“If you’re going for a younger audience, you’re expected to engage with every media channel available to you,” British public relations agent Mark Borkowski says. “Every aspect of Rihanna’s life is about her letting people in. Some people are very natural and normal about it and completely comfortable with being ‘on’ and that’s fine, but it becomes unstuck if it’s not real. A selfie has to be ‘the real you.’ It works if you can give people a manageable piece of reality which is who you are.”
The key is the idea of “manageable reality:” Celebrities can now exercise more control than ever over the dissemination of their image. The paradox at the heart of the selfie is that it masquerades as a “candid” shot, taken without access to airbrushing or post-production, but in fact, a carefully posed selfie, edited with all the right filters, is a far more appealing prospect than a snatched paparazzo shot taken from a deliberately unflattering angle.
“It’s about self-exposure and control,” says artist Simon Foxall, whose work questions the parameters of individuality and self-expression. “A selfie blurs the line between ‘reality’ and the performance of a fantasy self, so one collapses into the other.”
Beyond that, a judicious use of selfies can make good business sense too: Alexa Chung and Florence Welch have both used selfies to post daily updates on what they are wearing, thereby cementing their position as modern style icons and guaranteeing, no doubt, the continuation of a series of lucrative fashion deals. (Chung, for one, has designed a womenswear line for the fashion brand Madewell for the past three years.)
The Web site What I Wore Today (WIWT) began as a site that featured young entrepreneur Poppy Dinsey posing for a daily selfie, in a different outfit for every day of the year. It became an Internet hit and has now expanded to allow users to upload their own images, as well as generating advertising revenue by featuring online links to clothing retailers.
“People like the control selfies give them,” Dinsey says. “Sometimes it’s just a practical matter of not having anyone around to shoot you and that’s why I always took my own pictures in mirrors for WIWT, but you’re deciding how to frame yourself — you’re not trusting someone else to make you look good. With front-facing cameras on iPhones, and so on, you can see the picture you’re taking and frame it perfectly to show yourself off as best as possible — your mate isn’t going to make the same effort when taking your picture. Plus, you can retake and retake without anyone having to know how much vanity has gone into that ‘casual’ pose.”
In some ways, of course, the notion of control is disingenuous: Once a selfie is posted online, it is out there for public delectation. Future employers can see it. Marketers can use it. A resentful former lover could exploit it.
You can use digital technology to manipulate your own image as much as you like, but the truth about selfies is that once they are online, you can never control how other people see you.