In defence of selfies

By Greg Stevens on November 5th, 2013

It was harder to take selfies in the 1990s. Cameras were relatively big, and we would use up a roll or two of film without knowing how they turned out. Then we would have to bring the rolls of film to one of those small photo development places that usually promised to give back prints in 24 hours.

Often these photos were processed by hand, by people in the camera store, meaning that we could look forward to smirks or giggles from the person behind the counter when we went to finally pick up the order, especially if we were taking naughty pictures.

To get those selfies onto the internet, we had to go to our school’s computer centre to scan the photos in. We would go to the computer centre late at night, when few people were around, hoping our teachers wouldn’t wander in and see what we were doing.

We would surreptitiously set the photos on the scanner, and wait for the long and involved process to create a digital file. We could then copy the image to our floppy disk to take it home and upload it to AOL or Geocities or any of the small handful of other websites that were available back then.

That didn’t stop us, though. There was a dedicated community of people taking amateur photos of themselves and uploading them to the internet, even before digital cameras, smartphones and social media. They weren’t called “selfies” back then: in fact, there wasn’t a word for it at all. But as the years passed, websites sprung up that were dedicated to young people who were obsessed with taking and sharing pictures of themselves.

FaceTheJury.com and HotOrNot.com were two of the more popular ones. For years before digital cameras were even commonplace, not to mention camera functionality in smartphones, young people were madly taking photo after photo and uploading them to either brag or beg for compliments or demonstrate to their friends how stupid they were – or, most frequently, a combination of all of these.

Although “selfies” seem to have grown into an epidemic phenomenon in recent years, there is no real indication that this is due to a change in young people, their attitudes about privacy, or their level of self-obsession. Rather, it can all be explained merely as a change in the technology itself. More young people use the internet and have the ability to take digital photos, and more forums are available to upload and share those photos. It is accessibility, not personality, that has changed.

Young people have always been idiots

There is something almost unseemly about the relish that some adults take in decrying how terrible young people “have become” in recent years. Perhaps it functions as a way to deny their own delinquency from their own misspent youths. But regardless of origin, the fact remains that in almost every generation, going back for centuries, there have been reports from adults that young people are just about the worst they have ever been.

Cornelia A P Comer once wrote an long letter in which she complained that young people are growing up “painfully commercialised even in their school days”, and that the “rising generation cannot spell … its English is slipshod and commonplace”. It sounds like any number of criticisms that one reads on the internet today. But she wrote that letter in 1911.

Even Socrates complained that young people “now love luxury” and “no longer rise when elders enter the room”.

In more recent years, psychologists have weighed in and tried to answer the question scientifically. Using the standard psychological diagnosis associated with “selfies”, the researchers ask: are young people today more narcissistic than they have been in previous generations?

Jean M Twenge and her associates collected together results from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) recorded from college students going back to 1979. They found that over time there seemed to be a steady increase in this score, suggesting a steady climb in the narcissism of college students. A detailed publication of the study’s results can be found as a PDF document. The media thus has dubbed our current crop of youths the “Me Generation”.

In the time since those results were published, however, a number of other researchers have come back with criticisms of both the methodology and the interpretation of the results. As well as the usual tedious arguments that scientists get into about the collection of data and the details of performing statistical comparisons (although if you are interested you can find an example of such a response here), there is a more general and very important criticism that is especially relevant to a discussion about “selfies”: the problem of cultural expectations.

The light and dark of cultural change

The NPI questionnaire is an extremely subjective, and extremely culturally embedded document. If you want to see what it is like, you can take it online. It asks people whether they agree with statements such as “I will be a success”, “I like to be complimented” and “I always know what I’m doing”. These statements are, of course, correlated with a great number of things, including self-esteem, extraversion and general satisfaction with life. They are also correlated with narcissism.

Twenge and her colleagues admit that they were unable to track the change over time in the rate of specific responses to specific statements. If the decade-by-decade increase in narcissism is a true statistical result, a matter still under debate, then it might be important to know whether it is due to (for example) more students thinking that they are better than their peers, versus more women believing that they can achieve their life goals.

The former is surely what most people instinctively think of when they hear that “narcissism is increasing”; the latter, on the other hand, should be applauded as a success of feminism and the equal rights movement.

Cultural attitudes toward body and fashion have also changed over time. For decades, advertising and fashion trends have promoted clothing that is increasingly revealing, making bare midriffs and skimpy shorts normal, even yawn-worthy, in today’s society compared to their scandalous status 30 or 40 years ago.

In some sense this can be interpreted as very healthy, as our culture has been able to shed the somewhat medieval instinct to feel shame for our own bodies. As part of the feminist revolution, women have been increasingly encouraged to feel pride about their bodies, regardless of whether those bodies conform to cultural stereotypes of beauty or not.

So when the NPI finds that students increasingly agree with statements such as “I like to show off my body” and “I like to look at my body”, why is that still considered to be an indicator of narcissism? Isn’t that a sign of healthy self-esteem and the success of a cultural liberalisation that has fought to overcome the oppression of puritanism and self-repudiation?

Standards change over time. Does it make sense to spend decades reforming our educational systems to tell women, minorities, and the alternately-abled that they can achieve whatever they want to achieve … only to cry out in horror when there is an increase in the number of young people who believe “I can achieve whatever I want”?

Crushing sexuality

There is a darker side, as well, when adults love to get in the high dudgeon over the scandalous obsession that young people have with taking pictures of themselves, and that is the issue of control. Especially when the warning is directed specifically at young girls, the motivation of the adults can sometimes be an uncomfortable issue to address.

This is image that is often invoked to scare parents, after all – you’d better watch to see what kinds of pictures your teenage daughter is putting on the internet! It is true that there are consequences of putting photographs, especially salacious or scantily-clad photographs, out into the world, and many young people do not carefully consider or understand these consequence in their entirety.

On the other hand, I would also suggest that we take heed of the perspective offered by Laurie Penny in the book, Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet.

In this book, Penny points out that although it is dressed up as the laudable goal of “protecting children”, there is something that can seem both sexist and sinister about adults, often men, constantly telling girls that they better keep away from the internet for their own good. It feels too much like a long-standing pattern of men telling women: the world out there is dangerous, you can’t handle it, so you better just stay home and put on make-up.

From the larger perspective of culture, we may do well to ask ourselves: are “selfies” objectionable because they are truly damaging to young people? Or are they objectionable because they represent the budding exploration of agency and sexuality in minors that most parents would simply rather not grapple with?

Don’t blame the technology

Finally, of course, there is the simple matter of bad manners. The most recent hysteria in the news over selfies has been over a Tumblr that someone created called Selfies at Funerals. The media has, predictably, gone nuts.

But casting this issue as somehow being an issue about selfies in particular is completely misguided. This has absolutely nothing to do with smartphone technology, nor does it have anything to do with some heightened problem of narcissism in young people today. This is the same, age-old problem of knowing when to have good manners.

George Washington, at the precocious age of 16, famously put to paper a list of 110 rules of good manners with the title “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation”. This was ironic, since, according to the book Generations by Neil Howe and William Straus, the young Washington’s peer group was commonly criticised for their drinking, gambling, crime, begging and bankruptcy. Historian William Pencak reportedly described Washington’s generation as “young people with nothing to do and nowhere to go”.

Young George Washington did not have a smartphone and had no concept of selfies, but he still found it necessary to warn his peers: “Let thy ceremonies in Courtesie be proper to the Dignity of his place with whom thou conversest, for it is absurd to act the same with a Clown and a Prince.”

This is the same advice that parents should give their children when it comes to taking pictures of oneself at funerals. But parents and reporters alike need to take a breath and not focus on mobile phones and the like as if they were the source of the  problem. The problem is the simple problem of bad manners, and it needs to be dealt with accordingly. Don’t blame phones. Don’t blame narcissism. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t blame “selfies”.