The Selfie Shtick

Scott McLemee reviews I Love My Selfie, by Ilan Stavans, which examines what the book's author calls the "business card for an emotionally attuned world."

March 15, 2017
 
iStock/Rohappy
 

Andy Warhol’s prediction about fame merits the occasional update. One that popped into my head not long ago after crossing paths with a gaggle of tourists holding their cellphones at arm’s length and smiling: “In the future, everyone will take a selfie every 15 minutes.”

After launching this random thought into the world via social media, I realized almost immediately that it wasn’t much of a prophecy. A poll in 2013 found that almost every third picture taken by someone between the ages of 18 and 24 was a selfie. The following year, participants in a Google developers’ conference heard that the users of one type of cellphone were snapping 93 million selfies per day. My reworking of Warhol’s point might not literally describe the status quo now, but it could certainly be taken for evidence of aging, as in fact my friends were not long in pointing out.

No longer a fad though not a tradition quite yet, the selfie is one of those cultural phenomena that almost everyone can recognize as probably symptomatic -- the result of social, psychological and technological forces too inexorable to escape but too troubling to think about for very long. (Other examples: reality television, sex robots, cars that drive themselves.)

Even the most ardent or compulsive selfie taker must have moments of uneasiness at how tightly the genre knots together self-expression and self-obsession, leaving not much room for anything else. A recent paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology identifies a selfie-specific form of ambivalence unlikely to go away. It is called “The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to Like Them Yet Everyone Has Reasons to Take Them. An Exploration of Psychological Functions of Selfies in Self-Presentation.”

More on that shortly. But first, a quick look at a book with a more compact and less literal title, I Love My Selfie, by the critic and essayist Ilan Stavans (Duke University Press). A few of the author’s selfies appear in the book, along with reproductions of self-portraits by Rembrandt, van Gogh and Warhol, but it would be an irony-impaired reader indeed who took him to be making any claim to equivalence. The book’s spirit is much closer to that of the Puerto Rican multimedia artist Adál Alberto Maldonado, whose work appears throughout its pages and who titled one photo series “Go Fuck Your Selfie: I Was a Schizophrenic Mambo Dancer for the FBI.” The seed for Stavans’s book was the preface he wrote for a collection of photos by Adál, as he prefers to be known. (Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College.)

“Richard Avedon once said that a portrait is a picture of someone who knows he is being portrayed,” writes Stavans. “… The self-portrait is that knowledge twice over.” Combined with the highly developed skills of a painter or a photographer, that redoubled awareness can reveal more than the creator’s idealized self-image. The late self-portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe, for instance, “emit a stoicism that is frightening … as if his statement was ‘The world around me is falling apart, but I’m still here, a chronicler of my times.’” Adál’s quietly surreal photographs of himself posing with various props are an oblique and sometimes comic reflection on being a Puerto Rican artist obliged to deal with whatever assumptions the viewer may bring to his work.

Selfies, by contrast, are what’s left of the self-portrait after all technique, discipline, talent and challenge are removed from the process. They exist to be displayed -- not to reveal the self but to advertise it. Stavans calls the selfie “a business card for an emotionally attuned world” and describes life in the public sphere of social media as “a mirage, a solipsistic exercise in which we believe we’re connecting with others while in truth we’re just synchronizing with the image we have of them in our mind.”

And as with other forms of advertising, too much truthfulness would damage the brand. Most selfies never go out into the world. “The trash icon in which we imprison them,” Stavans writes, “is the other side of our life, the one we reject, the one we condemn.”

The authors of “The Selfie Paradox,” Sarah Diefenbach and Lara Christoforakos, are researchers in the department of psychology of Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. The participants in their study were 238 individuals living in Austria, Germany and Sweden between 18 and 63 years of age, recruited from email lists and at university events. They were asked about the frequency with which they took selfies and received them from other people, as well as a series of questions designed to elicit information about their personality and feelings about, and motivations for, taking and viewing selfies.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, people who stated that they were open about their feelings and prone to discussing their accomplishments also tended to enjoy taking selfies. And consistently enough, those inclined to downplay their own successes also tended to report “negative selfie-related affect” -- i.e., were decidedly nonenthusiastic about selfies.

The researchers found broad agreement with the idea that selfies could have unpleasant consequences (inciting derogatory comments, for example) but much less regarding what the positive effects might be. “The only aspect that reached significant agreement” the researchers found, “was self-staging, i.e., the possibility to use selfies for presenting an intended image to others.” Positive benefits such as expressing independence or connection with others were recognized by far fewer participants. And those who took selfies more often were more likely to identify positive consequences for the activity:

In a way, taking selfies may be a self-intensifying process, where one discovers unexpected positive aspects (besides self-staging) while engaging in the activity and this positive experience encourages further engagement. Nevertheless, the majority showed a rather critical attitude, and among the perceived consequences of selfies, negative aspects clearly predominate.

To put it another way, participants in the study tended to acknowledge that putting a selfie out into the world could backfire -- while the only broadly accepted benefit of a selfie they recognized was that of self-display or self-promotion. Though the researchers do not spell out the connection, these attitudes seem mutually reinforcing. If the most recognized motivation for posting a selfie is to benefit the ego, exposing its vulnerabilities would be an associated danger.

Another of the findings also seems in accord with this logic: participants were likely to explain their reasons for taking and posting selfies as ironic or self-deprecating -- while showing much less tendency to assume that other people were doing the same. They also expressed a preference for others to post more nonselfie photographs.

Indeed, people who reported taking a lot of selfies tended “not to like viewing others’ selfie pictures and rather wish for a higher number of usual photos.” It seems in accord with one of Stavans’s observations: “Looking at a favorite selfie is like entering into a world in which we, and nobody else, exist in an uninterrupted fashion.” At least until Narcissus falls into the pool and drowns.

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