A modest defense of the selfie

By David Sirota , written on February 11, 2014

From The News Desk

Ever since "selfie" was deemed 2013’s word of the year, there's been an effort to glean some sort of deeper meaning from the physically awkward act of photographing yourself with a smartphone. With ABC ordering an entire television show about selfies (yes, that’s really happening), the conventional wisdom emerging in elite media circles seems to be that the selfie craze is yet more proof of how a forever-connected culture of tweets, texts, instagrams and other gratuitous sharing encourages narcissism. Summing up that consensus, none other than the New York Times personal tech section this week called a line of selfie-friendly phones the “narcissist’s dream.”

In this interpretation, snapping a selfie is an ugly act of turning what should be your camera’s outward facing eye into your own personal vanity mirror.

Having reported on the roots of the Me Culture in my book "Back to Our Future," I’ve reviewed plenty of evidence suggesting that narcissism is on the rise and that some of it is probably exacerbated by social media. There are also plenty of examples of individual selfies that epitomize genuine narcissism.

However, citing the rise of the entire selfie genre as proof of -- or contributing cause of -- the larger narcissistic trend seems a stretch, and I say that as an amateur photo hobbyist who occasionally snaps a selfie, but isn't particularly enamored with the overall form.

Let's remember that the selfie isn't some new phenomenon. Last I checked, the good ol' fashioned camera timer was rolled out in 1902 and long ago became a basic feature of consumer cameras. It was designed, in part, to let photographers actually be in the pictures they took. That is to say, this age-old feature was created to allow for the very same thing the selfie allows for. Almost every pre-smartphone-age individual may remember setting up a shot then stumbling, stubbing a toe, or knocking something over in a frantic attempt to get back in front of the lens.

Yet I'm pretty sure there wasn’t a spate of commentary bewailing the camera timer/tripod combination as some nefarious instrument of narcissism. Why the difference?

Part of it probably has to do with the impulse to not only take selfies, but to also share them with everyone. But a critique of oversharing, which I think is entirely legitimate, is different from a blanket critique of a whole photographic form, which is what the criticism of selfies really is all about.

So, then, is there something more narcissistic about using an outstretched arm to snap a picture of oneself rather than going to the trouble of putting a camera on a tripod and doing the same? Does the fact that a selfie is easier to orchestrate than a timed photo make it any more self centered? I'd say no - and I'd go a step further and argue that the selfie’s relative ease actually is a net benefit in that it promotes inclusion.

Before you angrily accuse me of being part of the narcissism epidemic, let me provide a personal example of what I mean. In my family's particular division of labor, one of my roles is designated photographer. Before the smartphone selfie, that meant I was absent from large swaths of our family photo album. Indeed, when on holidays we flip through old photos and reminisce, there are all these great shots of my dog, my wife and all of them together, but I'm not there very much. I'm the unseen ghost peering through the viewfinder.

The rise of smartphone cameras that can take decent-quality selfies has changed some of this by putting me back into the photographic story of my family. Sure, I'm still not in a ton of the group shots because the physicality of selfies has its limitations, and because I still take most of our family photos with an XLR camera. But I'm in a few more of those shots, because some of our family photos come from my selfie-ready iPhone. Without the selfie, I wouldn't, for example, have photos like the one here of my wife Emily and me together on Cape Cod.

Does wanting to be in those kind of shots with my family and friends constitute narcissism? I guess you can debate either side, but I’m going with “no.” Wanting to be a part of your own family's photo record is wanting to simply be part of your family. I’d also suggest that that using the outstretched arm and camera phone method for group shots - as opposed to individual shots - shouldn’t even be called a selfie. It would be more accurate to call such shots "groupies." (Side note: I'm betting there would be a decent market for a smartphone whose camera has both the standard selfie capabilities but also a wide-angle setting to help facilitate high-quality "groupie" shots).

Of course, with cameras now all around us at all times, there's a far more critical question than whether or not one kind of camera shot is more narcissistic than another. That question is simple: Why are we taking so many of these photos in the first place?

This is a deeper query, one less about pejorative judgments and more about our definition and understanding of presence, experience, and meaning.

Let’s for a moment drop the pretense and admit an unspoken truth: In a culture obsessed with visual content, there is subtle pressure to believe an experience didn't happen, or isn't as valuable, if we don't capture a photo of it. This isn't something new to the online age. After all, the photograph of grinning faces in front of famous places is the standard staple of the modern photo album. (In fact, it is such a staple, and we are so self-aware of the custom, that it became a parody meme attempting to add a bit of levity after 9/11). That age-old custom stems in part from the belief sarcastically expressed in Planes, Trains and Automobiles: namely, that if you take a picture, maybe the experience will last longer.

Before the smartphone, most of us didn’t have cameras with us at all times, so this pressure to document didn’t have as much chance to express itself. Now, though, the sheer ubiquity of personal cameras in the information age -- the fact that so many of us have them on us at all times -- adds to that pressure to the point where, as Slate's Tim Wu says, "the act of photography had become almost entirely unconscious."

In his article on the "slow photography" movement, Wu convincingly argues that "while taking photos has become a way to mark almost any moment, there is often an unnoticed tradeoff" whereby "the camera threatens to replace the eyeball." When that happens, when the pressure to simply document an image for posterity becomes the primary objective of human experience, future retrospection becomes more of a priority than the present, and we potentially miss all that can be gleaned from the current moment.

By giving us another tool to document that we were in a particular place at a particular time, the selfie probably encourages the trend Wu identifies. But that trend is fueled far more by the sheer ubiquity of cameras than by a specific kind of photo. We know we have this powerful device of documentation right in our pocket, and so we snap image after image -- selfies, groupies and every other kind. In those moments, we are disembodied observers looking at our own lives through the viewfinder rather than experiencing those lives as fully engaged participants.

For me, that has meant in a given family moment being more focused on capturing an image of my kid building a snowman rather than actually helping him build that snowman without regard for whether I will have an image to share. For President Obama, it meant taking a moment away from somber reflection at Nelson Mandela’s funeral to be in a selfie with other world leaders. Everyone has their own similar example.

Rather than making some sort of superficial value judgment on any of those individual picture-taking diversions, it seems more productive to consider: what are the long-term implications of all those diversions in aggregate over the course of an entire lifetime?

That's the key spiritual question that smartphone cameras pose, and it is a critical question regardless of whether you happen to use your outstretched arm to wedge yourself into your own photos.