How The Selfie Set Us Free
Ten years after its inception, it's clear that the selfie has changed the way we see and present ourselves. Is it for the best?
User Feedback is a monthly column that examines how technology is shaping our lives and our world.
10 years ago, in the summer of 2013, Oxford Dictionary named "selfie" the word of the year. The word's crowning was the culmination of a year of viral selfie photos and heated internet discourse. That year alone, use of the word "selfie" increased by 17,000%.
The selfie's ascendance into mainstream culture exactly one decade ago represents a pivotal shift in how we use technology. It marked the beginning of a new era, when we began to see our lives and our identities through the lens of a smartphone. It was the moment that nascent influencer culture broke into the mainstream.
Prior to the selfie's rise, phones were about capturing the world around us. We were anonymous and passive viewers. The selfie gave us permission to put ourselves online through the photos we captured.
It's easy to forget how radical this was and how angry people were about it.
In 2010, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone 4, which, for the first time ever, featured a front-facing camera. And immediately, people began using it to snap photos of themselves. This behavior was especially popular among teenage girls. Young women were used to taking photos of themselves for the internet. Many had used digital cameras to take blurry, high angle selfie pictures for MySpace profile photos. Young women were also the heaviest users of Snapchat, which was just beginning to take off. Snapchat defaulted to selfie mode the moment a user opened the app.
Selfies were not just about capturing a moment or documenting a user's appearance. They were about asserting one's identity and expressing individuality. They allowed users to experiment with different poses, facial expressions, and filters and to perform for the camera in order to create the perfect representation of themselves. Selfies were a new form of self-expression and led to a myriad of sub genres: the mirror selfie, the group selfie, the gym selfie, the "belfie" (butt selfie).
The selfie's rise is inextricably tied to the growth of social media. "A well-stocked collection of selfies seems to get attention," the actor James Francowrote in _The New York Times in 2013. "… Attention is power. If you are someone people are interested in, then the selfie provides something very powerful."
Throughout the early 2010s, that power was shifting. As social platforms proliferated, disrupting the traditional media, online attention emerged as the most powerful form of modern currency. Suddenly, women, especially young women, were able to wield that power and assert control of their own image online. They commodified themselves, monetized their images, and pioneered modern day influencer culture. Gatekeepers began to crumble and people online fumed.
Legacy media was particularly vicious. Young female reporters were told that posting selfies online was "unprofessional". Selfies were blamed for destroying the environment, ruining relationships, and the downfall of society. Psychology Today and several other outlets ran stories calling people who took selfies narcissists and psychopaths.
Selfies, because of their association with young women, were seen as vapid and unserious. An Alabama teen was brutally attacked online after taking a selfie in front of the Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp. A group of sorority girls who deigned to take selfies at a baseball game were met with thousands of comments calling them "narcissists" and "zombies". One user commented below a photo of the girls, "kill it with fire."
The vitriol toward selfies continued even as notable figures began to embrace them. Barack Obama faced scrutiny after taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela's memorial service. "What do President Obama and a bunch of teenagers have in common? It turns out they like to appear in selfies," ABC News snidely declared.
But soon, the format trickled out of teenage girls' bedrooms and into pop culture. Media organizations published lists and round ups of celebrities who dared to share selfies. Kim Kardashisn posted her first post-baby selfie, leading Kanye West to declare that he was "HEADING HOME NOW." Geraldo Rivera tweeted a now infamous semi nude selfie asserting "70 is the new 50." Ellen DeGeneres' Oscars selfie became the most-liked photo ever posted to Twitter and a recreation of the image was installed on the walls of Twitter's San Francisco headquarters. The Pope began taking so many selfies with fans that The Washington Post ranked them.
Photo courtesy of Ellen DeGeneres.
It didn’t stop there. Astronaut Aki Hoshide took the first-ever selfie in space and NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover snapped the first selfie on a foreign planet. A rare crested macaque monkey living on an Indonesian island grabbed a wildlife photographer's camera and took a selfie in a now famous photo that set off a global copyright dispute. In 2015, Kim Kardashian, who had become synonymous with the format, published Selfish, a coffee table book of selfies. All of these iconic images normalized selfies in everyday life.
Before long, selfies became commonplace. These days, posting selfies is standard behavior among boomers and zoomers alike. Selfie sticks have evolved into to tripods and ring lights. Things like TikTok "day in the life" videos, live streamed confessionals, and vlogs would never have become commonplace without the sea change that selfies wrought.
Photography courtesy of Nasa. International Space Station astronaut Aki Hoshide captured Earth in his visor.
Selfie culture is not without its drawbacks. We all increasingly morph our lives and our appearances for public consumption. On a technical level, the front facing lens distorts our image, makes our noses look larger and magnifies flaws. This so-called "selfie dysmorphia" has led to an uptick in facial plastic surgery, fillers, and veneers. A.I. generated selfies, such as those from the Lensa app that went viral several months ago, set new and unattainable standards for beauty.
But still, it's hard not to see selfies as liberatory. Selfies gave users control over their own image online. They have been a tool of self expression and empowerment, allowing us to assert our own narratives about ourselves on the internet. Selfies allow us to tell our own visual stories, to break free from the constraints of traditional forms of media and provide a platform for us to assert our existence, our worth, and our right to be seen.