Taking a photo of yourself – a notion almost unheard of a decade ago – is now so commonplace that even the Pope is a fan. But are selfies really as unholy as their critics make out?

The word ‘selfie’ was actually invented by Aussies (you’re welcome, world), and has taken no time at all to score a place in our everyday lexicon. Enter the hashtag #selfie into Instagram and you’ll link to 263,899,700 pictures and rising. Type it into Google and you’ll yield 182 million hits. There’s even a swathe of inventions spawned by selfies, from selfie sticks and selfie arms, to selfie songs and even selfie movies (don’t ask…).

But for all their perceived popularity, selfies have a less-than-shiny reputation. Celebrities, for instance, have done a sterling job of giving selfies a bad name. Containing 445 pages of pictures of herself, famous-for-being-famous celeb Kim Kardashian’s latest book, Selfish, is
a document of pure vanity. UK model and actress Kelly Brook found she was taking so many selfies, she tried to ban herself from doing it (much to the dismay of her 477,000 Instagram followers). She lasted two hours.

The backlash against selfies and their paraphernalia has been widespread, even creeping into art galleries and music festivals. The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra has banned the use of the selfie stick, while – along with fireworks, weapons and illegal drugs – selfie sticks have also been banned from this year’s Splendour in the Grass. That makes sense, right? The boutique festival’s uber-cool vibe can’t be tainted by this most-mocked of inventions. After all, “Splendour says no to narcissism”.

The ‘N’ Word gets used a lot in conjunction with selfies, with fearmongering about a burgeoning society of narcissistic suckers seemingly pervasive. “The central feature of narcissism is a very positive and inflated view of the self,” say Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell, who explore the rise of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) in The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. “People with high levels think they are better than others in social status, good looks, intelligence, and creativity.”

Twenge and Campbell conclude that humanity is more narcissistic than ever before, and state people with NPD routinely indulge in a “grandiose fantasy”, setting unrealistic and unattainable goals while also thriving on social networking sites. “The structure of the sites rewards the skills of the narcissist, such as self-promotion, selecting flattering photographs of oneself, and having the most friends.” It’s easy to see where selfies fit into the picture.

Psychology boffin Kate Derry agrees. “Our culture at this stage is very self-focused – individualistic,” she says. “As a Western culture, we are more narcissistic than most Eastern – collectivist – cultures. It’s the norm.”

Kate’s PhD at the University of WA focuses on trait narcissism, an element of personality that can manifest as manipulative and aggressive in the face of negative feedback. “Social media is the perfect forum because it’s not really about developing close relationships, but creating an image of yourself,” she says. “You can image-craft all your pictures so they are the best ones. You can selectively remove any negative feedback. If someone disagrees with you then you can delete their comments or delete them off your profile.”

Photographer Juha Tolonen, of Edith Cowan University’s School of Communications and Arts, shares this view. He says while it’s possible for selfies to be a creative venture, they’re more commonly used to help people create and manage their social networking identities. With the ability to tag, un-tag, check in, upload, filter, delete and report unwanted content on our social media profiles, he says, we have more ownership of our identities than ever before.
Juha’s lecture Selfie Hate at the Perth Centre for Photography explores public antagonism towards the selfie phenomenon, and it’s his opinion that selfies are the biggest thing to happen to photography since the early 1990s.“Digital technologies have had a big impact on photography,” he says. “And this has facilitated the rise of the selfie. It’s interesting to watch people’s reactions to changes to the medium in the 21st century. We haven’t seen a shift like this since the arrival of film technology and lightweight cameras, which facilitated the birth of the snapshot.

“Perhaps we should not be so quick to react and dismiss the selfie as the shallow cultural output of a generation of narcissists, but instead view it as a new legitimate language of photography,” says Juha.

The generation gap seems to be the divide across which most disdain for the selfie is cast: when it comes to narcissism, there’s a tendency to see Gen Y as the main offenders. Statistics suggest, however, that we shouldn’t limit our attention to the usual suspects.

A Boston study into selfie use found that, of the 778 respondents, as many as 85 per cent posted a selfie at least once a week. That makes for a whole lot of narcissists out there… An alternative American study, however, found that only one in 16 of us are actually narcissistic: just 6.25 per cent of the human population. Clearly, those numbers don’t compute. With so many more people who love selfies than can be catergorised as narcissistic, how can it be that selfies are the exclusive domain of people who love themselves?

Nor can the explosion in selfies be laid at the door of the ladies: it appears gender doesn’t presuppose narcissism. “Research has found gender differences in the way narcissism is expressed,” says Kate Derry. “Girls may take more selfies than guys, but guys are more often found to have higher rates of narcissism.” Ahem, say what? “This is mainly led by two elements: leadership and authority, and exploitativeness and entitlement.” So all you macho-superior-men out there making fun of our good-hair-day-and-duck-pout, you’re just as bad.

So if a selfie is no definite marker of narcissism, what’s with all the hate for them? Why does even our beloved Prince Harry think they are a royal pain (“Just take a normal photo,” was his reaction to a fan’s request for a selfie)? British art critic Jonathan Jones has been particularly scathing, dubbing selfies the “silliness of our time.” “Take them if you dare,” he warns. “The world is laughing at you.”

But not everyone shares his point of view. “Selfies can 100 per cent be seen as empowering, and that’s the whole point of them,” says Sophie Liley, the editor in chief of not-for-profit mag The Bare Truth. She says that while selfies are a very narrow and constructed view of people’s identities, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “If you put a selfie up, you’re saying to the world, ‘I like how I look today and I want to show
it off to everyone’,” she says. If this leads to a culture of cyber-crime and cyber-bulling, she says, that’s more a reflection of those who have a problem and not those who put up their photos.

According to professor of sociology Peter Kaufman from the State University of New York at New Paltz, the relationship between society and technology isn’t inherently good or bad. How that relationship is used and consumed depends on the social outcome.

“From a sociological perspective, selfies are neither positive or negative,” he says. “They just are!” He believes selfies are only considered ‘bad’ because of the societal reaction towards them. “Selfies do not necessarily create a sense of identity unless the social group or audience responds to and confirms that identity.

“Whether we degrade someone or empower them is an outgrowth of our cultural values and patterns of socialisation,” says Peter. “Selfies, or social media, become the medium through which such degradation or empowerment take place; they are not themselves the cause of these actions.”

Maybe, then, rather than judging people for taking pictures of themselves, we should instead turn a different kind of lens on ourselves.  

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