A few days ago I came across a selfie of US Vice President Joe Biden on one of my news feeds. He was posing with President Obama, marking the occasion of his first ever selfie to be posted on Instagram. I study self expression and politics online, so this was one instance when these two, frequently divergent interests of mine, truly converged. My first thought was, well, here’s another vehicle for self expression for young people that has now completed its lifecycle and is headed straight to the trashbin. Selfies have gone from being odd and awkward, to narcissistic, to disrespectful in funerals, commercialized at the Oscars, and now to being fully incorporated in political campaigning = they’re over. On to the next thing.
I tweeted the link to the picture with something about selfies being officially uncool from now on, and lamented the networked selfie short essay on Medium that I had wanted to write in honor of selfies but had not yet gotten around to.
Then I changed my mind. About writing this piece, not selfies. My feelings about selfies have always been quite positive, for a number of reasons. First, I have always found that a healthy measure of narcissism can be a great aid toward introspection and meaningful self-examination leading to greater well-being. Operative word here: healthy. Second, I think the whole categorization of selfies as disrespectful in certain settings, like funerals, odd. Funerals have always perplexed me as ways of celebrating the joy someone’s life has bestowed upon ours. They are in need of a major redesign, so as to help folks honor both those who have passed and the meaning of life in general. Finally, I like taking selfies. As a kid I wanted to be a fashion designer or a diplomat (the latter explains my path in academic administration, I think). I have a very particular point of view about how things should be put together to convey a certain type of mood. I tend to not like pictures others take of me too much. They frequently fail to capture the essence of who I am at that point in time – that feeling. They are about how others see you at that point in time – not how you see yourself. Selfies, by contrast, are about your point of view. Only the person, at the center of the awkwardly centered selfie can fully understand and express that feeling. And so the selfie is a better vehicle for preserving that memory.
We came across similar insights when we first examined selfies young adults take in a formative stage of adulthood, college life, with Andy Mendelson. Back in 2006, we had surveyed hundreds of college students on why they use what was then a fairly new medium for self expression and connection: Facebook – before it had become the online equivalent of watercooler talk. Our study respondents had given us permission to analyze photographs they had shared with others. As we finalized our findings and prepped to share them with our study participants, here is what we encountered time and time again: Shots of the self, taken centered and with the focus directly on the individual, from medium to close distance and with little emphasis on the background, and with no interest in the general composition of the photograph. Guess what. The term selfie did not exist back then, so we did not use it. But we noticed that all photographs, including selfies taken with many people depicting nothing more than mundane rituals of everyday life, were filled with gestures of play and affection, some exhibitionism, and a healthy measure of narcissism. We interpreted these tendencies within the greater context of identity experimentation and distancing from the family that takes place at that stage in life. Because, here is what we did not find in the pictures we looked at: parents, small children, landscapes, animals, older people. But we did find lots of comments that reinforced closeness and a sense of belonging. We concluded that these self-portraits, as we called them then, supported a very visual form of self presentation, integral to identity formation. The young adults we looked at used selfies to demonstrate group cohesiveness and independence from the family. The selfies, of groups of friends or taken solo, were intended as conversation pieces.
This group of studies and a book I was editing at the time got me thinking about the term networked self. In a number of articles, talks, and posts I developed the term to summarize tendencies for self presentation evolving out of what Barry Wellman has described as networked individualism. So I explained then that forms of self presentation or representation online, no matter how seemingly narcissistic, are attempts to express the self and connect with others. I argued that they are to be interpreted as exercises in sociability, performed to networks via networks, in ways that reward us but also expose us. I also talked about the chores of the networked self, and the reflexivity and constant redacting of behavior that occurs as these online platforms collapse our circles of friends, co-workers, family, and general acquaintances, thus getting in the way of us telling the story of who we are in a way that lets us connect with others without compromising our sense of who we truly are.
I won’t bore you with the usual text in defense of selfies. Yes, they have been around longer than we imagined. You might even locate them in the first traces of cave paintings. Artists have always painted self portraits and cameras, polaroids, and related technologies made that practice more accessible to broader audiences. Yes the front face camera on mobile phones was revolutionary in that respect. And yes, like with many mediated platforms before it, it is always only a matter of time before vehicles for socio-cultural expression are hijacked by commercial interests and re-purposed for political gain. I don’t have a problem with that. People have an inherent inventiveness and will find a way to tell their stories, in ways that feel authentic and meaningful, in ways that convey that feeling, the aura of the moment. And they can also see through stories that are constructed and engineered.
But I want to place the emphasis on this: Selfies tell a story. They reveal and they conceal, because that is what a story does. It makes some aspects of an event, a memory, a feeling more visible, and in so doing, it directs attention to certain things and inadvertently away from others. But it is a story. It affirms who we are. We tell stories to make sense of things, our lives, our selves. To make meaning and in so doing, connect with others.
I stumbled upon the image I used for this essay in a semi-abandoned building in the Franco-Jewish quarter of my hometown Thessaloniki, in Greece. It is rendered out of tiny pieces of newspapers, magazines, and flyers, arranged on shattered glass somehow still holding onto the frame of a window. These pieces of paper – a storytelling device – are cut and rearranged to form a story: this deconstructed and reconstructed portrait of modern day Mona Lisa. That is one way to see it, or perhaps, one story to project on that image.
Stories connect our experiences but they also connect ourselves to others. The networked selfie is a story in progress, performed in search of expression and connection, to audiences actual and imagined. It is pieced together, deconstructed, rearranged and reconstructed as we create, perform, and deposit digital renderings of ourselves. We project an image that we want others to reference, to use as a guide as they understand the many facets of who we are. We also project what we want to be and then perhaps we become that. Then we outgrow it and become something else, always evolving out of our own stories of who we are and who we want to be. So, here’s to the networked selfies, and to the storytellers of everyday life.
This essay is cross-posted from Medium.