What the Popularity of Selfies Says About Our Visual Culture

Love them or hate them, selfies have become something of an icon of the 21st century. Considered the ultimate expression of narcissism and irreverence — especially among the already much-criticized Millennial generation most likely to take them — selfies instead reflect something much deeper and more fascinating about the state of humanity.

I know, it might be hard to believe given how vacuous selfiest seem, but Nicholas Mirzoeff of The Guardian makes a pretty compelling case about the sociological and cultural impact of selfiest and digital media in general.

The selfie is the culmination of a long democratisation of the self-portrait. Once, portraits and self-portraits were the preserve of artists and their wealthy patrons. Photography expanded that field almost as soon as it was invented: French photographer Hippolyte Bayard made Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man in 1840, the first true selfie because it could be copied. The combination of smartphones with front-facing cameras and social media has meant that selfies have been ubiquitous since 2010. “Selfie” was the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2013, used 17,000% more often than the year before. Google estimated that 30bn selfies were taken in 2014.

Media commentary has mostly castigated the selfie as narcissistic. But Narcissus, whatever you think of him, spent all his time looking at himself; he did not make copies of his image to share with all his friends. And the gender is wrong. The website SelfieCity has shown that most selfies are taken by women – as many as 82% in Moscow. Already a cliche, the selfie is not important in itself, but it shows us that the new majority is inventing ways to see itself. These work best when there is a formal limit. Like the 140-character limit on Twitter, Vines have exploded because the six-second limit of the video posts tests the imagination. First used for silly stunts, Vines have become a form of film-making and are now used to document protests and as a form of micro-reporting.

With an estimated 5 billion people likely to have Internet access just three years from now, one can expect to see a lot more self expression and visual learning on the horizon. In 2014 alone, over 1 trillion photos were taken and posted all over the world, many of them selfies. People are increasingly engaging with each other and the world at large through visual mediums that were once nonexistent or out of reach of the masses. And while they might seem self indulgent or irrelevant, this growing engagement with the web can have significant consequences in the real world.

All these new visual media are helping to create social change. Beginning with the Arab spring, social media have changed the shape of politics. According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of African Americans aged 18-29 own a smartphone, several points higher than their white counterparts. In Ferguson, Baltimore and Texas, phones have been used to document police violence. These assaults, which have long persisted out of sight of the mainstream media, are now widely discussed and, finally, officers are being indicted. In the Irish referendum campaign on same-sex marriage, viral online videos combined with old-fashioned canvassing to create a surprising cross-generational majority.

To borrow the term coined by South African photographer Zanele Muholi, we are seeing the rise of a new “visual activism”. Muholi uses her work to claim the right to call herself a “black lesbian”. She is caught between the constitution of her country that formally guarantees rights to LGBT people and the daily reality of violence and sexual assault against them in the townships. Her work has come to global prominence, with a current exhibition entitled Isibonelo/Evidence at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Using such evidence, visual activism is set to shape how the new majority wish to be seen by themselves and by others, when the state will not, or cannot, represent them.

Granted, most people aren’t using visual media, let alone selfies, for political activism or some other high minded aim. But every technology and innovation in media has eventually had a major impact on society in previously unforeseeable ways; the advent of print media precipitated what anthropologist Benedict Anderson termed “imagined communities“, wherein readers of a publication, usually written in an accessible vernacular language, felt common cause with both the subject matter as well as fellow readers. The more people read about their mutual causes and events, the more they engaged with one another and laid the groundwork for a shared society.

Thus, the advent of selfies and others form of expression and communication might contribute to a growing sense of community across the world. As we interact with and see see people across different cultures and societies, through their photos and videos and selfies, we begin to see their shared humanity. This might seem like an overly idealistic and meaningful take away from something as superficial as a selfie, but media has always been a mix bagged; taken as a whole, how we communicate with others and express ourselves matters in the aggregate. As a social species, we care about what others think and we want to be noticed, if even just passively. Increasingly, those others are an ever-wider circle of strangers that transcend distances and borders and with whom we share nothing more than a platform and mutual desire to engage with the world. That is more than enough to lead to some big shifts in social consciousness.

What are your thoughts?

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