As a freelance journalist, I spend a lot of time on Twitter promoting my work, reading other people’s, and — like most everyone else these days — waiting to see what Rob Ford’s going to do next.
Excepting the occasional photo of my animals, for the most part I keep it pretty professional. But two days ago I decided to do something I’d never done before and, as God is my witness, will never do again.
— Christopher Moraff (@cmoraff) November 19, 2013
I beg your forgiveness. It was an act of impulse, I assure you — inspired by the news that the Oxford English Dictionary had chosen the term as its Word of the Year:
But I won't lie. It felt pretty good. There's a feeling of omnipotence that comes from heaving your effigy into the cyber-consciousness of hundreds of people all at once. And with Twitter's new embedded-image feature, that power is amplified by the knowledge that your likeness will be nearly impossible to avoid, if only for a second.
Yet, like any good drug, the euphoria is fleeting and followed by a prolonged state of shame. What have I done? Did anyone see? And, before too long: Where can I get some more?
I can confidently report that as of today I'm officially on the selfie wagon; but for hundreds of millions of (mostly young) people, rock bottom is still a long, long way away. What message, if any, should we draw from their endless quest for attention?
Legend has it that the first selfie was shot by the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia with a box camera in front of a mirror in 1914 — when Mark Zuckerberg was yet a glimmer in his great granddaddy's eye — and enclosed in a letter to her father, Tsar Nicholas II. But by most accounts the first photo to be described as a “selfie” can be traced to 2002, in a posting to an Australian Internet forum on September 13th of that year. For the unnamed poster, it had apparently been a rough night:
“Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”
It took a few years, but the nomenclature eventually trickled into social media and started showing up as a term to tag self-portraits — usually bad ones — first on Flickr and later on Facebook. The oldest reference to the #selfie hashtag in its current usage that I could find on Twitter is this one, from September 2009:
— Jeff (@stormwarning) September 12, 2009
For most of its existence the selfie was a niche meme, inhabiting the dark corners of the social media universe. And there it would have likely stayed if not for two game-changing technological milestones: the 2010 release of Apple's iPhone 4 — the first model with a front-facing camera — and, almost simultaneously, the debut of the photo-sharing platform Instagram. The first selfie showed up on Instagram in January 2011, and the floodgates opened up. Barely three years later there are more than 57 million photos bearing the #selfie hashtag on Instagram. And according to the OED, the frequency of the word in the English language has increased by 17,000% over the past year alone.
For the uninitiated, it's tempting to equate the selfie with the self portrait. This is a mistake. Selfies are a diminutive version of the real thing, the self portrait's garish little cousin preening for attention until you just want to grab him by the lapels and shake him. In case you're still confused, this is a self portrait. And this is a selfie. Any questions?
Selfies run the gamut from the whimsical to the pornographic, but if they share one thing in common it's that, whether subtly or emphatically, they are a plea for attention. There is no self discovery here. Some observers take that as evidence that we are experiencing a plague of “look-at-me”-ism. I am slightly dubious of that charge. Yes, there is an undeniable element of narcissism attached to the selfie, but for centuries humans have asserted their uniqueness through various means of self expression within their social groups. The Internet, for better or worse, is simply another, much larger, forum for doing that. In and of itself, there is nothing particularly nefarious about that.
My concern, to the extent I have one, is that in their obsession to turn the camera on themselves, selfie enthusiasts are learning to unsee the rest of what's out there. By one measure nearly a third of all pictures taken by adolescents under the age of 24 are selfies. To those people I would say, the camera is a powerful tool for unlocking the world's secrets — the beautiful, the grotesque and everything in between. All you have to do is turn it around.
Follow @cmoraff on Twitter.