There’s a lot more to a selfie than meets the eye

The moral panic around teen selfies is old fear dressed in new tech. Selfies aren't just narcissistic overshares

Published August 18, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)


Excerpted with permission from "The Selfie Generation: Exploring Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent, and Culture" by Alicia Eler. Copyright 2019 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Millennial Alicia Eler's "The Selfie Generation" is the first book to delve fully into this ubiquitous and much-maligned part of social media—the selfie—including why people take them in the first place and the ways they can change how we see ourselves. Eler argues that selfies are just one facet of how we can use digital media to create a personal brand in the modern age. More than just a picture, they are an important part of how we live today.

Lez stay in touch :)

For myself, an important motivation for posting selfies or even sharing anything to Facebook is staying in touch with peo­ple who I can’t see on a regular basis. It’s always nice to receive a gentle like from a faraway friend or a family member thou­sands of miles away who I don’t chat with regularly, but still care about.

Staying in touch and socializing online are largely what teen­agers do, because the Internet is another place where their friends hang out. Why give an entire generation these types of digital tools and then attempt to shame them for using them exactly the way that they were designed? Yet again, adults forget that they were once teens, and the media sensationalizes the ways that teens behave during this intense period in their life when they are figuring out who they are as social beings. No matter what time period, teens will always be teens.

“We overinvest too much meaning in selfies when we think of them as social malaise and narcissism,” said Pamela B. Rutledge, PhD, MBA, director of the Media Psychology Research Center and columnist for Psychology Today. “The receiver views that as a trigger of social validation. It doesn’t mean we are hanging around looking for likes, but it does imply a positive social connection. It triggers the rewards sector of the brain as much the same way as when you run into a friend and they look happy to see you and you feel rewarded.”

Naturally, much of the blame for the “downfall of society as we know it” lands on teenagers, as it always does because oh jeez, the kids today! No matter the generation, there’s always some­thing to worry about. I always think back to Larry Clark’s 1983 photography series "Teenage Lust" and 1971’s "Tulsa," which por­tray a life of adolescent drug use and sex encounters. Teens were doing a lot of the same “bad behaviors” back then, but without the help of social media to document all of it. Usually, participat­ing in these “bad behaviors” are about finding one’s self within the community of their peers. Such acts of yesteryear—whether they be doing drugs or just going to an ice cream social—are much like today’s acts of participating in a specific behavior, and taking selfies as a way to socialize and also show off. Larry Clark documented this long before it was possible to find these same types of images on Instagram or Snapchat. Thanks to technol­ogy, they’re now readily available, hashtagged, and searchable, perfect for great Internet listicles like #funeralselfie, which were heavily criticized in the press but, to me, seemed like pretty nor­mal teen behavior.

In a post I wrote for Hyperallergic, “Stop Freaking Out About Funeral Selfies,” I explained the backlash to funeral sel­fies, wherein teenagers were hashtagging pictures #funeralselfie of themselves either at or on their way to funerals. I thought about the ways that an inherent part of adolescence is how a teenager shares their feelings and what they’re up to with friends. The fact that these images of teens’ lives are publicly available and viewable by adults and randoms alike is what makes them appear more shocking. Normally, adults and randoms online are not privy to the social lives of teenagers.

Julie Weitz is an LA-based artist whose work explores what it’s like to exist digitally or, as she puts, it “the experience of embodiment in the digital realm.” She also happens to teach at community colleges in the LA area, a high school in South Cen­tral, and a nonprofit high school program at Otis College of Art and Design, so she has another view into the world of teenagers and social media. For Weitz, the difference she notices in how the “kids today” use technology has much to do with economics and what their parents use. That is, if the parents aren’t using the technology, it’s less likely that the kids will.

“The more privileged students have access to up-to-date technology and their parents are more likely to use it, hence making them more digitally savvy,” she said. “For my students who have less access to the Internet and advanced technology, their use seems more innocent. One student is an active blogger about video games, another student photographs and posts her artwork from the class online. Among this demographic, I see less of a change. The awkwardness of adolescence seems the same.”

Weitz was first introduced to Finstagram when she was teach­ing at a private high school in Brentwood, a wealthy area of Los Angeles. “A student introduced me to the concept of ‘Finsta’ or fake Instagram, which she explained to me was the normal Insta­gram you share with everyone which shows you in your best light, whereas your real Instagram is the one you share with your ‘soul sisters’ as she put it, and exposes you in all states of being—ugly, emotionally distressed, etc. This idea impressed me—the students recognized the inauthenticity of sharing yourself on social media, and repurposed it for a select few—keeping in mind the impor­tance of friendship and trust.”

Clearly, teens are social media savvy. Certainly, #funeralselfies became a thing before Finstagram was invented. But how do teens learn how to use social media?

“If the format of Instagram is about projecting an image for quick consumption, the question is: how do you feed the feed?” asked Weitz. “For teens tapped into that kind of self-awareness, social media can be an open space for sassy attitude and authen­tic creativity. The critical distinction is to recognize the difference between the persona they project in bits of information versus their complex, constantly growing selves. In this sense, socializ­ing IRL [in real life] will always be more productive and full.”

Socializing is no longer relegated to on or offline; instead, it is part of a continual fluid interchange. Or maybe you become close to someone in another country who you won’t immediately meet IRL. Or maybe you swipe on Tinder in cities thousands of miles away that you’re considering moving to, just to see who’s out there and to get the place’s vibe. When I was a teenager, AOL Instant Messenger was just becoming a thing, and I recall hav­ing a lot of chat sessions with friends. I’d leave the chat on and walk away from the computer, only to return and find messages waiting for me. It was exciting, immediate, and social. I try to replicate that excitement sometimes with text messages, leaving them hanging for hours or days because the anticipation itself makes the message arrival that much more fun. But that was a time when such technology was still super new, much slower, and not on smartphones.

“Teens today are at a period of their life where finding their place in a peer group is their primary developmental task,” said Rutledge. “They aren’t addicted to likes, but they are focused on finding their social milieu, and at least half of this is happening online.”

Professor Catherine Liu, who recently taught a class at the University of California at Irvine on the history of selfies, likens young people and selfie-taking to the communalism movement of the 1960s.

“The moral panic about youth culture replicates the youth culture panics that took place around rock ’n’ roll—these knee jerk reactions about ‘out of control’ young people who don’t care about privacy and are addicted to this thing,” said Liu when we spoke via phone. “This is reinforced from the cinematic network, from 'The Social Network' to 'The Bling Ring and Unfriended,' in addition to unsubstantiated memes about cyberbullying and cyberstalking.”

In addition, explained Liu, selfies also represent the fall of an industry that was built in the twentieth century: the family-oriented photography industry that centered around Kodak and Polaroid. “Early advertising of Kodachrome is very similar to Facebook and Instagram, with the goal of wanting to capture your memories.” Except the early Kodachrome ads were all of white, middle-class women doing domestic, family things all with the ease of their cameras, notes Liu.

“The problem is that we do give our data away,” said Liu. “Facebook is building our world, but the exchange still comes out on the side of the positive in terms of connectedness rather than being lost in the world of surveillance and narcissism.”

Enter my queer selfie ZONE, y’all

Many of the selfie studies out in the world approach gender as binary, which is very limiting and, frankly, annoying! Gen­der exists on a spectrum and it, along with race, class, sexuality, socioeconomic status, etc., all affect how and why people selfie. In the article “Of Selfies and Queer Folk” for Photoworks (UK), a development agency focused on photography, Sharif Mow­labowcus carves out an explanation for queer peoples’ deep-seated relationship with selfies—as a way to be seen by others in the networked community, and to exist authentically in spaces where otherwise one is either overlooked or shamed:

LGBT folk gravitated towards digital forms of communica­tion and identity performance with a deep sense of investment much earlier than their heterosexual compatriots. The queer self became ‘networked’ far earlier (and far more easily) than the straight self. In part this was due to necessity. Being seen as queer is never easy when the world one lives in is coded as a priori heterosexual. But there was something more in this migration to the digital, this leap into cyberspace. There was a gravitational pull that promised unprecedented visibility to the queer individual and the illusion of self-determination in how one might be seen by others.

Similarly, on the brilliant blog, created by geoff, a mixed-race genderqueer filipinx living in Toronto, they wrote:

Selfies are acts of resistance that disrupt normalized beauty, gendered and sexualized representations in mass media. They empower individuals to be active agents in defining their own beauty, gender and sexuality. Selfies provide visibility to non-normative bodies underrepresented and misrepresented in the media.

There’s a lot more to a selfie than meets the eye. In fact, some­times you wouldn’t know any of this from the surface, particu­larly from individuals who experience queer invisibility on a daily basis. That is, they are not read as queer out in the world. There is a privilege to being read as heterosexual, of course, but at the same time there is a sense of erasure. I was wondering about the ways that selfie culture could be used to help queer people con­nect. I’ve made a few queer friends off Tinder, but mostly I’ve used it for its main purpose: dating. I wondered if queer connec­tions could happen via Instagram, specifically by using hashtags as a way to be visible.

In fact, the answer to that question arrived. I received a fol­low from the account @babetownnyc, a pop-up supper club for queer women, trans and nonbinary people. They’d liked a selfie I had taken with my friend Kait Schuster at LA Dyke Day, which I’d hashtagged with #dykeday, making it easily searchable for queer companies like this one. I was being marketed to, and it worked. The account was a dinner party in Brooklyn for queer women, femme women, and gender nonconforming etc. . . . and they found me through a hashtag from the photo with Kait. (I did not go to the event.)

I thought more about the question of queer connection in relation to Kait’s Instagram (@kaitshoes), with whom I selfie-d that day. Her IG is mostly pictures of her, selfies or otherwise. She’s a queer femme and cisgendered (lady) who is also a writer, performer, and visual storyteller based in Los Angeles. We talked selfies one day by phone.

“I think social media is a really helpful tool in breaking the isolation of queer fear. If people are willing to be visible, using a hashtag can connect them to other people where even ten years ago we had only MySpace searches,” she told me. “It’s getting easier and easier to find people who are in similar boats as you. I think selfie culture is really helpful for that.”

Kait is one of the most empathetic people I know, and I wanted to understand her intention, aside from queer visibility, for wanting to hold this selfie space for herself on Instagram. Practically every photo on her account is of her. Was she anxious about possibly being called self-involved or narcissistic?

“It’s this weird low-brow / high-brow thing that happens, where I think about self-obsession in what is to me a pretty sophisticated way,” she said. “I am self-interested, and I do have that anxiety that people think that I’m self-interested. I kind of stopped the obsession around that by being like, ‘That’s true, but what if that’s not bad?’ I think there’s a lot of stigma around self-interest and what that means. At the same time, I don’t know anyone who is interesting to me who isn’t self-interested.”

The selfie can also be a way of attempting to externalize the internal, allowing for a specific type of self-expression. It’s another element of selfie-ing that Schuster told me she thinks about often.

“I’m so interested in myself and what motivates me, and I feel like my Instagram and my selfies are another expression of that,” she said. “I do so much internal work on myself—therapy, talking with friends, self-help books—and so taking selfies, using self-timers, and people taking pictures of me is almost like, ‘What is my internal movement doing for my external life?’”

There’s a specific gendering to referring to selfie-takers as “narcissistic” that I also want to point out as well. Generally, it’s men telling women that they are narcissists for selfie-ing, some­thing that critic John Berger recognized decades ago in his iconic book Ways of Seeing. He points out that in Western art, women have historically been subjects for the male gaze, with little con­trol over their bodies or subjectivities.

Considering the gendered active/passive relationship, women are the objects of desire and inspiration for the male gaze, and to act of their own accord is, as Berger described, somehow sud­denly labeled as narcissistic within the patriarchal viewing cul­ture by the very men who want to retain control. The same holds true, decades later, for the majority of selfie critiques issued by men about women taking selfies. Writes Berger of the contradic­tions inherent in a man painting a woman versus allowing her to view herself: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her; put a mirror in her hand and you called the paint­ing ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose naked­ness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”

In another condemnation of Western art history’s paintings of nude-women-by-men paradox, Berger famously notes: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch them­selves being looked at.” A woman taking a moment to actually look at herself is not only brave, but a threat to the patriarchal order. To quell that feminine threat, men immediately labeled her as vain, as someone who is crying out for attention (from men, because obviously who else could save a woman from herself?!). At the same time, the selfie taker captures the gaze and loves it. The selfie serves and it is pleasure, attention, and validation all in one. The super-liked selfie WINS. Period.

By Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is the author of "The Selfie Generation" and the visual art critic/reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Eler's cultural criticism and reporting have appeared in various publications, including the Guardian, GLAMOUR, New York Magazine, CNN, LA Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, New Inquiry, Hyperallergic, Aperture, MAXIM, Art21 magazine, and Artforum. She was cited as a selfie expert in the Washington Post and New York Magazine. Visit her on Twitter and Instagram at @aliciaeler.

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