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Selfies - A digital disease?

Monika GriebelerOctober 21, 2014

Astronauts, pop stars, Ellen at the Oscars, even you and me; we’re all taking part in the #selfie craze. But some are annoyed, say selfies are narcissistic and unhealthy, turning us into duck-faced robots. Really?

Actors from the horror stunt show "Horror Nights" take a selfie (Photo: REUTERS/Hannibal)
Image: Reuters/Hannibal

“You’re soooo hot, babe!” No one would have posted that under Andy Warhol’s first selfie. Ever. It’s just too ugly. Warhol painted himself picking his nose.

Thank goodness the American artist quickly moved away from that - the self-portraits he published later in his career depict him as the star that he was; an icon, hunted by the paparazzi. His pictures were replicated by the thousand. Although Warhol died before social media even came into existence, he was the first excessive selfie King.

21st century technology has made doing an Andy Warhol easier than ever. More than a million selfies are taken every day. Selfies account for 30 percent of all the photos 18-24 year-olds take, a poll commissioned by Samsung showed.

Psychologist Jim Taylor says the constant selfie-taking is a huge problem. “One of the most powerful ways in which technology is altering self-identity is through the shift from being internally to externally driven,” he says. “We come to see our identities as those we would like to have or that we want people to see rather than who we really are. We then feel compelled to promote and market these identities through social media.”

Pictures posted online are supposed to sell the coolest, funniest, happiest, sexiest version of #me - and rack up ‘likes’ in exchange. They are to show how exciting ones life is, even if it really isn’t.

Three brothers - Shaun, Andrew und Steven Higton - made a video criticising exactly that. It shows a man succumbing to the allure of the digital universe, finding his self-worth in the reactions he receives to his status updates and losing his real-life relationships along the way.

Or as author Christine Rosen once put it: “The Delphic oracle's guidance was ‘know thyself’. Today, in the world of online social networks, the oracle's advice might be ‘show thyself’.”

#hajjselfie, #yolocaust: Is nothing sacred anymore?

But selfies are really nothing new. Even before Warhol, other great artists like da Vinci, Rembrandt or Caspar David Friedrich were crafting their very own selfies, although the typical pursed lips of today’s versions tended to be absent:

As they were back then, selfies today are a reflection of the times we live in. It’s just that now they are in digital form. “Selfies have become a natural way of documenting what we experience,” cultural scientist Philippe Wampfler explains. “In a way, they are a digital diary for a broader audience.”

The ease of snapping a selfie is getting some into hot water. Take #hajjselfies - pilgrims at the Kaaba, the cube-shaped black stone building in Mecca that is the holiest place in the Muslim faith, capturing pictures of themselves praying and queueing. Or even more irreverent: #yolocaust - selfies taken at the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, tagged with the acronym for “you only live once”. Or the woman who snapped herself in front of a suicidal man on Brooklyn Bridge, New York.

A lack of decency and respect, definitely. But, Wampfler says, most of these selfies are taken because we haven’t yet established norms in our new digital world. “It will still take a while until we’ve gotten used to how this self-staging works. Again and again, people will consider it a bad habit since we’re not used to this kind of cultural technique yet,” he told Life Links.

More smiles in Bangkok than in Moscow

Warhol loved to be loved. And what’s going on today is not fundamentally different, says Wampfler. “Some people like to present themselves and do exhibit certain narcissistic tendencies,” he says. “But if you take a selfie to document your new hairstyle, a holiday or how you met a popular football player, it will change who you are just as little as modest TV consumption will.”

Instead, those selfies enable us to be part of something and identify with others like us. The online project “Selfiecity” says each city has it’s own style. Selfie-takers in Bangkok smile more often in their pictures than those in Moscow, for instance. And women in Sao Paulo strike more extreme poses - they tilt their heads 16.9° on average, compared to only 7.6° in New York.

“The individual and unique #me becomes part of #us, a virtual community via means of a common platform for image sharing,” graduate student Alise Tifentale writes in an essay posted on the Selfiecity site. Thus selfies don’t limit our ‘selves’; rather they express our souls, our self-identity.

Finding ourselves

Selfies are beloved by young people in particular: the average age of people posting selfies on Instagram is 23.7, Selfiecity found out. Once they hit 30, most people tend to post less and less, especially women.

That’s because growing up, young people have to tackle a number of issues, Wampfler, who also works as a teacher, says. “Building their own, independent social network away from their parents is one thing, the other is finding their identity and their grown-up body.” Selfies are helpful for both of these, he says.

Instead of looking at themselves in the mirror for hours on end, observing others across the schoolyard, selfie-takers are capturing a version of themselves on tiny screens and offering it up for feedback.

It seems that is helping them find who they are. Like Andy Warhol - who stopped depicting himself picking his nose after turning 21.