psychiatrist Carole Lieberman view selfies as potential signs of narcissistic behavior built around image-obsession and the frantic search for external attention and approval. It’s natural to be fond of a good photo of oneself, but to hunt for it with selfie after selfie can become an unhealthy obsession.
As Franco continued in his Times piece, seeking attention and getting it is indeed the key aim of selfies.
“It’s what the movie studios want for their products, it’s what professional writers want for their work, it’s what newspapers want—hell, it’s what everyone wants: attention. Attention is power.” Ultimately, however, that kind of attention is much more likely to lead to disempowerment.
In an insightful article for the National Catholic Register entitled “Conspicuous Consumption,” writer Melinda Selmys observes that narcissism, vanity, and the virtual world go hand-in-hand in a cycle of disempowerment and objectification:
Vanity is not merely an excess of self-involvement; it is a perversion of the desire for the other … Just as lust reduces another to the level of an object in order to gain sexual satisfaction, vanity reduces other people to the level of objects in order to gain flattery and admiration.
There’s nothing so malign or inherently unacceptable about expressing oneself virtually or appreciating online feedback and approval; after all, even online fellowship and communication have their place. But the trend of taking frequent photos of oneself and habitually turning to the internet for connection suggests a hole in many people’s daily lives.
Thailand’s Department of Mental Health even cited the growing selfie fixation as a serious threat to the mental health of its youth.
Moreover, if selfies seem like a phenomenon that only trendy teens and young adults are getting into, that also is not the whole story. Apparently toddlers are also catching quite the selfie craze, and if the little tyke isn’t exactly enthusiastic, his parents are quite often into it. These days who needs a baby book when you have Facebook?
Nowadays the image-fixation tends to start at a young age. Instead of playing hide-and-seek with his or her friends, children are increasingly playing hide-and-seek with their own face and a smartphone camera. Whatever else it may be it isn’t exactly great physical exercise, and obesity is no small problem, either.
Selfies, Vine, frequent Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram (IG), Facebook, social media updates and obsessively refreshing e-mail or dating website mail: a few of the enablers of a skewed selfie identity.
In the search for their own beauty, authenticity, and worth, many have strayed from what has been obvious to generations past: Beauty, authenticity and passion flourish through hard work, service to one another, praise of the Creator, and building communities bonded by shared cultural and religious values. Kinship, friendship, and love held the ship together, not hundreds of selfies a day or a message from a pretty girl saying that she liked your photos.
That’s not to say that past generations were ahead in all ways or succeeded in all their aims, it’s simply that they hadn’t yet had all the layers of technology and uncritical societal acceptance of morbid self-obsession distort their practice of simple daily routines and social mores. Life, up until a short time ago, has always been defined by real human relationship, hardship, and achievement, but now things are moving faster. Western society tends to want satisfaction and meaning on a silver platter, and an emotional or physical payoff right away.
In the film Her the main character gets so lonely that he has a serious selfie relationship with an artificial-intelligence computer operating system, feeding his image into the virtual world and receiving back what he interprets as connection and love. That world is far from far-off. In fact it’s pretty easy to argue it’s already here.
But this virtual world of selfies and carefully-worded Facebook status updates is not delivering what it appears to promise, namely intimacy, connection, and meaning. Selfies only offer simulacra of self-identity. Whatever one gets back online is inherently non-tactile and devoid of the compelling, sometimes inconvenient experiences of real human interaction that, for one thing, helps us grow as individuals in our own identity. While real life can certainly be frustrating and lonely, selfies and social media are not going to effectively replace or even significantly enhance life and human relationship.
There’s no way to reinvent the wheel, and life is life. The real thing: like Coca-Cola, but sometimes less sweet and less advertised.
One must churn the butter before one can make the toast (actually not anymore, butter comes in a foil wrapper, so that metaphor just kind of melted). But that’s the thing, not everything works out.
Social progress takes work and it’s all a process that doesn’t always give instant results. There’s no fast food drive-through to finding ourselves; in fact it’s often closer to the opposite. As psychologist Kelly Lambert argues so effectively in her book Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power, abstract and instant results such as those offered by a computer or online may actually contribute to serious depressive conditions. The effort-driven reward circuitry of our brains has been derailed, essentially, by incorporeal and fleeting virtual rewards and reinforcement instead of the kind of tangible rewards of task completion and accomplishment it was designed to understand. It is through the process of completing step-by-step everyday tasks and focusing on physical necessities that those suffering from the growing plague of clinical depression may begin to experience a recovery, Lambert posits.
Indeed, one of the primary uncomfortable things about selfies, at least solo selfies, is that they point to how much more time modern humankind is spending inactive and alone. There are numerous reasons and speculations as to why many people appear to be spending much more time alone and online. One obvious and direct reason is that more and more individuals work on computers and online. Perhaps this can’t be avoided, but it can be mitigated by at least minimizing time on the computer outside of work.
In addition to providing new avenues of employment, there are of course many advantages to the new world of high-speed communication and frequent image-taking, including even selfies. While families might have waited months to hear word from a relative by letter in generations past, that relative could now email daily or take a smiling photo of herself at her new geographically far-off job just moments after starting it. The advantages in knowing of a loved one’s safety and happiness are considerable, and the heartwarming benefits of being able to keep in touch are not to be overlooked. The danger is when, instead of serving as a valuable and temporary medium through which we may connect with those we love, the internet becomes its own pastime and its own fixation.
But the question remains: How do we connect meaningfully in an increasingly lonely, virtual society? When iPads are glued to hands and eyes are more likely trained on the goings-on of a smartphone than actual surroundings, how do we ‘cut in’ to the dance of daily life, so to speak? Solutions to internet addiction and selfie fixation could begin as simply as having a chat with the local grocery teller, working on an art project, digging up one’s garden to plant vegetables, attending church, reconnecting with friends and relatives after work, or going for a run. Though it sounds mundane, we find ourselves in the ordinary.
As writer Daniel Larison noted in his outstanding post “God Became Matter for My Sake and Worked Out My Salvation Through Matter,” G.K. Chesterton’s insights on the Incarnation of Christ serve as valuable signposts for the reestablishment of meaningful and workable everyday life and society:
[T]he Incarnation is “the radical reversal of human values.” I would add that it is also the supreme act of God entering into history, becoming embodied and dwelling amongst us in everyday life. And it is the stuff of everyday life—“daybreak, daily bread and daily labour”—that must be made “interesting in themselves” if our civilization is to endure.
... Chesterton was not engaging in a “romanticization” of the common man, but sought, if I recall correctly, to accord ordinary men the dignity and stature that God had already bestowed upon them in Christ and find the economic and social means to make these things secure.
The question of connecting meaningfully is thus a question rooted in true self-identity—self-identity through doing and being, not seeming. It’s all well and good to recognize that image obsession, selfies, and online life are compromising our human and spiritual identity, but it’s another thing to step away from the computer.
Not everyone can be an agrarian landholder working a small farm, especially not in these days of large-scale agriculture, but chances are that playing or listening to music, the beauty of nature, or physical activity is only a short walk or drive away.
As we connect more with ourselves through physical work and daily, common existence with small steps, we’ll naturally connect more with others also emerging from the virtual labyrinth into the light of day.
Who really takes a selfie when they’re living actively and fully engaged in the present moment with people whose company they enjoy?
Well, this guy, I suppose.
But anyway, get active, get inspired, and flourish.