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Note to selfie: you’re more than just a narcissist’s plaything

We truly live in a digital age. The “selfie”, has been announced by the Oxford English Dictionary as this year’s most popular word and, by me, as this year’s most unremarkable word. This new-found trend…

Double-duckface-synchronised-selfie. Very fresh, very now. Chris Gansen

We truly live in a digital age. The “selfie”, has been announced by the Oxford English Dictionary as this year’s most popular word and, by me, as this year’s most unremarkable word.

This new-found trend for digital self-portraiture encourages individuals to pose, pout and promote themselves to others. The selfie is seen as the ultimate call to narcissism, particularly since such noteworthy celebrities as Kim Kardashian have become primary endorsers and creators of the format. But this is too simplistic an articulation of what the moment of image taking and publication holds. The selfie is not just a narcissistic exercise, it has become part of our social interactions and a way to place ourselves in our surroundings.

Yours, but not yours

Research at the University of Durham into the autobiographic nature of the self as it is transposed into digital snapshots has revealed that these images are used to articulate life experiences. The selfie repeatedly casts the protagonist in different roles and modes of expression. As we interact with others in their social networks, we lose control of how we are portrayed. We are tagged in other people’s Facebook albums or geotagged online by our companions without being asked. Turning the camera on ourselves allows us to wilfully recreate the self in absentia.

A selfie must be taken by the individual, with a smartphone for the sole purpose of photo-tagging and sharing with friends over a digital social network. The maker takes the image, publishes the image and views it. It is not enough that the individual takes the original image. It becomes a selfie when it is shared.

The selfie has, as such, become part of social regulation because it is perceived by others. The selfie’d is seduced by the gaze of their friends when they take the image and post it online. The decisions we make about when and where to take a selfie are usually not simply based on our own feelings but the response we are trying to provoke in others.

Playing to the crowd

There are elements of experiment and theatrics in the taking of a selfie, since the creator depends on their links to others to situate themselves in a world in the act of recreating their moment. A picture of yourself can relay shared experiences and references with friends, like a memory of a place once visited together.

The common denominator in all moments of creation is the performance of intrigue and vanity. Tears, blushes, mirth, sighs, smiles – the full range of postures and gestures – exhibit the peculiarly public portrayal of the selfie.

Is the selfie a force for good or a mediocre celebrity commotion? The reality is that these images tend to serve for entertainment because they are constructed almost entirely to fit the circumstances of the ideal texture of life. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the body was used to act out sentiment. Today, in the 21st century, it is the selfie, which acts out these powers, for this representation at times appears to acquire more meaning and certainly more longevity than real, face-to-face moments.

The selfie sits at the excess of the ultimate theatricalising of the self – the indulgence of individual moment and sentiment. It should, whenever associated with a celebrity, come with a warning about the deceptive conveyance of anything real. These images are a carefully constructed representation of the selfie’d.

Whatever your personal perspective, the selfie has entered our lexicon and become part of the spectacle of everyday life. You may as well put on your best duck face, select the most flattering Instagram filter and get snapping.

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  1. Khalil A. Cassimally

    Community Coordinator at The Conversation

    Fundamentally, perhaps the question should be: is what is typically considered an act of narcissism necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps the perceived narcissistic act of taking a selfie is a rational act today, not attached to any "bad" notion.

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