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Selfies and the Search for Recognition

See for your selfie!

Bent Fausing
Associate Professor WSQ. Ph.D. A new concept has begun to pop up everywhere: the selfie. It means a photograph of yourself that you yourself have taken. Time Magazine designated it one of the most used buzz words of 2012. And, in our digital age, these quick self-portraits are numerous and flourishing, and it is not just the mirror or the raised arm that characterizes selfies as a genre but also a particular aesthetics. It is about reflection, identity and recognition – human beings want to control how they are seen. Of course, the phenomenon itself is not as new as the word, because people have long been able to photograph themselves with, among other things, a self-timer and a Polaroid camera. For example, the album cover for Leonard Cohen‟s Various Positions (1984) is a selfie.

Looking at yourself in a mirror or depicting yourself in a self-portrait, a selfie, is a form of reflection in which you distinguish yourself from other people and seek recognition of what is unique about yourself. Photo: mandatorypublication.com It is an extension of the self-portrait and amateur photography‟s self-timer with which you had ten seconds to set the timer, run in front of the camera, and position yourself – often in a group with family, friends, or the like. What is new, therefore, is the word, and its emergence is an expression of distinct changes in technology – in particular, digital cameras and smartphones. As easy as pie, people can hold their ubiquitous cameras up in front of themselves and friends or take a self-portrait with a webcam. This also points us toward social media (and especially those characterized by pictures), which have risen colossally in popularity and number of users in the last few years. We are talking first and foremost about Instagram, but Flickr and Facebook are also a part of the total picture. Is this rise simply a result of technological innovation? Or is it because we no longer have others to take pictures of us and, perhaps, no longer want others to take pictures of us? Or is it because we would like to test our social interactions through our own picture, the selfie? All these questions are part of the answer, but the final question is the most important – also for what follows.

"#selfie" is connected with millions of pictures in social media, where many prefer a selfportrait to a written approach when they want to express themselves. Through selfies, we have an opportunity to evaluate ourselves in relation to others. They are used as a reflection of our image of ourselves in which our external face meets our internal consciousness.

A short history of the selfie In 2004, a group was formed on the social photosharing network Flickr with the name selfy (yes, spelled with a y), which was supposed to describe self-taken digital pictures. The expression gained footing on MySpace, which provided the first definition for the Urban Dictionary in 2005: “self portrait of yourself usually by teen girls” (22 April 2005). The tag 'selfie' or selfy continued on Flickr in 2005. And, in the beginning of 2007, the first Group Pool was created on Flickr with the name „Selfie Shots.‟ The word was used for the first time outside social media in 2007 by TMZ, a news website about celebrities when actress Rosario Dawson was stopped and photographed with a fan. In July 2009, selfie – spelled with an ie – was added to the Urban Dictionary, which explained it as an activity that was most widespread on MySpace and Facebook. Around the same time, however, the tag selfie also became common on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and deviantArt. Then, the name spread out to other media – particularly, to descriptions of celebrities who use selfies. Recently, for example, in June 2013, several hundred fan pages were created on Facebook, designed for selfies and including naked-selfies, fitness-selfies and humorous selfies. The latter form plays with the genre and exaggerates its expression – for example, by pouting. The three fan pages mentioned now have more than a million likes.

Taking a selfie is considered by many to be a slightly teenage-girlish, self-centered thing to do. Therefore, there are a great many people who make fun of the genre. Photos: pinterest.com #selfie These three categories from Facebook document a trend but do not show the whole range of the selfie phenomenon – nor do they say anything substantial about the mental and social motivation for selfies. Despite their widespread prevalence and popularity, the word almost never appears in works about new media. Thus, it is not included in Sherry Turkle‟s Alone Together or Paul Levison‟s New, New Media (both from 2011) or in more recent editions of those books. Selfies can be seen as an attempt to gain control over how one presents oneself through a self-portrait. But, in my view, it does not stop here because it is also an exercise in entering into social and mental contexts – and practicing and playing with the modes of expression and impression that are found there. This has also led to the development of a genre of selfies in which one specifically cultivates what is not attractive as a reaction to the selfabsorbed and sexualized side of the selfie phenomenon.

Because many selfies have a rather ostentatious mode of expression in which everyone tries to show their most attractive or most interesting side, a genre of selfies has developed in which one specifically cultivates the ironic and non-attractive as a reaction to the selfabsorbed and sexualized side of the selfie phenomenon. Photos: pinterest.com #selfie The self in the picture – and self-reflection We are experts about things that concern ourselves – one would think. No one else knows our thoughts, longings, doubts, recollections, and stories like we do. Yet, other people have the upper hand in one decisive respect. They can see our faces. In order to have at least some of the knowledge others have about us, we can use a mirror to see our faces. Or we can take a selfie. Let us be reflected in the mirror or in a picture of ourselves and, through that, reflect upon ourselves. We are distinguished from the animals through our self-consciousness. If we hold a mirror up in front of an animal, it thinks it sees another of its own species. Apart from certain chimpanzees, animals do not identify themselves as themselves. To look at yourself in a mirror or to depict yourself in a self-portrait, a selfie, is a form of reflection that not only separates us from the animals but also from other human beings because, through self-

reflection, we step into character and become individuals. And it is also an action by which we become something „in ourselves.‟ We literally become unique. Our ability to see ourselves when we look at ourselves is something uniquely human. By being reflected in the mirror and in a picture – the selfie, we become different from all other individuals despite the many common features in our faces. It is not for nothing that reflection means to bend back, to mirror, and to think. In their mirror images, individuals bend back toward themselves in order to observe themselves and their possible interaction with others. Through the sight of ourselves, we also get an opportunity to assess ourselves and think about ourselves. In the mirror and the image of our self, our external face meets our internal consciousness. When we look in the mirror or at a selfie, the face comes to possess us because it shows the appearance to which we are bound – or wish to mask. We acquire selfconsciousness and, in a broader sense, self-reflection. How do I look to others? Will they accept me?

The mirror stage (Jacques Lacan) is the phase in which children become self-conscious of their adequacy or inadequacy in their mirror image and by comparing themselves with others as mirrors. In the selfie, it is instead an adult or near-adult who is testing and seeking acceptance and recognition from the outside world through a mirror image. The difference between the mirror stage and selfies consists primarily in the fact that it is suddenly adults who are seeking acceptance. Photos: pinterest.com #selfie

From "write oneself into being" to "picture oneself into being" In 2007, in an article called “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites,” the anthropologist Danah Boyd explained that one “writes oneself into being” in social media. That statement is

no longer true. Now, with the changes on Facebook with Timeline, the emergence of Pinterest and Instagram, and the changes in the old picture platform Flickr, the statement should more properly be: one pictures oneself into being. Four parallel trends have arisen in social media in recent years. The first is that online sharing has required less and less time. The other is that social media have become more visuallyoriented. The third is that group-centered sites are being replaced by topic-centered networks. The fourth is that there is shift from making written and substantial comments to indicating one‟s presence by short statements a la „wow‟ or the use of visual signs – for example, a heart. Pinterest and Instagram represent the culmination of all four trends. And the selfie is an important means of expression about the self in this development in the social media and the most important factor in the development of these changes. The camera is used as a mirror in the selfie; often, there is an actual mirror in the picture, so there is a reflection in a mirror, since the picture shows it all. The mirror stage (Jacques Lacan) is the phase in which children become conscious of their adequacy or inadequacy in their mirror image and by comparing themselves with others as mirrors. The eyes of others form especially important mirrors for self-development. The mirror image functions in a similar way in the selfie, albeit with the addition that it is no longer about a small child. Instead, it is an adult or near-adult who tests and seeks acceptance and approval from the outside world through the mirror image in the selfie. The image of oneself is important and not necessarily a narcissistic tendency. It is necessary for the constitution and existence of an ego that it receive recognition. The philosopher Axel Honneth sees an anthropological need necessary for life in recognition, which is founded early between mother and child and which becomes a matrix on which all later acceptance and recognition is created. We trust in others‟ perceptions, judgments, and praise in order to be able to develop a social and mental self. Quite often, one sees a tendency to pathologize new media with psychological terms such as narcissism and dependence. The terms are used randomly about anything and everything – particularly, in connection with social media and selfies. These are serious diagnostic terms that are used in free fall about the new media – because they are new. And because the media are new, they are pathologized. In reality, however, recent studies (Brent Roberts et al., “It is Developmental Me, Not Generation Me,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 2010) indicate a marked downturn in narcissism in relation to before.

The image of a self is important and not necessarily a narcissistic tendency. It is necessary for the constitution and existence of the ego that it receive recognition. Perhaps, that is why so many have begun to exhibit even intimate moments in selfies. Photos: pinterest.com #selfie The selfie and intimate commodity aesthetics It is a well-known fact that many firms – particularly, in the fashion world – use social media as a part of their marketing. However, the pictures below are not from a social medium but

from a website for an American clothing firm, Hill-Side. It is from their winter collection 2012-2013 for which they encouraged customers to submit pictures in which they were dressed in clothes from the collection. There were a number of selfies here – including the one below of the girl with the scarf over her mouth. We are very close to her face, and this indicates something intimate and very personal. It is out of focus, and we are looking directly into her eyes. The door handle on the right contrasts as something metallic and hard with the warm, organic face and head. Or, rather, what we can see of the head: the hair and eyes. The rest is covered by the scarf – from Hill-Side. We look at her as in a mirror, or she looks at us as if we were her mirror. The lack of focus and blurring of the edges in this digital picture imitate analogue photography and make us forget the commodity aesthetics. The private picture assimilates and passes along commodity aesthetics as something subjective and deep that we, through the selfie, are allowed to see. We do not see it as a commodity but as a private shot.

This selfie is actually an ad for the designer label Hill-Side. The analogue aesthetics in this and other selfies bring in a sheen of humanity and human perception and sensitivity that expresses something about the self – and about the commodity. For the commodity is the hidden component in all the sensitivity. Photo: Hill-Side It might be said that, at the moment, digital photographs via filters on Instagram try to mimic the blurry edges, uneven light, and smudges on the surface of analogue photography. All in all, signs that a human being, a self, has taken a picture. Otherwise, people are almost proud to display digital cameras in selfies. But, in the picture from the Hill-Side catalogue, we have

blurriness and an imitation of the analogue photo, which can also be found in many other selfies – they try to make themselves into non-selfies. It is also characteristic that the arm that holds the camera cannot be seen here – that is, the picture is cropped, so the arm is out of the picture. The analogue aesthetics in this and other selfies brings in a sheen of humanity and human perception and sensitivity that expresses something about the self – and about the commodity. For the commodity is the hidden component in all the sensitivity. Even as we are captured by the picture and its blurriness and pronounced eyes, the commodity – the scarf – is taken in as part of this humanization of technology and the selfie. But the veil of the close-up is not final; it is rather an opening. Normally, you see the close-up as the absolute goal – we cannot get any closer. But the close-up of a face is rather a transparent place that opens up for associations, visions, and dreams. All this is naturally magnified through the closeness and veil around the face and the commodity. Dream on. Photographs are silent. This makes the photograph here – and others – comparable to the psyche‟s silent visualizations: the dream‟s unconscious images, daydreams, repetition scenes, psychosomatic signals, and flashes of memory.

There are special categories for all sorts of selfies. For example, fitness-selfies are extremely popular. Photos: pinterest.com #selfie

What do selfies want? The face is the showroom of the self. It is here we can see all the features that tell you something about age, ethnicity, gender, mood, presence, etc. It is not for nothing that it is called Facebook and not Footbook. We display ourselves first and foremost through our faces, and we hope that what we display will be accepted.

Faces are presence and confirmation, physically and intellectually. Faces show the self‟s bodily appearance. Faces provide space and personality to the many anonymous individuals, places, and movements in a metropolis. It is also from the face that we primarily recognize another human being in the bustle of the city. We reveal ourselves through our gaze: to look another human being in the eyes is our most intense and intimate form for communication. Here, words can be superfluous and distracting. Only children, lovers, people who take selfies, are drunk or very angry may stare intensely; that is, people who have not learned or who have forgotten good manners. Therefore, there can be an almost disturbing intimacy in the presence displayed in a selfie. We are not used to focusing on a face so closely and for such a long time. When our eyes fasten on something (especially, a face in a selfie), it deviates from the eyes‟ natural, sporadic pattern of movement in which focus is always moving and cannot be fixed on a particular thing for a long time. It also deviates from our cultural and moral norms, which tell us that it is not nice to stare or gape. These norms are dissolved with the selfie.

We are not used to people just staring. When our eyes fix on something – especially a face in a selfie, it deviates from our eyes’ natural, sporadic pattern of movement in which focus is always moving. This gives many selfies an unpleasantly insistent, almost pushy expression. Photos: pinterest.com #selfie Sociologist Sherry Turkle points out (in Alone Together) that the individual becomes fixed in a permanent transitional situation. After an intimacy with parents, the child moves out into the world and, in this journey, the child needs transitional objects – for example, a beloved toy. Turkle sees the social media as this sort of transitional object. However, they do not lead

to new social relations but let the self remain in a permanent transitional situation, alone together with others. Turkle is not specifically concerned with selfies or pictures, remarkably enough. But her views may easily be applied to pictures on screens. We interact with pictures, but this does not lead to further interaction or relationships. If we turn to recent visual theory, it is clear that the image has another and more dynamic meaning and function. It is living – in ways we are familiar with in fetish and totem. Theorist W.J.T. Mitchell has raised the question of what pictures really want by looking at a number of modern pictures (What Do Pictures Want? 2006). He answer is simple and, for a selfie, very appropriate: they want to be kissed, that is, they want to be consumed, they want to be incorporated, they want to be accepted. Pictures want to interact. It is precisely this project that is in every selfie: kiss me, consume me, include me, and recognize me!

The trend has moved from written comments to marking one’s presence with short statements a la "wow" or the use of visual signs – for example, a heart. Pinterest and Instagram represent the culmination of all four trends in which selfies with celebrities are a sure winner.