5 ways the selfie could become highbrow

Oxford Dictionaries has named "selfie" word of the year. But can the trend escape its tainted past?

By Hamna Zubair

Published November 20, 2013 7:47PM (EST)

Its official: The “selfie” was hashtagged, tweeted, liked or hated so much in 2013 that Oxford Dictionaries decided it had to be word of the year.

The selfie – defined by Oxford as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website” – has a pretty sordid past.

Just last month a Tumblr blog outed “funeral selfies” as the latest distasteful teenage obsession. Other things misguidedly selfie'd recently include Antony Weiner’s crotch, Kim Kardashian’s barely clothed behind, and this guy.

Even the expository sentence Oxford attaches to “selfie” subtly shames the enthusiastic selfie taker: “Occasional selfies are acceptable,” says the Dictionary, “but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary.”

In sum, the lesson seems to be that selfies should be avoided because what they say about the subject they’re documenting is better left unsaid: “I’m Narcissistic,” for example, “Like Me, I Need the Validation,” or “My Penis Is So Lonely.”

However, an acknowledgment by the Oxford Dictionary, even if it is snarky, could be the very thing the selfie needs to propel itself from lowbrow to highbrow status.

It’s no secret that the British and their institutions have long been used by celebrities to acquire cultural credibility – Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow’s British phases come to mind – so what’s to stop the selfie from going the way of the queen of pop? Before long, the selfie could become a socially acceptable means of documenting a good hair day or a post-workout flush. Even hashtags could be recast to invoke pathos. #YOLO could conceivably be shortened to #YOL.

There’s already some evidence that selfies, if applied correctly, could be cooler than they are right now.

A London art fair recently showcased the work of two Brooklyn-based curators who put together installations that aimed to place selfies “in the context of video art in the contemporary art world.”

And the selfie above, taken while the astronaut was floating around the International Space Station, provokes some fun thoughts on our ultimate insignificance.

Could we then use this information to construct a model highbrow selfie – one that puzzles and alienates the average Instagrammer but delights culture critics and other curators of cool? (Because isn’t that what good art is supposed to do?)

To that end, highbrow selfies could include:

1) Pictures taken in space.

2) Pictures taken in spacelike environs where human presence is so rare that it’s near impossible to find a person other than yourself to take your picture.

3) A selfie that documents some sort of lifesaving, crime-fighting evidence (the mugger in the background, the shooter crossing the street). This selfie’s power to avert or end crises could lead to its ending up on the front page of a reputable magazine, and so it gets highbrow status.

4) Selfies that are for some reason selected by an “artist” to be part of a “show” and are positioned as art.

5) Selfies you forgot about that you took with famous people who are no longer alive.

The selfie’s greatest test, however, will be the test of time. Because, as we know, it is most often the highbrow that lives on in our cultural memories -- quoted, referenced, admired and copied. If selfies soon lose their significance in documenting proof of our existence as quickly as most of us delete them off our phones, we’ll know they were only ever good for crotch shots.

Hamna Zubair

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Highbrow Instagram Lowbrow Oxford Dictionary Selfie Smart Phones