A Sociological Snapshot of Selfies
Twerking. Phablet. MOOC. Flatform. Bitcoin. Apols. Omnishambles. These are just some of the new words that were added to the Oxford Online Dictionaries in 2013. All of these words found their way into the popular vernacular of the English-speaking world during the past year and were used widely in various settings. But the unanimous choice for Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was selfie. In fact, among the staff at Oxford there was not even any debate; selfie was the hands-down, clear-cut winner.
a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website: [usage] occasional selfies are acceptable, but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary.
The word has also given birth to some offshoots such as legsies (a photo of one’s legs), drelfie (a photo of one in a drunken state), belfies (also known as butt selfies), and one of the latest trends, felfies (selfies of farmers). There is even a Selfie Olympics (#SelfieOlympic) in which individuals try to outdo each other with their daring and outlandish photos.
The selfie craze has garnered a lot of attention and after the newly-minted distinction from Oxford Dictionaries, commentaries on selfies increased. Not surprisingly, much of what is written about selfies focuses on the self. The word we hear most often from media commentators in analyzing selfies is narcissism—“an excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance.” From NPR to The Guardian to The New Yorker to the New York Times (via James Franco), selfies are interpreted and criticized as a shallow, attention-getting way to highlight and promote the individual.
When I hear these observations about selfies I can’t help but think that something is missing. There is no denying that selfies have an individual component; however, attempting to “explain social phenomena in terms of facts and theories about the make-up of individuals” is what C. Wright Mills termed a psychologism. Selfies are clearly a social phenomenon as well as a social fad. As such, if we want to understand selfies we cannot only focus on the individual. Mills suggests, and as the discipline of sociology teaches us, we must not deny the social structural reality in trying to understand social processes. Here, then, are some sociological considerations relating to selfies.
First, it is important to understand that selfies originate from the world in which we live as opposed to being products of individuals themselves. This point was made over 150 years ago by Karl Marx: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” In other words, selfies arise out of the social conditions of our lives: the technology and cheap labor that make wallet-size cameras readily available, the hi-tech innovations that allow us to upload pictures in an instant, and the increasing norm and emerging forms of social media.
In the past, people captured themselves graphically through other means—from the earliest cliff paintings to commissioned portraitures and professional photography. Today, we have the material means and the relative ease to transmit images and stories of ourselves electronically. Even if you feel strongly that selfies epitomize a narcissistic personality type, it’s hard to deny that such a form can only exist if the external factors (technology and cultural norms) are present.
Second, I would argue that selfies are just as much, if not more, about the other as they are about the self. This point may be hard to fathom, especially for those who fail to see the value of social explanations, but I would think that most sociologists understand selfies as forms of impression management. Erving Goffman coined this phrase to convey the extent to which we act in certain ways so that other people respond to us the way we want them to respond. Goffman talked about “face work” as the mechanism through we present ourselves to others in an effort to win their approval.
The whole purpose of taking a selfie is to share it with others. And the reason why we share it with others is to influence how those people observe us. Selfies are meant to be disseminated to a larger audience; they are not solely intended for private viewing. If selfies were only being used by the individual to excessively admire oneself (as the definition of narcissism suggests), then they would not be a social phenomenon. In this sense, I would even go as far to say that everything about a selfie—from the staging of the photo to the posting of the photo—is a social act intended to garner a social reaction (obviously, all reactions are social but this fact seems to be lost in the analysis of selfies).
Combining these two sociological points we might argue, thirdly, that selfies are a new form of identity work. Identity work is a concept used by David Snow and Leon Anderson to explain the strategies individuals use to transform personal identity avowals into social identity imputations. In other words, we each have a sense of who we are and who we want to be (personal identity) and through our actions we hope to have this particular self-conception reflected back to us by others (social identity). (Interesting side note that is not etymologically based: the sound “sell” is in the world selfie and that’s really what selfies are—an attempt to sell an identity of ourselves to others.)
The proliferation of selfies signals a new, technologically-driven form of identity work. Selfies allow individuals an innovative mechanism through which they can signify to others how they want to be acknowledged and perceived. In all identity work there is no guarantee that the audience will certify your desired personal identity. For example, you may identify yourself as a happy person but if others identify you as a grouch don’t be surprised when they start calling you Oscar (which probably will make you grouchy). However, this fact may shed light on why selfies have flourished. It’s possible that the more pictures you post of yourself promoting a certain identity—buff, sexy, adventurous, studious, funny, daring, etc.—the more likely it is that others will endorse this identity of you.
Selfies, then, could be understood as examples of the looking-glass self writ large. Charles Horton Cooley used this metaphor in 1902 to explain the development of our self conceptions. The looking-glass self has three components: (1) we imagine how other perceive us; (2) we imagine their judgment of us; and (3) we feel something from this imagined judgment such as pride, joy, or embarrassment.
Selfies allow us to use our own staged photos so that we can try to dictate how others perceive us. Because we are producing the photo and then voluntarily sharing it with others in a specific context or site that we choose, we hope to control the judgment that others have of us. Most, if not all, selfies are intended to elicit a positive feeling from the presumed judgment of others. As an example, consider the selfies in this post. I solicited them mostly from students, and not surprisingly, they are pretty mild as far as selfies go. Just as students talk differently with their professors than with their friends, so too did they presumably send me different selfies than the ones they may circulate among their peers. In each instance, speech and image, students are working to ensure a desired judgment of them by the professor.
The themes I raise are certainly not the only sociological interpretations of selfies. For example, in the context of gender there is an interesting debate as to whether selfies are empowering or degrading for girls. Other discussions have considered selfies from a social constructivist perspective with some arguing that selfies are a form of art while others suggest that “selfies are no more art than a can of paint falling on a blank piece of paper is a Jackson Pollock.” The take away point from all of these considerations is that selfies should be understood as more than just exercises in one dimensional narcissism. So the next time you take one, post one, or view one, try to analyze that selfie in a social context.