“The selfie is revolutionizing how we gather autobiographical information about ourselves and our friends,” says Mariann Hardey, a lecturer in marketing at Durham University who specializes in digital social networks. “It’s about continuously rewriting yourself. It’s an extension of our natural construction of self. It’s about presenting yourself in the best way ... [similar to] when women put on makeup or men who bodybuild to look a certain way: It’s an aspect of performance that’s about knowing yourself and being vulnerable.”
Although photographic self-portraits have been around since 1839, when daguerreotype pioneer Robert Cornelius took a picture of himself outside his family’s store in Philadelphia (whether he had the help of an assistant is not known), it was not until the invention of the compact digital camera that the selfie boomed in popularity. There was some experimentation with the selfie in the 1970s — most notably by Andy Warhol — when the Polaroid camera came of age and freed amateur photographers from the tyranny of the darkroom. However, film was expensive and it was not until the advent of digital that photographs became truly instantaneous.
The fact that we no longer had to traipse to our local chemist to develop a roll of holiday snaps encouraged us to experiment — after all, on a digital camera, the image could be easily deleted if we did not like the results. A selfie could be done with the timer button or simply by holding the camera at arm’s length, if you did not mind the looming tunnel of flesh dog-earing one corner of the image.
As a result, images tagged as #selfie began appearing on the photo-sharing Web site Flickr as early as 2004. However, it was the introduction of smartphones — most crucially the iPhone 4, which came along in 2010 with a front-facing camera — that made the selfie go viral. According to the latest annual Ofcom communications report, 60 percent of UK mobile phone users now own a smartphone and a recent survey of more than 800 teenagers by the Pew Research Center in the US found that 91 percent posted photographs of themselves online — up from 79 percent in 2006.
Recently, the Chinese manufacturer Huawei unveiled plans for a new smartphone with “instant facial beauty support” software that reduces wrinkles and blends skin tone.
“A lot of the cameras on smartphones are incredibly good,” Royal Photographic Society director-general Michael Pritchard says. “The rise of digital cameras and the iPhone coincided with the fact that there are a lot more single people around [than before]. The number of single-occupancy households is rising, more people are divorcing and living single lives and people go on holiday by themselves more and don’t have anyone else to take the picture. That’s one reason I take selfies: because I do actually want to record where I am.”
However, if selfies are simply an exercise in recording private memories and charting the course of our lives, then why do we feel such a pressing need to share them with hundreds and thousands of friends and strangers online?
To some, the selfie has become the ultimate symbol of the narcissistic age. Its instantaneous nature encourages superficiality — or so the argument goes. One of the possible side effects has been that we care more than ever before about how we appear and, as a consequence, social acceptance comes only when the outside world accepts the way we look, rather than endorsing the work we do or the way we behave off-camera.