‘Selfies’ are older than you think

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Beating the likes of “twerk”, “twittersphere” and “girl crush” as well as overused suffixes such as -ageddon and -pocalypse, the Oxford English Dictionary has named “selfie” the official Word of the Year 2013. The Word of the Year award annually celebrates the inventiveness of the English language when confronted with social, political or technological change, with past recipients of the award including “chav” (2004), “carbon footprint” (2007) and last year’s winner “omnishambles”. The certified definition of its newest edition:

A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.

It could be seen following a hashtag on sites such as Flickr as early as 2004. However, over the past 12 months its use has increased by over 17,000%. That’s a lot of selfies.

Yet the selfie is nothing new; it’s merely a reinvention. Even the Mona Lisa is rumoured to be Leonardo Da Vinci in drag, subsequently making it the most famous selfie in the world. It took me a while to reach this conclusion admittedly. I thought the astronomical rise of the selfie was an undoubted example of the modern day emphasis on physical appearance. Now no longer limited to glossy magazines and fashion shoots, an individual’s latest selfie is uploaded onto social media for all friends, family and followers to judge in their very own cyber fashion show. This perception made me disdain Instagram especially, thinking it nothing more than a mecca for self-indulgence and narcissistic showcases. My 15-year-old sister is very much a part of the Instagram generation and I used to tease her mercilessly for it.

barack-obama-selfieOf course, like everything new and not participated in by everyone, there have been numerous modern-age “selfies” that have caused controversy. A woman posing in the foreground of a suicidal man about to jump was dubbed “the sickest selfie of all time” and the debatably “inappropriate” snap prime minister David Cameron and President Obama took of themselves at Mandela’s memorial service caused public outcry. But what is the real problem here? The woman couldn’t have done anything to help prevent the suicide and Mandela’s funeral was a celebration of his life. It is the worry that we are advocating and even demanding an augmentation in self-absorption.

This should not be the first time you’re hearing about how Millennials are narcissistic. It’s true. The rise of social media outlets where, to be included properly, you have to make a profile depicting yourself as best as you can has naturally led to a growth and development in the significance of self-expression online.

Of course we’re narcissistic.

In spite of this, being someone whose only social virtue comes from humour by self-deprecation, I still fall into the selfie-averse crowd. I’m nowhere near flexible enough to obtain a good camera position and my lips are so chapped these days that anything near a duck face would result in not being able to eat salt and vinegar crisps for about a month. Though I used to quietly think my selfie-allergy was a symptom of humility, writer Brian Droitcour interprets it differently.  “The real narcissists are the ones who never take selfies,” Droitcour argues. “They imagine their self as autonomous, hermetic—too precious to be shared.”

I’ve always enjoyed viewing people’s self-portraits, seeing faces change and age. When a popular Rembrandt exhibition came to Manchester Art Gallery I used to go there straight from college and sit for a good 45 minutes looking at that handsome self-portrait of him at thirty-three and another as an old man. Turns out selfies inspired me to go into humanistic philosophy.

In truth, there isn’t much of a difference between a 14-year-old posting a picture of him or herself on Instagram and a 30-something in central London publishing a film review, or a National Student regular writing about their experience of studying abroad, or me writing this opinionated article about what I think of the “selfie”. The regularly catered to yet popularly demonized Tumblr is not viable proof that there were simply more narcissists born after the year 1995.

I don’t believe that the development of selfies correlate with the rate of teenage narcissism. It just appears that way. There is also something very dignified, honest and playful in your self-portraits. They made me smile a nice smile, anyway. I should go and take a picture of it immediately.

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