I remember the days when there was one camera per family, film was expensive and developing photos even more so. Family gatherings inevitably ended in a highly awkward and equally reluctant group photo taken against the backdrop of a flag, hoisted up to mark whatever occasion was being celebrated. Despite one half of the people looking like rabbits in headlights and the other like they’d escaped from an asylum, these photos were saved and cherished in albums, though never looked at again.
From reluctant and awkward subjects of amateur photography, we have very quickly evolved into highly self-obsessed selfie-takers. As is with news, we don’t have to take the world as someone else sees it anymore – anyone can be a media, and everyone can have editorship of the way they want to be seen by others.
There are people who say that never before in democracies have people had the public arena for themselves like today. Some may be disappointed to see the amount of hatred, frustration and narcissism that is portrayed across social media, but it’s all part of freedom of speech and expression, isn’t it?
What I find interesting is the evolution of Western culture to the current point of heightened individualism. I find it fascinating how the American ideal of success being a personal responsibility is becoming a norm also in the social-democratic, Calvinist North (I am cutting some corners here to make a point, it’s obviously not all that black and white), making people chase success by portraying perfection.
American psychologist Richard Nisbett said “the further west you go, the more individualistic, the more delusional about choice, the more the emphasis on self-esteem, the more the emphasis on self-just-about-everything, until it all falls into the Pacific. I don’t know if you’re aware that California had a budget for increasing self-esteem?” which I think is a brilliant way to illustrate the difference between the Eastern and Western cultures, where the emphasis on individualism versus groups/tribes falls very differently.
We in the North have often been told to take a leaf out of the Americans’ book and get ourselves some of that “can do” attitude. Though it wasn’t always like that in the US, either. Maintaining a sunny and winning disposition came about with post-war societal changes. In the 1940s Harvard University began advising admissions officials to reject “sensitive” applicants and instead focus on “healthy and extroverted” ones. Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” had just come out, as had Reverend Dr Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking”.
Now, none of the references to the US clearly explain the sudden gung-ho exhibitionism half of the universe is currently demonstrating. Where does it come from? What makes us exhibit our edited lives the way we do?
I came across an interesting book about this topic, written by journalist and author Will Storr called Selfie. Storr does a brilliant tour de table of history, psychology and neuroscience in his quest to explain the selfie-phenomenon. The emphasis in the book tends to be in the US, but what I found very interesting were his musings on cultural history of Ancient Greece and China. Also there is an enjoyable bit on two parallel election campaigns: the Brexit -vote in the UK and the US presidential elections.
“Selfie” is as much pop-culture as its topic, but there is some food for thought on the philosophy of individualism and how it is becoming a norm also outside California, how it is changing societies faster than anything before, and how it is already showing devastating psychological effects (the book starts at a suicide clinic).
This post could clearly only be illustrated with a selfie, so here you are. Above rather a classic with an attempt at a duckface. I was also generous with the filters currently on offer, and oh, are there many! So I used about all of them. In reality I obviously don’t look anything like what you see in the picture, but that’s the point of selfies, no?
Speaking of duckfaces, call me middle aged but I actually thought one only does this facial expression during the taking of a selfie. I was so wrong. During a recent trip to London I witnessed many a duckface at a very respectable department store as well as on the streets. By adults about my age.
Either one has to use the off-time to practice this expression so as to get it just so as soon as a selfie-moment beckons, or people have come to think it actually makes for a good look. Not being an authority of looks good or bad I cannot judge, but adults pouting like half-wits while going about their shopping makes for rather an unsettling spectacle.