19% of us are uploading selfies regularly to our social media accounts, by all different kinds of people and in all kinds of situations – and what for? We all know they provide a visual representation of your identity, who you are, what you do, how you feel, but they can mean and function more than that.
Visual artists such as Cindy Sherman and Vincent Van Gogh have produced popular examples of “self-portraits” that have been exhibited to an art audience in galleries rather than to those who may like or dislike you on your computer screen. While structurally selfies are the same, the nature and message is very different.
It is obvious to me that social media evolution causes the evolution of the language of a selfie. While Cindy Sherman parodies the stereotypical female roles in 60’s and 70’s Hollywood films as a language, those selfies found today reflect a wider variety of power, ranging from some nobody’s drunk selfie to something as recognisable and controversial as Kim Kardashian’s infamous nude selfie.
Because selfies are taken by “amateur photographers” (i.e everyone), they have become hugely popular. However, they aren’t photos displayed in a gallery, they are displayed to everybody on their computer – and that comment box? Virtually anyone can say whatever they want straight to your face instantly, which has never been possible before. I think this is significant because it can only make things like body image more competitive as they are pretty touchy subjects for a lot of people – selfie takers and viewers alike.
But from what I see, it is obvious that increased access has changed our social media platforms forever – But why exactly do people feel the need to continuously upload selfies? To impress people they don’t like with stuff they can’t afford. Duh. Oh but I wish it was that simple.
“Obviously what matters most is how you see yourself!” – a popular motif for selfie takers far and wide, however, while your content may suggest that what you look like or how you feel only matters to you – the social media platform you upload it to will expose yourself to friends, enemies and strangers to comment on which automatically puts you out there to be judged in order to gain social approval, and you can’t control that.
Let’s talk about the actual functions of representing “the self” on social media. We represent ourselves to the world in a sort of utopian style where everything we do and our world around us is so perfect. The idea of marketing ourselves as our own “brand” to receive positive feedback or attention is an interesting metaphor.
I lived in Germany last year and joined a sub-letting group called “Berlin Housing” on Facebook when I was searching for an apartment to rent. I noticed some house-seekers would inquire about apartments and leave a selfie of them attached showing them in front of island views in Greece, swimming at beautiful beaches or on spectacular mountain peaks in the Alps.
I only thought about how empowering a selfie like that is until now. I get it that house-seekers want to look like they are fun to be around, live perfects lives and are generally great people – but a simple photo like that can immediately impact the sub-letter’s decision about them, not knowing whether or not they can even afford to live in their apartment, or what they do with their life. In that sense, the selfie becomes a function to be seen and taken more seriously by others.
But if you look at more ordinary, everyday selfies that follow social norms or display desirable personal attributes, the response is generally positive, translating to a confidence boost of the individual. But is the gratification of this confidence boost going too far to a point where people are attention seeking or “fishing for likes” far too often in a world where we are fueling each other’s lives simply by dishing out more compliments?Well… kind of. I think because there is such a higher demand and a high standard complements and what deserves to be “liked”, the less-spoken about criticisms are becoming more common – where morals are questioned, social values are threatened and people are just judging more often, or audiences detect infidelity in how someone represents themselves online.
This effect has even birthed a moral panic on narcissism. Since 2016 Disneyland, as well as Coachella and Lollapalooza Festivals and various other popular cultural events and institutions have banned selfie sticks in a bid to combat the unauthorised recording of music artists and more importantly, narcissism. Rolling Stone editor Daniel Kreps explains more here.
I think is a good start to pulling a portion of selfie-society away from basing their social lives on how perfect it looks to the people who are watching them.