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Katrin Tiidenberg: Selfies - narcissism or a way of self expression?

26.02.2015


Katrin Tiidenberg, a lecturer at the Tallinn University Institute of International and Social Studies discusses whether selfies are lame narcissism or just normal self-expression

Selfies or self-pictures have lately created mixed emotions. Photographs defined as pictures made by ourselves using a phone camera or a webcam and an extended arm or a reflective surface, are then shared via social media. The media often brings it up – be it a problem with taking too many selfies or with them being too vane.

New technology and new media have always created moral panic. When the first sewing machines were launched, people were afraid the constant rocking of the foot would affect a woman’s sexuality. The Walkman was accused of making the young people get lost in individual worlds and losing the ability to communicate. Comic books, Rock’n’Roll, romance novels – they have all been accused of ruining the manners of women and young people.

Taking pictures of oneself is nothing revolutionary. As a result of scientific research, it is mostly seen as a form of self-expression, self-exploration and communication, which connects writing a diary or letters, looking in the mirror and amateur photography. The influence taking selfies has on the individual relies mostly on the social and cultural context of that person. A writer would not get full pleasure from reading their new existentialist novel to children at a kindergarten, nor would a skater enjoy showing their ollies or 900s to their grandma. It’s the same with selfies.

We have often heard that selfies are a sign of narcissism or that taking selfies is unmanly. Neither of these are true, but constant repetition is a powerful tool.

Shaming selfies in such a way creates a new norm of condemning people because of their social practices. A person taking selfies is pitiful just because they take them. How can a way of self-expression be bad in principle? When was the last time anyone asked you to stop writing poetry, watching music videos or sending texts, because they imply you have bad manners or are psychologically unstable?

Why do we get so hysterical over selfies? To simplify, we can narrow it down to two processes:

-          The media’s strive to survive in an age of digitization means that selfies get too much exposure. Selfies give us reasons to cover subjects the readers have always had an interest in – the youth, moral panics, and peoples’ behinds. To count all the new “world-ending selfie trends) and the weird names given by the media (belfie as in butt selfie or felfie as in farmer selfie), would take a whole day.

-          In addition, if we look at the main selfie stereotypes, we can see a collective uncertainty that selfies would make groups, who are traditionally not covered, visible – young women, homosexuals and those who are not considered classically beautiful. By doing that, they threaten the status quo of the dominant normative ideology.