What greater testament could there be to the “me generation” than the rise and rise of the selfie? Anointed by Oxford Dictionaries’ editors as the word of the year after a 17,000 percent increase in its usage, the selfie is surely the ultimate emblem of the age of narcissism. Like the doomed figure of ancient myth, we cannot stop gazing at our own reflection. This July, there were an estimated 90 million photos on Instagram — the go-to platform for the selfie — with the hashtag #me. And that figure will be far, far higher now.
At first glance, everything about this phenomenon reeks. It is self-centered in the most literal sense. Not for nothing is the word just a breath — a mere “sh” — away from selfish. What’s more, it’s selfishness of the most superficial kind. It’s not just about me, me, me but how I look, look, look. It invites judgment based on appearance alone. You post a picture of yourself and wait for the verdict, your self-worth boosted by a happy spate of “likes”, or destroyed by the opposite — a resounding silence. At least on Twitter, people are judgmental about each other’s wit or ideas, rather than their hair.
To understand the sheer scale — the depth, if you like — of this superficiality, look no further than the Tumblr site dedicated to selfies at funerals, including one image captioned: “Love my hair today. Hate why I’m dressed up #funeral.” What appalls us about that reaction is not just the lack of respect or solemnity. It’s the notion of someone failing to pay attention to what is going on around them, consumed instead by their own place in it. It’s become commonplace to worry that the camera-equipped smartphone puts distance between people and the events they experience: we don’t really enjoy the moment because we’re too busy recording it. Witness the crowds at concerts, watching through a thousand digital lenses held up high. The selfie can look like an extreme example of that habit. You’re not truly witnessing the event you’re at or the place you’re visiting, because the thing you’re focused on is you.
And yet condemnation cannot be the only response to a phenomenon this widespread, which delights so many tens of millions. Lots of those are young and it could be that people my age are doing what older generations have always done, lamenting a change that will one day seem harmless and completely natural. I’ve been told via Twitter that “there is a generational and social gulf between those participating in this trend and those critiquing it” — and that’s a danger worth avoiding. Besides, the informality of the word “selfie” suggests something true about these instant self-portraits: that they don’t take themselves or their subjects too seriously. To quote the artist Gillian Wearing: “The word ‘selfie’ is brilliant. It really encapsulates a time: instant, quick, funny. It sounds ironic and throwaway.”
It is also true that, while the technology may be new, the instinct it satisfies is not: since the dawn of civilization, humans have yearned to depict themselves and their faces — whether through cave paint, clay or, today, the megapixels of a smartphone. The actor and comic writer David Schneider tweeted, “Selfie is word of the year? About time! Here’s my favorite,” attaching a mocked-up portrait of Vincent van Gogh — clutching an iPhone.
Above all, and this might be the selfie’s redeeming feature, it is not designed to be looked at solely by the subject. The selfie’s usual purpose is to be transmitted by social media — with “social” being the key word. They may be focused on the self, but they also express a timeless human need to connect with others. In that respect, the selfie is like so much else in the digital world — all about “me,” but revealing a sometimes desperate urge to find an “us.”