Opinion: In Defense of the Selfie

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I confess. I’ve done it. The allure of that lens pointed at me, all that attention all mine, whispering in a come-hither tone, “show me what you’ve got”… Alright, so maybe it didn’t go down exactly like that, but the pull of the selfie is hard to resist. Stop judging me and pretending you didn’t sneak a quick one in that time you thought you looked irresistible – not working.

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So what’s a selfie? Research shows that even 4% of those from the Silent Generation (that’s your grandparents or older; weirdly named since I’ve never known my grandparents to be the quiet type) have taken selfies – so we all know. Or do we? Where do you draw the line? Clearly, others can be included in your picture. Now, do self-timer-ies count? What about the ones you force someone else to take of you while you carefully stare seemingly nonchalantly into the distance?

With people screaming that we live too much of our lives online and don’t spend enough time with the real people that actually matter, selfies seem like the ultimate expression of the ‘me’ generation, a focal point for all the narcissism in the world. It’s true, over one million selfies are taken a day (and that’s just the acknowledged ones).

Samsung tells us that of the photographs taken by 18-24 year olds every day, selfies make up some 30%. And why not – if you have a willing subject who is available 24/7, why wouldn’t you make the most of it?

But that’s where torch-bearing hordes come in – probably to the tune of Carly Simon’s ‘You’re so vain’. As Facebook stretches out and accommodates older people and as its first set of fans grows older, with more baby pictures and fewer duck faces, Instagram (now seen as the home of the selfie set) is under attack. Looking around for evidence to either prove or disprove the Insta-narcissist theory, I found lots of claims, rarely backed up by solid empirical evidence.

Time clearly never saw this coming.
Time clearly never saw this coming.

Narcissism, we are told is on the rise, but no one can really prove that it’s because we can put ourselves out there for people to approve or disapprove of at the click of a button. They do say social networks and photo sharing are enablers for the narcissist looking for an audience, but can they prove that narcissist wasn’t already being narcissistic on a smaller scale? No.

For example, there’s a study done by the Pew Research Center, dated Feb 14-23, 2014. It shows the percentages of generation groups that admit to having shared a selfie. 55% of Millenials – that’s us – admit to it. Generation X? 24%. The Boomers? 9%. The funny thing is, I’ve been to houses with walls hanging with generations of portraits. Quaint black and whites, with hairstyles and outfits from long ago, giving way to Technicolor childhood pictures, standing stiff with hair brushed back and pasted on smiles waiting for the flash to go off.

What if the exact same tendencies were present back in the day, expressed in those neatly arrayed rows of photographs on the mantelpiece? Is the selfie the only indicator of narcissism? We’ve a legacy of wanting to record ourselves in life’s big moments and a legacy of showing them off.

In fact, here’s something: the first selfie in recorded history: Robert Cornelius’s Self-Portrait, taken in *drumroll* 1839.

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Yes, the selfie actually predates the modern age of Instagram by a few hundred years. In fact, this image is considered by many to be the first photographic portrait ever taken. Who’s the narcissist now?

Back to the present times, one study uses data from 37,000 college students to show that narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present. We are in the midst of a “narcissism epidemic,” say psychologists Jean M. Twnege and W. Keith Campbell. Wait. So we’re getting more full of ourselves as we get ahem ‘fuller-figured’? Then there’s the neediness. Elias Aboujaoude, a professor of Psychiatry at Stanford, believes we’re getting more needy as our most minor wants get satisfied online and everything starts to revolve around us. As if that weren’t bad enough, our offline personalities take on traits we display online. Beware, trolls!

On the flip side, everyone seems to forget about the 70% of photographs that are left after everyone’s done indulging themselves in a little self-love. We’re making a huge fuss over this 30%, which could equally well have been represented by the countless wedding albums of a previous generation: what about the others?

People’s photos (to wit, their Instagram feeds and the like) may not be happening exactly the way you’d normally imagine, but they provide a great window into other people’s lives; where they live, what they like doing and who they’ve been with, are all up there for anyone to see. It makes stars more accessible, provides a way for talent to display itself in all its glory and tells everyone, “Yes, you too can be special”. Check out Sri Lanka Baton for a great local example of how that works in practice.

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Caravaggio’s Narcissus. Are we this useless? Surely not.

Are we a budding generation of narcissists? Possibly. The attraction of being the star feature in your own drama is hard to resist. But it’s not impossible. And very likely, natural selection will sort that out, because the incredibly self-involved, like Narcissus of the myth, will be too caught up in their own hype to form meaningful relationships and will be bred out of the gene pool.

So the next opportunity you have to document how incredible you are or whatever you’re doing right now is, take it with a smile. Just don’t forget that the point of the experience is to experience it, not just show it off.

 

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