When President Obama mugged for the camera with “selfie stick” in hand for a widely disseminated BuzzFeed video, his critics decried it with invective that ranged from mild disgust to racially charged rants.
“YOU CAN TAKE THE BOY OUT OF THE GHETTO…Watch this vulgar man show his stuff, while America cowers in embarrassment,” tweeted Dinesh D’Sousa. Not every conservative critic was as puerile as D’Sousa, but the party line still echoed the second half of the tweet. The viral video demeaned the office of President and could, you know, embolden terrorists or something.
It’s unlikely that ISIS will see the Obama selfie as a sign that America is too busy Snapchatting to mount a serious defense, but it’s possible that our political partisans have stumbled upon a mild point. Maybe real men of any cloth—much less the Commander-in-Chief—should think twice before snapping vanity shots of themselves and posting all over their social media accounts. Perhaps this is the perfect time to search our souls and ask ourselves as a culture: Are selfies simply a convenient communication tool in the Age of Smartphones… or the latest sign that we’re all becoming insufferable narcissists?
Impressionist painter Rembrandt was history’s first superstar of selfies—he painted or sketched 90 images of himself—thankfully none with a duckface pose.
We know how the Ancient Greeks might respond to this question. They’re the moral scolds behind the cautionary tale about Narcissus (yup, the source of the term “narcissism”), a vain guy who took the 600 BC equivalent of a selfie and died as a result. In the myth, Narcissus sees his reflection in a pool of water and falls head over heels in love with it. Unable to tear himself away from the beauty of his own visage, he eventually drowns.
It’s a story so harsh that it may have scared civilization away from images of self for a couple thousand years. They didn’t begin to flourish until the Renaissance, a time when cultural creators got bored of drawing God and inevitably turned inward. Impressionist painter Rembrandt was history’s first superstar of selfies—he painted or sketched 90 images of himself—thankfully none with a duckface pose. Later, Vincent Van Gogh’s vivid brand of serious self-portraits hinted at a tumultuous inner life.
These days, everyone—not just fame hounds like Kim Kardashian—is taking selfies: The Pope. NASA’s Mars Rover. Obama’s recent brief affair with the selfie stick was not even the first time he’s taken heat for aiming a camera at himself. In 2013, he was mocked for a funeral faux pas—snapping a selfie with and British prime minister David Cameron and Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. A generation ago, the idea of world and religious leaders tweeting goofy selfies would have been unimaginable. Can you see Teddy Roosevelt saying “Speak softly and carry a selfie stick?” Even if you were an average Joe, staging your own picture used to be considered embarrassing—a tacit admission that you didn’t have anyone around interested in taking your picture, yet your vanity compelled you to do so anyway.
Forget the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words; the selfie is usually worth less than a dozen. What can you say with a shot where you’re coolly driving a car with your shades down except for “WHAT UP?!”
But that self-consciousness has mostly disappeared, and we at least partially have technology to blame for that. Whereas staging a self-portrait used to be a pain in the ass, the front-facing cameras now ubiquitous on our super duper smartphones have made the act nearly effortless. A poll by Samsung U.K. reported that 30 percent of all the photographs taken by millennials result from holding a cell phone at arm’s length from one’s own face.
But it’d be a mistake to equate the artfully painted self-portraiture of the Dutch masters with, say, James Franco’s frequently updated Instagram account. The quick snapshot taken on a smartphone is less a glimpse into one’s soul than the visual equivalent of a status update. Forget the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words; the selfie is usually worth less than a dozen. They’re casual and often completely banal: Dudes flexing their pecs in front of a mirror, sneering in a bar while holding a drink or throwing up faux gang signs in front of a famous monument. What can you say with a selfie where you’re coolly driving a car with your shades down except for “WHAT UP?!”
In a column for the New York Times, Franco, who has been nicknamed the King of Selfies, claimed they fill in the gaps of a conversation when texting cannot do something justice. “In the end,”he writes, “selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are.” Selfies aren’t pretentious remarks about ourselves, in other words, but visual diaries of the here and now. This makes sense, but Franco’s explanation doesn’t tell the whole story. If selfies represent man’s noble attempt at slipping into the role of laymen journalists recording the moment, why do we so often edit these moments with filters and try to capture our most flattering sides.
An Ohio State study found that men who post selfies tend to show more psychopathic traits than those who don’t, and men who are “prolific selfie posters” scored lower in empathy and higher in impulsivity.
Probably because we’re not documentarians as much as our own public relations team. The critic Alicia Eler noted that they’re “where we become our own biggest fans and private paparazzi.” By controlling every pixel of a digital image of ourselves, we’re manicuring the image we project out to the world. We love the idea that someone, anyone, might see us. Every click of the Like button increases exposure and esteem. There’s nothing wrong with that in small quantities, but the constant reinforcement can lead to a cycle where you’re addicted to the attention of others even when you don’t actually care about them. An Ohio State study found that men who post selfies tend to show more psychopathic traits than those who don’t, and men who are “prolific selfie posters” scored lower in empathy and higher in impulsivity. Add that to a new University at Buffalo School of Management finding that men tend to be more narcissistic than women, and it’s possible to see the selfie obsession as a slippery slope that leads us (metaphorically speaking) down the path of poor Narcissus.
Context matters. Obama’s selfie was a stunt ultimately meant to promote his health care law, not himself. The act of taking a selfie isn’t inherently bad, but it can be if we’re habitually doing it for the cheap dopamine rush of cyber flattery or we’re experiencing too much of our life through the lens of a camera. Travel writer Paul Theroux once said: “I never bring a camera—because taking pictures, I’ve found, makes me less observant and interferes with my memory.”
Maybe some of us are having trouble fully seeing the world because we’re clogging up the view with ourselves.