The US writer John Paul Titlow has described selfie-sharing as “a high-school popularity contest on digital steroids.”
In an article published on the Web site ReadWrite earlier this year, Titlow wrote that selfie users “are seeking some kind of approval from their peers and the larger community, which thanks to the Internet is now effectively infinite.”
Indeed, although many people who post pictures of themselves on the Internet do so in the belief that it will only ever be seen by their group of friends on any given social network, the truth is that the images can be viewed and used by other agencies. There are now entire porn sites devoted to the “amateur” naked selfie and concerns have recently been raised that jilted lovers can seek their revenge by making explicit images of their ex publicly available online.
The preponderance of young women posing for selfies in a state of undress is a potentially worrying issue. When the model Cara Delevingne Instagrammed a picture of her nipples poking through a black lace top, it rapidly got over 60,000 “Likes.”
Gail Dines, the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality: “Because of porn culture, women have internalized that image of themselves. They self-objectify, which means they’re actually doing to themselves what the male gaze does to them.”
Dines says that although men can “gain visibility” in a variety of ways, for women, the predominant way to get attention is “fuckability.” And it is true that a lot of female selfie aficionados take their visual vernacular directly from pornography (unwittingly or otherwise): the pouting mouth, the pressed-together cleavage, the rumpled bedclothes in the background hinting at opportunity.
However, Rebecca Brown, a 23-year-old graduate trainee from Birmingham, believes her penchant for selfies is neither degrading nor narcissistic. Instead, she says it is a simple means of self-exploration.
“It’s almost like a visual diary,” she says. “I can look back and see what I looked like at a particular time, what I was wearing. It’s exploring your identity in digital form. To me it’s not about nudity or having a raunchy or raw kind of look... People think if you take pictures of yourself, you’re self-obsessed, but that’s like saying if you write a diary or an autobiography, you’re self-obsessed. Not necessarily. A selfie is a format and a platform to share who you are.”
Does she feed off the social approval that a selfie can generate?
“I suppose you take photos to see what you look like,” Brown says. “Before I go out, I’ll take a couple of pictures almost to see how I look in other people’s eyes. In the same way that if you wrote a really good piece of work and had people commenting about how good it was, or if you put something on Twitter that people retweeted, if people start liking your selfie, then obviously you’re going to get a natural buzz. It gives you a nice boost and you can walk with that little bit more confidence.”
There is nothing new about this, of course. Human beings are social animals and have long been driven by the need for approval and self-affirmation — albeit on a smaller scale. The desire for a pictorial representation of the self goes all the way back to early handprint paintings on cave walls more than 4,000 years ago. In a fast-paced world of ever-changing technology, it could be argued that the selfie is simply a natural evolution of those hands dipped in paint.