As has been widely reported, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013 is “selfie.” The Oxford folks helpfully provide a definition: a selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” Facebook posts are teeming with selfies. Even an old guy like me who hardly ever posts on Facebook or its many cousins has taken a few of them. Celebrity selfies have a huge following, with whole websites devoted to the latest self-made images of the stars (the accompanying pictures of Justin Beiber and Hilary Duff come from http://celeb-selfies.com/.
The coronation of “selfie” as word of the year resulted in a blizzard of cultural analysis. Jennifer O’Connell huffs that the selfie is symptomatic of our ever-increasing narcissism. Navneet Alang responds to the narcissism charge by noting that humans have long sought to document their activities; the only thing that is new is how public that documentary process has become. Rachel Simmons regards selfies as a form of self-affirmation and thus beneficial for a prime group of selfie practitioners, teenage girls. And Noah Berlatsky faults other commenters for claiming that all selfies have the same meaning; in his view, selfies are works of art, and each conveys its own unique message.
Besides thinking about what selfies reveal about the selves of those who take and post them, it is useful to consider how taking selfies shapes the self. In the article cited above, Navneet Alang touches on that question. Here’s what he says:
“Now that so many more people have access to a space to put their identities out there, it may seem like people have suddenly become self-involved, when in fact, all it means is that there is a new more potent medium and shape for an old social fact.
“The selfie is thus a symbol of a slightly shifting sense of self, one that is more aware of how we always function in at least two modes at once, the private and the public, the internal and the external.”
Perhaps the change in awareness has a greater impact than Alang thinks. “Self-consciousness” is the term that social psychologists use to refer to the habitual tendency to be self-aware (the material on self-consciousness that follows are drawn from Steven Franzoi’s Social Psychology, 6th ed.). There are two types of self-consciousness: private self consciousness, the tendency to be aware of private aspects of the self, and public self-consciousness, the tendency to be aware of publically displayed personal features. These traits are distinct, so that a person can be low on both, high on both, or a mixture of the two. Taking a selfie seems to foster public self-awareness, and taking lots of them probably fosters a more habitual state of public self-consciousness (that’s my surmise; Franzoi doesn’t address selfies). Even if taking selfies doesn’t diminish private self-consciousness (whether it does or not is a research question) those who take and post lots of them may develop the characteristics that have been found to be associated with high private self-consciousness. According to Franzoi, these include greater concern about how others view oneself, more conformity to social norms, more concern about one’s physical appearance, and a greater tendency to withdraw from embarrassing situations.
If selfies and other social media phenomena shape the 21st-century self, what direction might that self take? To the extent that these phenomena increase public self-consciousness, it seems that the self might evolve towards being highly aware of its public face, anxious about how that face is perceived, concerned about being physically attractive, averse to bucking group standards, and more isolated. Given these possibilities, I don’t think I’ll be taking and posting many selfies. Since I’m on the subject, though, I’ve posted below one of the few selfies I’ve taken, photographed (the old-fashioned way, with camera and tripod) in St. Paul’s Covent Garden, London.