In the ever-evolving world of social media, one thing remains constant: individuals as the creators of their own life stories. With just the press of a button, we sit at the helm of a video, photograph or phrase that paints a picture of our lives. We share these intimate details with both close friends and strangers– a tweet becomes a call and response, a video documents a moment that someone could not share with us in person.
And then there is the "selfie", a snapshot of the face, whether forlorn or happy, in a time and place that is irrelevant once we have coined it with the hashtag, #selfie. In that moment, the only thing that matters is the act of self-expression, the documentation to the virtual world that we do in fact exist, within our own lives, and by our own rules. It is in this sacred space of "selfies" that professionals relish in silly poses, people glance coyly at camera phones, and hashtags explain the obvious.
Recently, Oxford Dictionary named “selfie” the word of the year. Yes, it even beat out “twerk.” According to Oxford editors, the frequency of its usage increased by 17,000% over the past 12 months. Although the rise of selfies has been buzzed about as though it is a new phenomenon, as the saying goes, there's really nothing new under the sun.
Since the beginning of time, people have found ways to document their existence, whether it be on cave walls, elaborate portraits, or even through the lens of social movements. Technological advancements have simply made recording that existence more simple and far-reaching. And although some selfies may seem to scream for attention, human beings are social animals that desire approval and validation from others.
"As human primates, it is a natural desire to seek out our identities in relation to others and separate from others. At a base level, our connectedness to others is core to our survival – we need the group to survive as a whole but we also need the group to define our individual roles, e.g., what do I contribute to the whole. Emotionally, our need to attach/connect is also related to many of our existential needs," said Dr. Anissa Moody, Professor of Psychology at City University of New York.
Because of this need for connection, selfies, even in their seemingly most obnoxious form, are more than just a generation's obsession with itself. While some have argued that "selfies" reveal no more than virtual narcissism, they entail more than just flaunting your latest hair or facial expression – they also display a person's self-development with each flash. According to Dr. Moody, this does not differ from any generations past; the only difference now is our access to a global audience.
"Unless you’re raised in a bubble, we’re all affected by prominent factors within our society that forces us to look inward for self-definition. In the past, those factors may have been biological, political, or geographical. For example, it is not uncommon to hear someone of the Baby Boomer generation define their existence in terms of where they stood during 'the [Civil Rights/Black Power] movement.' One’s stance during that time was not only evident in their rhetoric but also self-expression– Do I need to ask what period in time the Afro represents?" said Moody
There is also a vulnerability involved in posting selfies. How many times have you snapped a shot of yourself again and again, in search of that perfect pic that will receive the most likes or positive comments? In this act, whether conscious of it or not, we are hoping to be accepted, and oftentimes, even celebrated.
"If we consider the positioning of a typical selfie which is a facial shot of oneself, of the eyes, then we can understand how this is more about connection than pathology. After all, aren’t the eyes the windows to the soul? We are most vulnerable when allowing others to literally see into us so when we take selfies we are asking for acceptance and validation, which is the opposite of the narcissistic tendency to consume," said Dr. Moody.
The bottom line? The "selfie phenomenon" is not a new trend, and falls directly in line with our needs as human beings. We want to be valued while establishing our own identities, and expressing ourselves by recording ourselves, is one way to achieve human connection.
Said Moody, "Human primates never seem to tire of witnessing our own existence. It takes us almost two years to even recognize our own reflections, then we spend many years comparing, testing, refining, and accepting ourselves – all of which are only possible with and within the presence of others."