While researching what the broader academic community postulates and proposes of selfies, I found these words encapsulated the debate nicely: ‘The term—and more so the practice(s)—remain fundamentally ambiguous, fraught, and caught in a stubborn and morally loaded hype cycle.’ (Baym & Senft, p.1588, 2015)
So, much like the debate over whether science fiction has a negative effect on the public understanding of science (shameless plug), we’re unsure as to whether selfies are a pox on our society. Baym & Senft state that there is in fact not ‘a single peer-reviewed piece of scientific literature that convincingly demonstrates that selfie production and mental illness are correlated’ (p.1590) despite the bastion of high-brow, journalistic gold ‘Adweek’ claiming otherwise.
Regardless, we see the almost inevitable ‘moral panic’ phenomenon as described by Cohen when a new ‘media form or practice is adopted by young people, women, or people of color’ (Baym & Senft p.1592). Approaching selfies as a tool, we begin to see their worth beyond expressions of individuals (whether narcissistic or not).
As argued by Koliska & Roberts, selfies can be taken not for just personal indulgence, but as a statement to say “I witnessed this take place” and provide a different, decidedly personable perspective on events which risk losing their important human element, such as a civil rights protest. Koliska & Roberts mention selfies taken during the military coup in Bangkok (2015) reminds us that real, human lives are being disheveled due to otherwise faceless events.
Therefor, the subject of the photo can be beyond the ‘self’, but a form of citizen journalism acting more like documentation. If you were to change the circumstances to that of a ‘Black Lives Matter’ march, for example, interfacing with that selfie communicates what Senft (2008) refers to as “networked reflective solidarity”. This allows somebody on social media to feel ‘closer’ to that person and establish a sympathetic (if not empathetic) response.
Jenna Brager, in her essay ‘The Selfie and the Other: Consuming Viral Tragedy and Social Media (After)lives’, is concerned that the use publication of selfies posthumously often considers the subject as not any kind of ‘hero’ or influence, but simply as a ‘victim’. The juxtaposition of the presumably happy-looking individual in the selfie with the news of their death, I agree, very easily paints a saddening reality (the pessimistic among us might dare to call it lazy or exploitative journalism!).
Similarly, Brager points to an example of a selfie taken before a car-bombing in Beirut which killed, among others, notable political figure Mohammad Chatah. Despite this, the Twitter campaign #notamartyr focused on a teenager in the selfie not Chatah, ‘presumably because as a political figure, he constituted an ‘appropriate’ target of violence’.
Just as how selfies can help us identify with, humanise, and connect to individuals in extraordinary circumstances, they can unfortunately do the opposite and instead distract from the meaningful point of a story via the (petty and ultimately trivial) differences of ‘the other’. Brager notes that selfies of Lebanese teenagers Malak Zahwe and Maria Jawhari were circulated after their deaths, but were met with ‘minimal Western interest’ due to their living in ‘Dahieh’, known as a stronghold for terrorist organization ‘Hezbollah’. Brager exclaims their framing ‘by association, as members of a terrorist organization, rather than ‘innocent’ civilian victims” [who] wore hijab—“a visible marker of otherness.’ (p. 1665)
Going through high-school, I was surrounded by people with iPod’s and smartphones ‘who took selfies’, as I would have framed them in my mind. Having not bought a smartphone until my senior years, I viewed them as (albeit harmlessly) self-indulgent and, perhaps a bit narcissistic.
But as an adult, living in the digital age where we’re more and more unwittingly documenting our whole lives via website cookies, digital receipts and location tracking etc., I feel like selfies are something that’s in your control and uniquely, definitively you. Yes, it’s likely ineradicable like many of your digital remnants, but by God, you are expressing yourself as a goddamn human being at this moment in time, and that can stand out among your otherwise boring, yet unspeakably, terrifyingly, inexplicably all-encompassing metadata.
Senft, T & Baym N 2015, ‘What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 9 no.19, pp. 1588–1606
Koliska, M & Roberts, J 2015 ‘Selfies| Selfies: Witnessing and Participatory Journalism with a Point of View’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 9 no.19, pp. 1672–1685
Brager, J 2015, ‘The Selfie and the Other: Consuming Viral Tragedy and Social Media (After)lives’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 9 no.19, pp.1660–1671