Just Let Me Take a Selfie
It seems that every time I take on the task of putting together a written piece for this mag I somehow end up writing about the modern ways of self-representation online. Although I did spend a lot of time researching related topics while sailing my way through college, I never thought I would spend much time thinking about it in the years to come. But here I am again, googling the word selfie and playing that Chainsmokers’ song, which will probably be stuck in my head for the next few days. Sadly, the things I do to get myself in the mood include sacrificing both my sanity and my taste in music.
Let’s start this thing by taking a quick history lesson. The first selfie, not to be mistaken with a painted auto-portrait, was made by Robert Cornelius in 1839, which was one of the first photos of a person ever taken, at a time when photography was an experimental thing. As the cameras became more portable, lighter, and cheaper, taking photos increasingly became an everyday thing. Although the term selfie was first publicly used in 2002, the concept of using mirrors to take photos is not as young as that. It actually dates to the early 20th century and, of course, it was a woman who did it, a thirteen year old Russian duchess nonetheless. Technically it wasn’t a real selfie though, as the definition, offered by the Oxford Dictionary states, that a “selfie” is a photo one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone and published to social media channels. I guess they lived a life without those back then. I wonder what that’s like.
For most of us, the day starts by checking our phone. Probably while still lying in bed and contemplating life decisions that, by consequence, make you hit snooze on that alarm clock every single morning. We all do it, and trust me when I say I’m not judging you. Anyway, because Facebook somehow became the gathering place of our parents and annoying uncles discussing weather and pointlessly commenting on politics, the first go-to app these days seems to be Instagram. If a picture says a thousand words than Instagram communicates a few billion. It has more than 700 million users (as of April 2017) and the hashtag selfie has more than 325 million hits on Instagram alone. The fact that you probably scroll through IG while you brush your teeth in the morning or sit on the toilet is nothing strange. It’s not strange if you do it while waiting for the green light at a crossroad, although you really shouldn’t do that. And it’s not strange if you do it to pass time while you should probably be studying or doing something that is actually important. Everyone does it. We’re the generation Z after all. It is our way of keeping in touch with the world, where posting photos is somehow comparable to looking ourselves in the mirror or checking out the reflection in the store window while passing by.
Although the concept of making and posting a selfie was once viewed as a viral sensation, it has become much more mundane and publicly except-able. It is an everyday part of our media presence, a notion that went from being a theoretical term to an unavoidable fact of life. The selfie theory (yes, such a thing exists) states, that as we increasingly live in public, our selfies are our networked identities, connected, refracted, and devoid of context — and those who see us are our mirrors, reflecting how we look back to ourselves, and out to the internet world. Though a selfie itself may not offer a direct explanation of the situation or a specific context of a story, it could have a certain connection with the viewer. It doesn’t matter who that viewer is. For a friend, a stranger, or a random acquaintance it may only say “Hi, this is me right now.” To ourselves it may offer a retrospective view of a time in our lives. I don’t know about you but I love to laugh at old images of myself, seeing how ridiculous my younger self was.
Alicia Eler has studied selfies and the stories they tell since 2013, when she, rather than focusing on the negative discourse such images received, decided to write a weekly column for Hyperallergic, with the participation of her readers. They sent her selfies along with captions which describe the mood, happening, or general feelings about the photo. Her column transformed into a book in which she tackles the selfie critics and approaches the topic from different angles, such as contemporary art and communication. She concludes that beside the main allure of the selfie, the control of the narration in which the photo has been taken in, the main reason people do it is to enhance communication. Selfies are about connecting with others through mirroring processes, not about being alone in front of a static one-way mirror. Even James Franco said he doesn’t trust selfie-less social media accounts, because he doesn’t know who he is dealing with. Yes, you read that right. The truth is these kinds of photos capture more than a random memory of a trip to London you took two years ago or the time you went to the seaside with a group of your best friends and got incredibly and stupidly drunk on the beach. These photos capture much more because they reflect a certain state of mind, a broken heart, the happy moment you received your diploma, the warm feeling you have while hugging your fluffy pet, or just that uncomplicated moment when you took a selfie because you were just so incredibly bored and you had a good hair day. It’s quite the responsibility for just one photo to handle.
Let’s back up a few years to a time before modern phones existed. A time where there was no such thing as a reflection camera; a time where taking a selfie required a lot of effort. I remember finding my mother’s selfies while browsing through the photos on our family camera. You know what I’m talking about, the pre-smartphone selfie, the old school kind, with both of my mom’s hands reached out forward in an attempt to back the camera far enough to catch her own image through the lens. And there I was, the generation Z child, staring at a photo of my then forty-something-year-old mom doing the duck-face selfie. I was horrified. Even more so when a few years later she bought me a selfie stick for Christmas. I mean really? Who’s the kid and who’s the adult here? For a teenager with an open hate towards the selfie stick generation, there wasn’t a worse gift you could possibly give me. I think that thing is still rolling around somewhere in the back of my drawer. But that selfie will probably remain my favourite selfie story of all time. Maybe because it bridges the generation gap and somehow means my own mother managed to jump on the selfie hype train. Or maybe because that image still haunts me in my sleep. But it proves that each of those selfies you have stocked on your phone tells something about you and who you were at a certain time in your life. It’s yourselfie. Get it?