The year 2013 has been dubbed the year of the selfie. The word was officially added to the Oxford English dictionary (touted as the “word of the year”) and we’ve seen everybody from that Facebook friend you can’t stand to Pope Francis take and upload one. With so many duck faces, pouts, and smoldering gazes capitalizing newsfeeds across the world, many of us have been eagerly waiting for the phenomenon to receive the cultural death sentence of “uncool” from the majority of the population.
A theory: it’s never going to happen.
You see, the selfie is actually not a new phenomenon — it’s just a technological reincarnation of a very old one. Ever notice that cavemen tended to be the subject of a lot of their own cave paintings? Or ever see those beautiful autorretratos that Frida Kahlo made? More recently, in the era of the once great MySpace, one took selfies with a mirror and a flash camera. We’ve been depicting ourselves in a variety of media, both digital and non, long before Apple had the genius idea to put a camera on the front of mobile phones.
Some would say vanity, while more recent theories argue that the desire for attentionis the ghost-in-the-machine (or megapixel camera). Both are undeniably a part of the equation; you don’t take a selfie that is unflattering and stick it in a place where nobody else will ever see it. However, I don’t think these two motivators entirely answer the question. Again, people have been depicting themselves well before they had Instagram to garner eyeballs in the hopes of receiving those tiny little (self) validators we call “likes.” We had the urge before we had the tech to make it a possibility.
And I think that’s because from the time we stalked out of the primordial stew, to the first time we stared down the unblinking eye of a front-facing camera, we’ve always wanted others to see us as we see ourselves.
There’s always a divide in the way we look at ourselves, and the way the world looks back at us. This, in a nutshell, has been the cause of many an identity crisis or self-esteem problem. As Oscar Wilde aptly terms it, “the rage of Caliban not seeing his face in the glass.” The sadness we encounter when we expect to see something different than what the mirror (or camera) throws back at us.
The selfie alters this paradigm: it makes the mirror bend to our will. Instead of just hoping the camera will take the fairest photo of them all, we assure that it does.
In a selfie, we don’t have to worry about a photographer getting the “bad side” of our faces. We can correct an awkward angle by adjusting our heads; no fake smiles, because we can see the shapes of our lips. A selfie is the face that we hope the world sees when it looks at us; what we imagine to be the pinnacle of our own beauty.
This is true for all of the ironic, duck-faced, “unattractive” selfies as well. An ironic selfie taker spends as much time making sure their face is producing the desired effect as a serious selfie taker. Where the latter seeks to project beauty, the former seeks to project some form of humor. There’s intent in both cases; the camera is made compliant to our wishes.
Is anybody going to give up this newfound power? Is there seriously anybody out there that would relinquish the ability to be beautiful (or funny, depending on your intent) in every picture? No, probably not. And I don’t think that necessarily makes us vain/shallow/conceited/or exhibitionists either. Wanting to be seen as you see yourself sounds like a very human need to me. As long as that need still exists, the selfie will live on.
Maybe even Caliban could’ve taken a nice photo of himself if he had a smartphone.