[Digital Media Semiology: On the Culture of the Selfie]
Jenna Wortham – The New York Times – Oct. 19, 2013
RECENTLY, I came across a great find in a Vermont antiques store: an old black-and-white photograph of a female pilot on a mountaintop, her aviator glasses pushed up on her forehead, revealing a satisfied, wind-burned face, the wings of her plane just visible behind her. But the best part of the discovery was the slow realization that she was holding the camera herself. It was, for lack of a better word, a “selfie.”
It reminded me of another self-portrait of sorts, one I’ve been watching evolve online of the mysterious Benny Winfield Jr.
I don’t know Mr. Winfield personally, but I’ve seen his face most days for the past few months, in dozens of photographs he shares on the social networking application Instagram. He calls himself the “leader of the selfie movement” and each image is hypnotically the same — his grinning face fills the frame, and is usually accompanied by a bit of inspirational text.
The self-portraits are worlds — and decades — apart. But they are threaded together by a timeless delight in our ability to document our lives and leave behind a trace for others to discover.
“There is a primal human urge to stand outside of ourselves and look at ourselves,” said Clive Thompson, a technology writer and the author of the new book “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.”
Selfies have become the catchall term for digital self-portraits abetted by the explosion of cellphone cameras and photo-editing and sharing services. Every major social media site is overflowing with millions of them. Everyone from the pope to the Obama girls has been spotted in one. In late August, Oxford Dictionaries Online added the term to its lexicon. One of the advertisements for the new Grand Theft Auto V video game features a woman in a bikini taking a photograph of herself with an iPhone. In a recent episode of Showtime’s “Homeland,” one of the main characters snaps and sends a topless selfie to her boyfriend. Snapchat, a photo-based messaging service, is processing 350 million photos each day, while a recent project on Kickstarter raised $90,000 to develop and sell a small Bluetooth shutter release for smartphones and tablets to help people take photographs of themselves more easily.
It is the perfect preoccupation for our Internet-saturated time, a ready-made platform to record and post our lives where others can see and experience them in tandem with us. And in a way, it signals a new frontier in the evolution in social media.
“People are wrestling with how they appear to the rest of the world,” Mr. Thompson said. “Taking a photograph is a way of trying to understand how people see you, who you are and what you look like, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
At times, it feels largely performative, another way to polish public-facing images of who we are, or who we’d like to appear to be. Selfies often veer into scandalous or shameless territory — think of Miley Cyrus or Geraldo Rivera — and at their most egregious raise all sorts of questions about vanity, narcissism and our obsession with beauty and body image.
But it’s far too simplistic to write off the selfie phenomenon. We are swiftly becoming accustomed to — and perhaps even starting to prefer — online conversations and interactions that revolve around images and photos. They are often more effective at conveying a feeling or reaction than text. Plus, we’ve become more comfortable seeing our faces on-screen, thanks to services like Snapchat, Skype, Google Hangout and FaceTime, and the exhilarating feeling of connectedness that comes from even the briefest video conversation. Receiving a photo of the face of the person you’re talking to brings back the human element of the interaction, which is easily misplaced if the interaction is primarily text-based.
“The idea of the selfie is much more like your face is the caption and you’re trying to explain a moment or tell a story,” said Frédéric della Faille, the founder and designer of Frontback, a popular new photo-sharing application that lets users take photographs using both front- and rear-facing cameras. “It’s much more of a moment and a story than a photo.” And more often than not, he added, “It’s not about being beautiful.”
In other words, it is about showing your friends and family your elation when you’re having a good day or opening a dialogue or line of communication using an image the same way you might simply text “hi” or “what’s up?”
And selfies strongly suggest that the world we observe through social media is more interesting when people insert themselves into it — a fact that many social media sites like Vine, a video-sharing tool owned by Twitter, have noticed. Dom Hofmann, one of the founders of Vine, said the first iteration of the application didn’t let people shoot videos using the front-facing camera, partly because of technical constraints. His co-founder, Rus Yusupov, was in favor of adding the feature to the service, but Mr. Hofmann had concerns that it might denigrate the quality of the content people were sharing through the service.
“Rus felt that it would open up a lot of creative possibilities,” said Mr. Hofmann. “But I thought it would be a lot of vanity. I didn’t see much value in it.”
But after some discussion, and repeated requests from users, the company decided to release the front-camera capability as an update. It turned out that his partner was right. Users loved it, Mr. Hofmann said.
“It wasn’t really about vanity at all,” he said. “It’s not really about how you look. It’s about you doing something else, or you in other places. It’s a more personal way to share an experience.”
The feedback loop that selfies can inspire doesn’t hurt, either. As an early Instagram user, I rarely turned the camera on myself. I preferred sharing pictures of sunsets, crazy dance parties and bodega cats to showing off a new haircut or outfit. But over the last year or so, I’ve watched as all my peers slowly began turning their cameras inward on themselves. It’s made my feed more interesting and entertaining. And I’d much rather see my friends’ faces as they prepare food than a close-up photo of the finished meals instead. The rare occasion when I feel bold enough to post a full-face frontal, I see spikes in comments and feedback, the kind that pictures of a park or a concert photo rarely get.
In fact, I’ve even noticed that the occasional selfie appears to nudge some friends who I haven’t seen in a while to get in touch via e-mail or text to suggest that we meet for a drink to catch up, as if seeing my face on a screen reminds them it’s been awhile since they’ve see it in real life.
Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center, says that’s how the human brain works.
“We are hard-wired to respond to faces,” she said. “It’s unconscious. Our brains process visuals faster, and we are more engaged when we see faces. If you’re looking at a whole page of photos, the ones you will notice are the close-ups and selfies.”
As for the well-worn assertion that selfies foster vanity and somehow court stalkers, “There are some people who put themselves at a certain amount of risk by exposing too much,” Dr. Rutledge said. “But that’s not about the selfie. That’s about someone who is not making good choices.”
Rather than dismissing the trend as a side effect of digital culture or a sad form of exhibitionism, maybe we’re better off seeing selfies for what they are at their best — a kind of visual diary, a way to mark our short existence and hold it up to others as proof that we were here. The rest, of course, is open to interpretation.
Jenna Wortham is a technology reporter for The New York Times.