U.S. News

11.20.13

In Defense of the Selfie, Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year

Like people, selfies are often bothersome, silly, and apparently redundant. But the new Word of the Year doesn’t just expose our narcissism—it can express the simple joy of being alive.

I never use Facebook. Well, almost never. I have, on the other hand, tweeted more than 41,000 times. I love Twitter. I love the purity of text it streams at me. So I’m a little bothered by Twitter’s introduction of automatically displayed images embedded within tweets.

But it’s not because some of those pics are selfies. A lot of people are complaining about them. It sounds as if 2013 has been a better year for selfies than it has been for them. “Selfie” just won World of the Year from the Oxford English Dictionary. What did you do today?

Selfies, like people, are often bothersome, silly, and apparently redundant. But selfies, like people, deserve our forgiveness, our forbearance, and our support. After all, selfies aren’t anything more or less than our own faces, as we choose to see them. If that strikes us as tiresome and tedious, we might as well just hang it up and trigger some global thermonuclear war.

I have an Instagram account. On Instagram, I post five kinds of pictures: pictures of my son; pictures of palm trees; pictures of ads; pictures of bands; and pictures of myself. I try to keep an elegant balance, but sometimes there are streaks of time where I go pretty heavy on the selfies, and sometimes there are back-to-back selfies. I think once I posted three selfies in a row.

Why do I do this? Shouldn’t I get a life? Well, the life of a musician, as I understand it, is a life that involves a certain degree of awareness around what one’s body and face can look like. You get up on stage and you make music videos and it’s like being an athlete, insofar as watching game tapes helps your craft. But taking selfies also is an exercise in the personal artist’s craft. And anyone with the motivation to take selfies can use that practice to get aware of how they would like it to work for them.

Maybe they’d like to shake themselves out of complacency about how they look. Maybe they’d like to study the human face but haven’t yet gotten someone else to sit for them. Maybe they’re a little lonely or bored. Maybe they’d like to be a model or a rap star but haven’t yet gotten someone else to photograph them. Maybe they have friends or fans with an interest in seeing how they bumble along in life.

Yes, as it turns out, pretty much everyone can take a selfie in a way that reinforces how little it alters our lives. Selfies are just another way of doing what we humans tend to do.

Then why the long face? “Selfie has been named the Word of the Year,” moans @DepressedDarth, in a tweet that sums up a galactic chorus of human grumbling. “In related news, the Death Star now has a new reason to destroy Earth.” Why do we think selfies are such a black eye on the face of humanity?

It might take a while, but selfies are on track to restore for us some of Narcissus’s innocent love for humanity.

Apparently, we think they somehow exacerbate things we don’t like about humanity. Apparently, they force us to pay attention to those things. And apparently they do so in a way that far outweighs whatever nice or normal or neutral things about us that selfies lend their hype to.

In Complex, Damon Young puts his finger on our fears by proclaiming that the selfie makes us all more like Kanye West. (Nooooo!) In our abstract quest for the attention of strangers, we get really good at taking selfies we like. And since “part of soliciting acknowledgement from strangers is being hyperconscious of your image,” we quickly learn “which angles give us the most flattering pictures, and we’re annoyed when we get tagged in a photo without our permission because we can’t fathom letting people know what we really look like. We’re more meticulous about the image we want to project than we are about actually wanting our person to match our persona. We are undeniably and unambiguously narcissistic.”

At Esquire, James Joiner echoes the charge: “Social media’s ubiquity has turned us into a tribe of preening narcissists, and it’s not a pretty picture, self-shot or otherwise.” You can Google “selfie narcissism” and read the 136,000 or so similar accusations. Our terror is simple: We are narcissists, and the selfie is an endless hall of mirrors.

Yet here, as in so many other places, we have let our fears detach from reality—even more than our selfies have detached from it. Calm down and reacquaint yourself with the myth of Narcissus. He was a gorgeous hunter. If you think that sounds like the profile of a pretty naïve dude, you’re correct: When he first spied himself in his watery reflection, he didn’t realize he was seeing just an image. He thought there was a real person there in the mirror—because, of course, he didn’t create his reflection. And how could he see himself if he didn’t create his reflection?

Reflect on selfies, and they seem totally different. Rather than plunging us into innocent love with an apparent stranger, they beam our conscious self-regard back at ourselves. At first glance, this makes us seem even worse than Narcissus. Selfies seem less like love at first sight and more like yet another round of masturbation.

Yet what is it we see when we look back at ourselves again and again? Have you tried staring in the mirror for five minutes? (I have.) Try it. It’s like staring into a stranger’s eyes…much in the way that staring into a stranger’s eyes, nose to nose, quickly becomes strangely similar to staring into…your own.

Yep, it’s true. The deeper you look at anyone, including yourself, the more you see just another human. It might take a while, but selfies are on track to restore for us some of Narcissus’s innocent love for humanity. He was so gorgeous he couldn’t get on with his life. But that’s not true of any of us. And the longer we stare that fact in the face, the more our selfies will come to reflect what they so often already contain: the simple joy of being alive.