Mirror photos and arm length self-taken photos are our generation’s most common forms of self portraits, largely because technology and social media have become more accessible to the general population. We can create these “selfies” at almost any moment of the day through almost any devices—cellphone, laptop, tablets, etc. Furthermore, the technological affordances, which are “the social capabilities technological qualities enable” (Baym, 44), of those devices and social media helped spur them. Phones now have cameras on both sides, Facebook and Instagram now have the take photo option, and social media offers filters to help us look as we want. Why take these photos ourselves though? Because we want control; we want others to view us in the way we want them to. However, people often forget the phenomenon of the “foggy mirror”, which was termed by Ellison et. al and mentioned by Nancy Baym in “Personal Connections in the Digital Age” (Baym, 118). This phenomenon is the idea that individuals are often limited by their own perception of themselves, forgetting that their onlookers might not see the same image.
Peggy Drexler, a research psychologist, touches upon this concept in her article “Our Gender, Ourselves: What Your Selfies Say About You” along with her ideas of “selfies”‘s role in our society. She begins her article by mentioning Kimberly Hall‘s “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)” blog post which berates female teenagers who post inappropriate photos online. Through this Drexler exposes how selfies are often perceived negatively. She then stresses that it is not only technology that lead to selfies, nor is it just individual’s need for control in regards to self-presentation, but that it is also our society’s culture. She argues that selfies are “a manisfestation of society’s obsession with looks” and that “its ever-narcissistic embrace” coaxed this phenomenon forth. Although they maybe be empowering, they may also reflect negatively on the individual, affecting their online image and social ties.
While I agree with Drexler’s belief that our society’s obsession with appearances plays a significant role, I also believe that it is people’s need to fit in that brought forth selfies.
As we all know, shame typically accompanies the taking and posting of the selfie. According to Urban Dictionary a selfie is “a picture taken of yourself that is planned to be uploaded to Facebook, Myspace or any other sort of social networking website. You can usually see the person’s arm holding out the camera, in which case you can clearly tell that this person does not have any friends to take pictures of them”. The technological affordances of social media sites have helped eliminate that small trace of shame. Features such as “liking” a photo and the “take photo” option by profile picture preferences in a way validate selfies.
However, society makes it socially acceptable by making selfies a trend (i.e. #selfie), a clear demonstration of what Zizi Papacharissi calls “reiteration” in her essay “Without You, I’m Nothing: Performances of the Self on Twitter” and social construction.
As Baym articulates, human interaction shapes technology. She states that “people are the primary sources of change in both technology and society” (24). It is our need to “reiterate” or in other words, establish selfies as normal that transformed the phenomenon into an ongoing trend. As Drexler articulates, our culture has progressively placed more and more emphasis on appearances, to the point where we reconstructed our online presentations of ourselves to selfies. But why selfies?
While Drexler’s emphasizes our culture’s obsession with looks as a major factor in the emergence of selfies, I believe she overlooks why our culture places such a huge emphasis on appearances, a topic that many of our course readings address. It is human nature to seek companions, to find a circle, and to fit in. As Caroline Haythornwaite expresses in her article “Social Networks and Internet Connectivity Effects“, discomfort in one’s physical and real environment often times pushes individuals to seek comfort elsewhere. That elsewhere is usually the online world. We are constantly seeking social ties and according to Haythonwaite, “online participants themselves report strongly held, close ties with others that are as important to them as any offline tie” (Haythornthwaite, 136). Because we seek these online social ties, self-presentation becomes priority, a concept that Drexler dismisses as insignificant. Although digital media disrupts the notion that one body gets one self (Baym), our personal profiles give us a way to present ourselves accordingly. In “Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline”, Don Slater speaks of this notion of disembodied identities. He believes that most of our online activities disemboddies us, but our photos reembody us in the virtual world. Papacharissi expresses that the affordance of the digital is that we can change who you are or seem to be through performativity. She describes personal homepages as carefully controlled performances. It is on these pages that people have the most control of self-presentation; it is here that we reembody ourselves.
However, people often forget that their imagined audience (Marwick and Boyd) may not perceive them the way they intend for them to, otherwise known as Ellison et al.’s “foggy mirror” concept. As Erving Goffman suggests in “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life“, self-presentation is collaborative. Our identities are constituted not only by ourselves, but also through our interactions with others. In trying to “manage our impressions” through selfies, we sometimes negatively portray ourselves. Drexler’s article does an excellent job in demonstrating this. According to the U.K. study she mentions, not only can people become “less likeable”, but selfies also decrease real intimacy, weakening social ties. Had she addressed the questions of why our culture is so obsessed with appearances and how that contributed to the emergence of selfies, her argument regarding these negative effects would be stronger. In doing so, she could have contrasted how selfies are a way of adding intimacy to people’s online profile (in efforts to strengthen social ties) to how they in fact decrease that intimacy.