What do a grown man hunched in a Barbie Dream Car, a girl mowing the lawn in her bathroom and a boy with his face in a fish tank have in common? They’re all competing in the ‘Selfie Olympics’ of course, and with 2013 officially named the Year of the Selfie you can expect the trend to continue ruling the internet throughout the coming year.
In the past twelve months, ‘selfie’ has been added to the Oxford Dictionary and claimed Obama, David Cameron and our future King amongst its legion of posers. Snap happy celebrities have even found their photos solving crimes, with Rihanna’s now infamous Slow Loris selfie leading to an arrest over the possession of a protected animal. But why do social media users find snapping a selfie so tempting, and why has the trend gained so many critics along the way?
Type “#me” into Instagram and you’ll be met with an incredible 175 million results. In the age of social media, we have all become our own PR manager, and the absolute control over our image these platforms provide means for some, the selfie is a crucial part of telling their following who they are. Be that following friends and family or an army of fan girls, the selfie presents an opportunity to carefully select the images that influence people’s perception of your character, and for many this control can feel immensely empowering. In this view of the phenomenon, selfies are a natural part of social media usage and key to the virtual world we engage with every day. They are part of crafting an online presence and dressing that virtual existence in the same way we would carefully select an outfit for an important social occasion.
The selfie itself is certainly not new. A quick scan through art history and you’ll see we’ve been at it for years. Rembrandt created nearly 100 self-portraits in the span of his career, while Frida Kahlo made her self-studies the centrepiece of her artistic life. With the birth of the smart phone, more and more people are able to capture a photo at the tap of a screen, a world apart from the previously lengthy and expensive process of developing cameras film. This liberation of the photograph means the world has become somewhat enamoured with our closest subject: ourselves. In actuality, how different is this phenomenon from Frida Kahlo’s famous assertion that “I paint myself because I am often alone and because I am the subject I know best”? With our ready access to cameras, anyone can become a photographer, no matter how amateur. Whether this is a sign of a more empowered, confident generation or a symptom of superficial cultural decay, however, has become a source of contention throughout the past year.
Along with the meteoric rise of the selfie has come the emergence of its extended family members, the legfie (leg selfie), the drelfie (drunk selfie) and of course, the belfie (bum selfie, thank Kim Kardashian for that one). Under such bombardment, criticism has emerged from those who believe the trend reveals a narcissism at the heart of our social media obsessed culture. Writing for The Mirror, Brian Reade called it “a testament to the shallowness of a generation encouraged by reality TV to confuse media exposure with talent.” Is it fair to claim all selfie posers are superficially obsessed teens hoping to find fame in the lens of a camera however?
Perhaps not when we frequently hear of more seriously considered public figures, such as newsreader Jon Snow, admitting to snapping them too. Snow claimed to a Guardian feature that “if you’re somewhere rare it’s worth doing”. Should you find yourself amidst something amazing but alone, selfies can provide a way to record your experiences. It’s not about vanity from this perspective, but about documentation; a well-timed selfie can act as a visual diary for those loved ones you’ve left back home.
One of the most controversial attacks on the selfie came from Jezebel writer Erin Gloria Ryan who posted an article entitled “Selfies aren’t empowering, they’re a cry for help” back in November. The piece, which claimed the images came from “silly, conceited bitches” angered many and launched the new hashtag #feministselfie, reclaiming the selfie with a view to proving its role in the photographer’s sense of empowerment and self-satisfaction. Hundreds of women defiantly tweeted their self-portraits, offended by the suggestion that the shots necessarily indicated shallowness or self-confidence issues.
Perhaps the most positive way to embrace the selfie for the coming year is to consider them as a counter culture to the airbrushed ideals of beauty the media bombards us with every day. Scrolling through a newsfeed of selfies can be annoying, but can also provide a glimpse into the faces and lives of real people, beautiful in their un-airbrushed, though perhaps ever-so-slightly filtered, diversity.
So whether you’re more duck face or blue steel, belfie or drelfie, own your selfie as you pout your way into the New Year; after all, you’re in good company.