The selfie society: Strike a pose

April 29, 2014

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We live in our own little worlds. That is an unfortunate byproduct of a societal narcissism that has found its ultimate form in the single form that best exemplifies this era: the selfie.

There is a very recognizable selfie pose, one full of both self-congratulation and a brash “look at me” quality. You know the selfie pose the moment you see it. Everybody does it – even the president.

Most often, the selfie subject is looking up (because it is accepted wisdom that higher angles are flattering), the camera (or, more often, smartphone) clasped between two to four preferably strongish and longish fingers, while another digit seeks out the shutter. If there are people in the background, they are often leaning in, as if part of a crowd trying to see something through a porthole. (Remember the Ellen selfie at the Oscars?)

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I understand the selfie urge. That “look at me” cry for attention is something that is stifled in us from childhood. It’s considered unseemly, untoward, to be so desperate for attention. There is an institution for people who can’t keep it under control: It’s called “show business.”

In the past, when we had interesting or unusual experiences out in the world by ourselves – away from friends or family – all we had to show for it was what we could carry back in our memory and summon with our words. Once upon a time, setting a timer on a camera and then running back into the picture before it went off was the only way for the photographer to put himself in the frame and still work alone.

Now the camera phone is so ubiquitous that it seems possible there will never be another unrecorded second of history – anybody’s history.

I personally love the selfie. I take many of them, usually against unusual backdrops. I seldom smile (though a friend once told me, “Always smile in a selfie”). I collect them and share them with a few friends.

The selfie pose, however, is not really about that: It’s about putting yourself in the center of the picture for everyone else to see. Which is why it is the most ubiquitous pose on Facebook and the rest of social media: “Look at me. The world revolves around me. And if it doesn’t, it should.”

Once upon a time, you pulled out the camera on a special occasion. If you ran into a celebrity (or old friends), you might have a camera with you to capture the moment if you were particularly lucky. The camera usually came out at family gatherings or parties but, again, it was a special thing.

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Now everyone owns a phone with a camera of at least passable quality. Everyone is a member of the paparazzi: taking pictures of themselves during a celebrity encounter, to show the world.

Is the selfie a symptom or a result? Is it causing changes in the way we look at the world? Perhaps – but we have long since crossed over into the era when what we see on screens is more important to us than what’s going on in front of our faces.

And in a time when the importance of self-esteem – even at the expense of common sense – has swamped our culture, the ultimate act of self-esteem seems to be taking pictures of yourself and then showing them to the world.

Look at me. Strike the pose.

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