I DISTINCTLY REMEMBER the last selfie I took. I had taken my dog for an evening walk along a familiar route, when I came across the corpse of a cat laid beside some trash cans. The sight horrified me not only because of the novelty of a dead domestic animal but because of the callousness with which it was discarded. Immediately after seeing it, I rushed home, and, once safely inside, I sat on the floor and cried. As the tears streamed down my face, I realized I was holding my phone; almost reflexively, I opened my font camera and snapped a picture of my mascara smeared eyes.
With the picture saved on my SIM card, I noticed my boyfriend shaking his head in my direction. He clearly disapproved of my decision to take a selfie in that moment. I initially defended myself with the claim that I did not intend on posting the selfie, but this defense did not persuade him so much as raise a prying question in my mind. If I did not take the selfie with the intention of positing it, then why did I take it?
It was a weird moment to take a selfie, but I am sure a lot of people can relate to it. People take selfies when they experience powerful emotions. Photographer Emily Knecht even went so far as to take a selfie every time she cried for three years.1 2
Unless you have a well-defined philosophical opposition to selfies or cannot afford a proper camera phone, you probably have a few dozen selfies saved on your camera roll. Selfies have become ubiquitous; taking them has become a habitual part of modern life, and selfies on social media warrant an almost compulsory reaction from close friends and voyeuristic creeps. It is safe to say that selfies can be qualified as a phenomenon of modern life.
To understand this phenomenon, I think we need to establish a shared understanding of the camera phone, the instrument with which selfies are created. Cell phones with high-quality cameras have only been around for the last half a decade. Their relative novelty is significant because technological advancements are often accompanied by an interesting shift in human behavior. As we become accustomed to the new technology, we outsource a corresponding aspect of human existence into it. Consider the invention of the car, before which it was commonplace for people to walk what many people today would consider obscene distances. Walking was thought of as not just a pastime but a mode of transportation, and people would regularly walk miles in one day. Now that we have cars, we rarely consider walking to nearby locations. We are still perfectly capable of making the trip on foot, but we have psychologically outsourced this ability to cars. In this sense, the capacities of our cars have been integrated into our human capacity, and our abilities have been correspondingly expanded. In other words, we are able to do more because we have outsourced an aspect of our existence into a more capable vehicle.
With camera phones, we have an amazing ability. We can chronicle our everyday lives in minute detail, and we can capture ourselves in almost every moment. We can save our memories on our SIM cards. As we did with our capacity to walk long distances when we adapted to cars, we have outsourced our memories into our phones; however, unlike our relationship with cars, our growing relationship with camera phones bears greatly on our sense of identity.
An understanding of our past comprises, in part, our sense of self, and, in the 21st century, this understanding is inextricably linked to our ability to use our phones to log not only moments and places from our past but our faces in past moments as well. The effect of past events wears on our faces, and we turn to selfies to visualize those effects. As inherently visual and social beings, this self-visualization becomes vital to our sense of identity. Michel Serres notes the importance of self-visualization in his philosophic text, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, writing, “Historiated skin carries and displays a particular history…Memory is inscribed there, why look elsewhere for it?” We want to know how we looked during noteworthy moments, and, in discerning this, we chronicle the body part we are biologically programmed to note, our faces. 3
Central to our inquiry into our appearance is a curiosity towards and desire to control the way we are perceived by others. We want to understand the vehicle with which we relate to others, and, in the quest for this understanding, we must look at ourselves. Selfies provide us with a readymade window into our relationship with the societies that surround us, and, in the end, say more about our social nature than our individual egos.
Also notable is our tendency to post selected selfies on social media. Whereas past generations tailored their life stories to appear successful or happy to others, we now choose our most flattering selfies from noteworthy or lonely moments to share online. While people have always tried to represent their lives in the best possible light, selfies allow for a new kind of social interaction. As a representation of our faces, selfies act as invitations for conversation more so than photos of other subjects. Consider how a photo of a vista will not garner nearly as many comments on social media as a selfie taken against the backdrop of a vista. Selfies that we post online then share a dual purpose of projecting a message of success to others and inviting social interaction, and, in this way, they have replaced the once more commonplace practice of dropping by someone’s house to talk. However, selfies also allow us to involve ourselves more deeply in the social interaction allowed by social media. They humanize online social interaction and bring a personified element to an online presence.
Selfies are a human adaptation to an increasingly technological world. They reflect our desire to find and construct a connection both with our own identities and with others. Rather than indicating that our culture has become more egotistical, selfies evince a culture that, as social interaction becomes increasingly digitized, is more desperate than ever to understand itself.
Featured design by Alyssa Monet
Alyssa Monet is a graphic artist based in Los Angeles.