Siren Song of the Selfie

Word has reached my disbelieving ears that the term “selfie” is hereby officially and therefore indefinitely recognized by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as a bona fide noun in the English language. This brings to the table a number of troubling questions, the answers to which would prove too vexing and lurid for my young mind to consciously deliberate (e.g. who the fuck was put in charge of making this decision/how the fuck were they put in charge of making it?). I can often be something of a snob when it comes to matters involving grammar, usage and vocabulary, but I would hope I’m not the only one who is at the very least taken aback by this most recent addition to the common language.

I harp on social media more heavily than I should, especially when accounting for just how heavily I have come to depend on it. But I will try very much in earnest, this time round, to refrain from ineffectually criticizing what is arguably the most influential technological development of the last decade, instead attempting to reflect on the magnitude and scope of said [development]’s influence. It is estimated that roughly 30% of pictures taken in the last two years are what qualify as “selfies”, the term which I will never forgive Merriam-Webster for defining as (sic) [n]: an image of oneself taken by oneself using a digital camera, especially for posting on social networks.

The reason for MW’s induction of this term into its now totally disreputable index should present itself very obviously as the equally obvious relevance of said [term], viz., the fact that its use is so universal that there was no choice but to admit it. As a result of this cultural ubiquity, I can’t in good conscience blame MW (although they would present themselves here as the easiest and most immediately identifiable target). The real culprits, without question, are the millions of people who — whether they’re aware of it or not — have recognized the selfie as a valid societal entity worldwide.

Which is stupid and infuriating in countless ways, but also totally in keeping with the heading we are bearing towards in social media’s wake. Latent significance of the selfie is anything but when taking into consideration the scores of millenials who’ve developed a need to act as voyeurs, and further, to indulge that voyeuristic fetish as a means of self-affirmation. The now infamous “Oscar Selfie”, taken by Ellen Degeneres and featuring an assortment of Hollywood’s elite at the 86th Academy Awards Ceremony, is seamlessly exemplary of this impulse.

Having access to a high definition photo of Brad Pitt’s and Julia Roberts’ smiling demigod faces serves as an unmistakable caressing of the ego, in that it makes us feel somehow — and very deludedly — included in the glamour of these celebrities’ lives. This fabricated brand of intimacy that social media provides is, on the surface, both comforting and reassuring to us. But it’s also duplicitous and sinister, because it makes us think that the simple act of posting and/or seeing a picture of someone we admire is in some perverse way interchangeable for a personal connection with them.

There are, of course, situations in which the selfie — man, I cannot even begin to convey how much it pains me to actually have to use that fucking term — can have a constructive purpose. Now and again, I’ll receive a picture from a friend or family member that triggers a basic affection for seeing the face of someone I care about. I myself am guilty of the occasional selfie exchange, more frequently with my best friend or my little sister (whom I love ever so fiercely for ever so many reasons, but very markedly for her devout refusal to engage in the selfie madness, most notably by responding to a boy’s sleazy request for one with a sloth meme; she is a treasure, and I find myself powerless to find words for just how irreplaceable I find her).

But the overwhelming majority of selfies — no, seriously, I am never going to get used to writing that — are themselves very overt manifestations of radical vanity, and the equally radical insecurity which tends to accompany it. I’m not sure if there’s empirical data to support this, but it appears somewhat ostensible that the better part of selfies (groan) are taken by women or, more specifically, girls. That is by no means a confirmed fact, but it seems overwhelmingly substantiated by the evidence at hand.

This, I think, speaks pretty much directly to the discernibly widespread flaws in contemporary American culture which dictate a very warped emphasis on the importance of image and appearance for the female gender. So much so that the act of taking a picture of oneself has become less of an act and more a compulsion for many young women who’ve gotten in the habit of broadcasting their looks on an hourly basis in a kind of desperate effort to remind the world that “Hey, I’m still here…and pretty”.

Which is fucked up and depressing in countless ways, but mostly because it reveals a deep-seated need for us all (and I do mean all, this part is gender irrespective) to forever be Liked — whether it’s on Facebook or Instagram or whatever — purely for the way we are seen and the things we’re seen doing. Anyone who doesn’t update their status as being out somewhere exclusive or doing something exciting or just, you know…being cool, might as well not exist in the eyes of most social networking junkies; and unless there’s photographic evidence of the event that’s been applied with some faux-filtered effect, it might as well not have happened, either.

Look, it’s not that I don’t appreciate certain aspects of social media. I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t helped me keep in touch with people I would otherwise never have been able to correspond with. And yes, the occasional indulgence in a photo on Instagram has proven to be mildly, if only transiently, entertaining (but not Snapchat, because fuck that shit; I will never understand its appeal). Anything further, though, strikes me as just kind of queer and unhealthy.

Our manic obsession with documenting and publicizing every trivial, mundane occurrence in day-to-day life has evolved from being slightly annoying to genuinely concerning. And the fact that these pictures are all doctored and pre-meditated and posed for just adds to the disturbing social synthetic of it all. In addition, the dangerous reliance on capturing every life experience digitally is threatening to rob us of our ability to experience life sort of just normally.

It wasn’t too long ago that I witnessed a grown woman spend fifteen agonizing minutes outside of a hotel bar trying furiously to appear dishy and seductive — all the while tousling her hair or cocking her head, like a sort of confused pug in heels and a cocktail dress — so as to achieve just the right duck face for some digital audience (which audience could not possibly care enough to justify such a Herculean effort). And so I sat there, wholly undone by her crippling vanity, doing my utmost not to laugh/scream at her for the obscene display of what can only be described as soul-shattering narcissism that she was compelling me to sit through. And the whole quarter of an hour I wasted observing this tragic, surreal spectacle with equal parts fascination and horror made me feel most despondent and judgmental and, well…most voyeuristic, indeed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s