Selfies have been getting a lot of attention, too much in some people’s opinion. Research into people’s selfie practices and motivations has revealed their many social and cultural functions. Yet, they are also persistently judged and often misunderstood, a perfect target for technology-related moral panics, gendered shaming and the resulting normative regulation . There are many ways to try to gauge the cultural and societal importance and implication of selfies. One of these is to take a more thorough look at the role of language.
Language – as a collective cultural practice – produces specific impressions of reality and creates particular truths. It is a powerful means of shaping and constraining what we think is important, good, bad, knowable, obvious, natural etc. With this in mind, the wide reach of the word ‘selfie’ is significant. Beyond the Oxford English Dictionary’s (2013) word of the year, it was also the word of the year in the Netherlands (2013), Belgium (2013), Great Britain (2013), France (2014), Spain (2014) and Austria (2014). I crowd-sourced some information from the Selfie Researcher’s Network and, according to my international colleagues, the word ‘selfie’ has taken root in many countries across the globe. In some countries, it has displaced a local word, for example, in Spain autofoto was initially used, but has been overshadowed by ‘selfie’. In other countries, there are local alternatives , but they are not nearly as popular as ‘selfie’. In Pakistan ‘selfie’ has become a substitute for the words tasweer (photo) and aksbandi (image), so whenever people are speaking of taking pictures, they will say ‘selfie’. In some Asian countries localized versions that follow the linguistic logic that coined ‘selfie’ in English seem to be popular. In Korean selca (merging the words self and camera) is used; Mandarin speakers use zipai (self-shot in Mandarin, it refers to both the practice and the image).
‘Selfie’ is a funny little word. It is truncated and ‘-ie’ suffixed, and an ‘-ie’ suffix evokes baby talk for most users of English. However, at this juncture, it is important to remember that the word ‘selfie’ is from Australia . Diminutives are a natural part of Australian English; they function as a sign of informality, familiarity and cultural similarity between speakers. I guess this might help explain why some people, who do not necessarily mind the practice (e.g., the art critic Jerry Saltz), find the diminutive infantile and stupid. Is it possible that the cultural imaginaries that the word ‘selfie’ conjures up in the context of British or American English make it seem derogatorily small, whereas in the context of Australian English it just refers to something endearingly self-aware of its own mundaneness? Is it possible that the regional connotations of the ‘-ie’ have had a role in the contrasting emotional reactions people have had to the selfie phenomenon? There’s no way of telling, but it is interesting to imagine whether a different nickname would have attached a different valence to the practices. What if selfies were ‘me pics’ or ‘I-shots’? Would we still have so readily attributed narcissism and banality to them?
Looking at how the word ‘selfie’ is used more widely, it becomes apparent that in popular discourse it often means much more than an image you take of yourself and post on social media. It is used as a metaphor and a metonym. Metaphors compare one thing to another, and the presumption is that the second thing is known well and widely enough to clarify the first thing. On the level of language, metaphors function with substitution. They are used instead of another word or phrase. A metonym is a figure of speech used to substitute a word or a phrase as well, but it works on the basis of association that comes from conceptual or physical closeness between the substituting and the substituted word. So, in ‘hit the bottle’, the bottle is a metonym for alcohol, and in ‘Hollywood has a sexual harassment problem’, Hollywood is a metonym for the movie and entertainment industry.
Legendary communication scholar Kenneth Burke argued back in 1941 that we present and organize thought through master tropes, two of which are metaphor and metonymy. Both tell us how people make sense of their world and what they assume the currently accepted ‘truths’ to be. They highlight some aspects of the situations and they describe, but obscure others. This means that metaphors distort what we notice about the world, and as internet researcher Annette Markham (2003) has said, the more concrete our metaphors become, the more they box in our thinking.
What does the use of ‘selfie’ as trope tell us about how we collectively make sense of it and its place in our world? To answer this, I’d like to discuss a couple of popular phrases often used around selfies. They’re from a set of news media articles and popular book titles I have gathered and bookmarked over the years.
‘Selfie generation’ is a good one to start with. It’s quite popular, but the meaning of the term is vague. It can be used to refer to an actual cohort of people born within the same date range (mostly millennials or sometimes the generation after them), but it can also be used to speak of an undefined group of social media users and the risks they face. ‘Selfie generation’ functions both as a metonym and a metaphor for issues of privacy and safety on social networking sites. Often the term highlights the fact that the speaker or the writer uses social media differently from the people categorized as the ‘selfie generation’. Looking at what the term ‘selfie generation’ illuminates and obscures, I found that in popular discourse it is linked to the following: “global self-obsession”; “narcissism, vanity of epic scale”; “selfish, narcissistic spoilt kids”; and “superficial, duck-faced egomaniacs”.
I think we can agree that this portrayal is overwhelmingly negative; focusing particularly on the selfish and the vain. What is interesting to note here is that the last description in the list above, is actually from a pro-selfie text, yet the rhetorical link to self-obsession is reproduced there too.
Another widely used example of selfie as a metaphor is the ‘selfie world’, which seems to be peculiarly popular in religious or otherwise spiritual self-help books. Titles like Selfless Living in a Selfie World (2014) or #Struggles: Following Jesus in a Selfie-Centered World (2015) equate the selfie world with a selfish world. In this sense ‘selfie world’ carries the same rhetoric of anxiety as the ‘selfie generation’, but the apex of the problem is placed with the circumstance or the times, not directly with a group of social media users. In ‘selfie world’ texts, selfie becomes a metaphor for:
“problems with body image, sex, dating, substance abuse, materialism, perfectionism and comparison”;
“society losing touch with its humanity”;
“a culture that preaches ‘you’re entitled’ and ‘it’s all about you”;
“lack of satisfaction, authenticity and difficulties with caring”;
“worry, feeling overweight, getting bullied, feeling ‘lost’ and having destructive mind habits”;
“pride, mental issues and despair”.
Both ‘selfie generation’ and ‘selfie world’ speak to the presumed ailments of the selfie culture, but they seem to jam all the worries we’ve historically had about communication technologies, the internet, morals, chastity, vanity, solidarity and individualism into the tiny, but endlessly stretchy, phenomenon of the selfie. In these texts the selfie metaphor organizes thought in a way that illuminates the self-centered and individualistic aspects of selfie practices and obscures their connective, communicative or creative aspects. This boxes in how we’re capable of thinking about selfies and creates boundaries where there previously were none.
Such metaphoric use of ‘selfie’ also generally presumes that individuals are responsible for what is wrong with the society. Even in ‘selfie world’ texts, the envisioned solutions come from changing personal behavior. This bias is often addressed in critiques of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is an ideology that propagates the application of market principles as widely as possible, presuming that markets are the best way to allocate scarce goods. Collective checks on corporate power are dismissed as threats to freedom, and people and groups are guided to relate to each other as buyers and sellers and not members of a collective. The side effects of this ideology include blaming victims of the system for their own misfortunes and chastising individuals to fight vast structural problems through shifts in personal behavior and not, for example, through demanding legal regulation.
‘Selfie’ does also function as a more positive metaphor. I noticed this mostly in fiction books with titles like ‘Songs of my Selfie’, ‘All By My Selfie’ or just ‘Selfie: A Novel’. In these publications, links are created between selfies and:
Ambitions and frustrations, humor and heartbreak, despair and joie de vivre;
A search for identity in the digital age; and
Learning to keep a beautiful smile on your face and growing as a person.
In such fiction, selfie seems to connote self-reflection and self-growth, but in particular the ups and downs of lived experiences and emotions; in some cases, specifically for the millennial generation. This partially echoes the six types of selfies’ social functions I offer in my book .
Overall, it can be said that ‘selfie’ has indeed become a rhetorical trope with significant cultural power. In popular discourse ‘selfie’ is used as a metonym for social media and social media use, perhaps even internet use, and a metaphor for selfishness, inauthenticity and individualization, as well as self-discovery and self-reflection. The negatives being more popular than the positives.
- I go into all of this in my book “Selfies, why we love (and hate) them.”
- For example, selvbillede (self-picture) in Denmark, selvepilt (self-picture) in Estonia, sjølving (sjølv is self and -ing is a diminutive suffix) in Norway, and özçekim (öz means self in the spiritual sense, and çekim means “taking” as in taking a photo) in Turkey.
- The earliest known example of using the word ‘selfie’ is from 2002, when a man posted an image of his busted lip onto an Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s discussion forum. He captioned it with a: ‘sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.’
- Selfies are a way to perform, a broader social practice that underpins selfies’ other functions, which are that selfies are a way for people to think, to interact, to feel, to express, and to work; all of which help us become and belong.
Katrin Tiidenberg is an Associate Professor of Social Media and Visual Culture at the Baltic Film, Media, Arts and Communication School of Tallinn University, Estonia. She is the author of two books on social media practices – “Selfies, why we love (and hate) them” (2018) and “Body and Soul on the Internet – making sense of social media” (in Estonian, 2017). She is a member of the Executive Committee of Association of Internet Researcher. She is currently writing and publishing on digital research ethics, visual research methods and networked visual cultures. More info at: kkatot.tumblr.com