It starts with a certain angle: A smartphone tilted at 45° just above your eyeline is generally deemed the most forgiving. Then a light source: the flattering beam of a backlit window or a bursting supernova of flash reflected in a bathroom mirror, as preparations are under way for a night out.
The pose is important. Knowing self-awareness is conveyed by the slight raise of an eyebrow, the sideways smile that says you are not taking it too seriously. A doe-eyed stare and mussed-up hair denotes natural beauty, as if you have just woken up and cannot help looking like this. Sexiness is suggested by sucked-in cheeks, pouting lips, a nonchalant cock of the head and a hint of bare flesh just below the clavicle. Snap.
Afterward, a flattering filter is applied. Outlines are blurred, colors are softened, a sepia tint soaks through to imply a simpler era of vinyl records and VW camper vans.
All of this is the work of an instant. Then, with a single tap, you are ready to upload: to Twitter, to Facebook, to Instagram, each likeness accompanied by a self-referential hashtag. Your image is retweeted and tagged and shared. Your screen fills with thumbs-up signs and heart-shaped emoticons. You are “liked” several times over. You feel a shiver of — what, exactly? Approbation? Reassurance? Existential calm? Whatever it is, it is addictive. Soon, you repeat the whole process, trying out a different pose. Again and again, you offer yourself up for public consumption.
This, then, is the selfie: the self-portrait of the digital age. We are all at it. Just type “selfie” into the Twitter search bar. Or take a look at Instagram, where more than 90 million photographs are currently posted with the hashtag #me.
Adolescent pop poppet Justin Bieber constantly Tweets photographs of himself with his shirt off to the shrieking delight of his huge online following. Rihanna has treated her fans to Instagrammed selfies of her enjoying the view at a strip club, of her buttocks barely concealed by a tiny denim thong and of her posing with two oversize cannabis joints while in Amsterdam. Reality TV star Kim Kardashian overshares to the extent that, in March, she posted a picture of her own face covered in blood after undergoing a so-called “vampire facial.” In the same month, the selfie-obsessed model and actress Kelly Brook banned herself from posting any more of them (her willpower lasted two hours).
The political classes have started doing it too. US President Barack Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, took selfies at his second inauguration. Last month, former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton got in on the act after her daughter, Chelsea, tweeted a joint picture of them taken on her smartphone at arm’s length.
Earlier this month, three sisters from Nebraska stormed the field of a college baseball match and filmed themselves while doing so, eventually being removed by security guards. Stills from the 60-second Vine video clip became known as “the most expensive selfie of all time” after it emerged that the sisters were facing a US$1,500 fine.
The trend has even reached outer space: In December last year, Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide took what might be the greatest selfie of all time at the International Space Station. The resulting image encompassed the sun, the Earth, two portions of a robotic arm, a spacesuit and the deep darkness of the infinite beyond.