Welcome to the Age of the #Selfie


The advent of the 21st century has inspired a new digital age, where individuals conduct majority of their daily activities through screens. Indeed this new era has led to a shift in social behaviours and interaction, which now focus on immediacy, connectivity and the ‘self’. One activity that has evolved from this period is the practice of ‘selfie-taking’. A ‘selfie’ has its own structural autonomy and is defined as a ‘photograph one has taken of oneself, typically…taken with a smartphone…and shared via social media’. Thus it is an unmediated, authentic and causal ‘self-portrait’ taken with a smartphone, which is immediately distributed and inscribed into an online network, with the aim of visually communicating of where we are, what we are doing and who we think we are (Saltz 2014). Arguably, the #selfie is a vehicle of self-exploration and self-expression as it provides individuals with the means to mould their authentic selves. (Kwon & Kwon, 2014).

According to Jerry Saltz, this exploration of self-portraiture has existed throughout history, dating back to Roman civilisations and the 1800’s where sculptures and self-portraits were the classic means of exhibiting the ‘self’. For example, Van Eyck’s painting is considered to be the first ever self portrait that is still in existence. Similarly, Robert Cornelius is known as the man who took the world’s first photographic selfie in 1839! Thus the ‘selfie’ is not a new phenomenon. Just as the 21st century selfie trend has appeared in the wake of the social media and Smartphone revolution, the vintage version was also the result of technical innovation.

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 10.33.34 pm

Left: Van Eyck’s self portrait; Right: Robert Cornelius’s digital photograph

However, despite the historic roots attached to the #selfie, this popular 21st century activity has been criticised by many as narcissistic. However, in my opinion, selfie-taking alone has not generated a narcissistic society. A new age of narcissism has developed from the emergence of Social Networking Sites (SNSs) and their relationship with the digital practice of selfie-taking. Unlike the 1800’s where Robert Cornelius had to wait between three and 15 minutes for the selfie to be taken; in the 21st century, a mere click of the button enables you to capture a digital photo in seconds. Thus selfie-taking has become more instantaneous, immediate and accessible.

Furthermore, 21st century selfies have become more public and pervasive in the era of Web 2.0 and social media. With SNSs such as Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, selfie-taking has become inevitable. SNSs arguably groom narcissistic tendencies as they provide online users the platform to self-regulate and control self-presentation (Buffardi and Campbell, 2008). In particular, SNSs encourage online users to participate in the art of selfie-taking by providing users with the opportunity to  respond, comment and ‘like’ such photos.

Unfortunately however, such activity has resulted in individuals measuring their self-worth against the number of ‘likes’ or approving ‘comments’ they receive for their selfies. I personally know girls who have deleted photos because they have not received enough ‘likes’. Thus selfie-obsessed individuals, clearly want the digital tick of approval from their 600 or so online ‘friends’ or followers.  While humans have always strived to seek recognition, the #selfie and SNSs have transformed this behaviour through their ability to publicise, measure and compare the person’s online popularity with others. Now, our validations are public; everyone can see you have received positive recognition through the acceptance and approval of 50 ‘likes’ on your digital photo. Understandably, such activities would lead to compulsive disorders and even contribute to self-esteem issues. According to psychiatrist Dr David Veal:

“Two out of three of all the patients who come to see me with Body Dysmorphic Disorder since the rise of camera phones have a compulsion to repeatedly take and post selfies on social media sites.”

In closing, selfies are evidently eveywhere and have existed throughout history. While they enable greater self-expression, their relationship with 21st century social media can detrimentally impact the self-esteem of individuals who participate in such activities.

Reference List:

Buffardi, L, Campbell, K 2008, ‘Narcissism and Social Networking Web Sites’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol.34, No.10, pp1303-1314.

Yoo Jin, K 2014, ‘Consuming the Objectified Self: The Quest for Authentic Self’,  Asia Social Science, vol 11, No 2, pp301-312.


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