If you’ve ever held your smartphone away from your body and taken your own picture, you’ve participated in a cultural phenomenon. It’s called the “selfie” – those pictures we take of ourselves and post online (usually to our social media sites) – a term whose use has increased a staggering 17,000 percent since it was first used in an Australian chatroom in 2002. The prevalence of the term, and the photos, says much about modern society, most of it bad.
The Oxford Dictionaries announced this week that “selfie” was Oxford’s “word of the year.” It describes the word of the year as “a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest during the year to date. … The word gained momentum throughout the English-speaking world in 2013 as it evolved from a social media buzzword to mainstream shorthand for a self-portrait photograph. Its linguistic productivity is already evident in the creation of numerous related spin-off terms showcasing particular parts of the body like helfie (a picture of one’s hair) and belfie (a picture of one’s posterior); a particular activity – welfie (workout selfie) and drelfie (drunken selfie), and even items of furniture – shelfie and bookshelfie.”
The actual post that started at all, cited on the Oxford Dictionaries website, is this:
“Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”
Oxford goes on to discuss alternate spellings, such as “selfy,” concluding that “selfie” is the more common and thus the generally accepted form. More importantly, however, if you input the term by itself or as a hashtag (#selfie) on popular social networking and image sites like Twitter and Instagram, you’ll receive a staggering number of results. All of them are self-portraits. All of them are people taking pictures of themselves and sharing them with an Internet full of … people taking pictures of themselves.
The urge to social network – and a fascination with our own images – is as old as human evolution. Douglas Cobb, writing for the Las Vegas Guardian Express (and on the same day as the Oxford Dictionaries announcement) explains that monkeys have been “social networking” for millions of years using their facial coloring.
“The brilliant and varied colors of [monkeys'] faces are in contrast to the plainer colored faces of monkeys and apes who are less social, and do not interact as much with other primates of their species,” writes Cobb. “… Researchers at UCLA have finally developed a scientific theory to explain the differences between primates with colorful faces and primates with plainer, less colorful faces – it aids in their social interactions with each other.”
Cobb goes on to explain that the more complex a primate’s face, the larger the size of the social group in which that primate lives. “[H]umans, as well as primates,” he concludes, “have relied upon facial expressions and face-to-face interactions for millions of years. … While humans don’t have faces composed of as many varied colors as primates, we still communicate with each other through our facial expressions. …”
That brings us back to the phenomenon of the “selfie,” the best example of networking using our faces. As we busily upload shots of ourselves taken at our desks, in our beds, in front of tourist attractions and in a series of increasingly inappropriate places, we are telling the world about ourselves specifically while indicting modern humanity more generally.
In other words, more and more young people are taking “selfies” when they ought not to be, such as while driving or, unbelievably, at funerals. Heather Kelly, reporting for CNN, writes that technology (specifically, the technology of smartphones) “has now inspired an alarming new trend: drivers taking self-portraits, or ‘selfies,’ with their smartphone cameras while in motion. Idiotic? Maybe so, but these self-portrait artists aren’t shy about sharing their photos. Instagram shows more than 3,727 posts under the #drivingselfie hashtag, more than 1,869 for the plural #drivingselfies, and more than 9,700 for #drivingtowork. Some users add the optimistic tag, #Ihopeidontcrash.”
“I hope I don’t crash” becomes both ironic and prophetic when you’re more worried about the focus of your photograph than you are about merging with the tractor-trailer on your right. Driving selfies aren’t limited to automobiles, either. What’s to stop the pilot of a private plane or even a commercial airliner from fussing with his phone while he’s supposed to be flying the aircraft?
Worrisome as that is, the funeral selfies are arguably more offensive. There is an entire Tumblr page devoted to people taking pictures of themselves at their friends’ and relatives’ wakes and memorials. Regardless of your relation to the deceased, there’s no excuse for ever doing this. For most people over the age of 30, the thought of taking any picture at a funeral comes as a surprise. But today’s middle-aged adults did not grow up carrying a high-definition camera everywhere they went. They did not grow up taking for granted that any photo they snapped could be immediately uploaded to the Internet.
Whether moving at 70 miles an hour or sitting in a funeral parlor, the way our teens and young adults are wired is markedly different compared to their parents and grandparents. Young people today aren’t simply doing things they shouldn’t because technology tempts them. They have no frame of reference for what is and isn’t appropriate … and they’ve no reason to develop this unless we teach them.
The rise of the “selfie” as cultural trend is a disturbing marker on the road to narcissism. When constantly taking your own picture and inflicting it on others becomes the norm, we are regrettably self-absorbed. When this comes at the expense of all propriety and even individual safety, we are perhaps irrevocably self-obsessed. Unless and until we break ourselves of this love affair with our own faces, our society will continue to become a terra incognita of obnoxious, oblivious solipsism.