Selfies: Narcissistic self-indulgence or harmless fun?

Is the selfie just a bit of harmless fun — or the ultimate in narcissistic self indulgence? Jonathan deBurca Butler reports.

Selfies: Narcissistic self-indulgence or harmless fun?

AT the end of last Sunday’s Dublin stage of the Giro d’Italia bicycle race, winner Marcel Kittel fell to the ground, exhausted. Close by was Corkman David McCarthy. Instead of helping the cyclist, McCarthy took a selfie — he photographed himself, smiling, next to the grimacing sportsman. After heavy criticism, McCarthy apologised, but his actions again raised the issues of taste and self-promotion

Buried deep in her busy Twitter account, model Rosanna Davison has posted a telling photo.

On one side of a split page is an image of a regal, elegant Neil Armstrong, the astronaut.

The caption beneath him reads: ‘Went to the moon, took five photos.’

On the other side of the page is an image of a girl in the toilet of a bar, aiming her smartphone at a mirror.

The caption beneath her reads: ‘Went to the bathroom, took twenty-seven photos.’

“I just thought it was rather ironic and funny,” says the former Miss World. “It just demonstrates how popular selfies have become in recent years and how people seem to take them in the most mundane places, like a bathroom.”

Although the first known self-portrait photograph was taken in the mid-19th century, the term selfie is recent.

In 2013, when the term was awarded the Oxford Dictionary’s ‘word of the year’, researchers discovered that it had first appeared on an Australian website in September, 2002.

The author, who was participating in an online forum on ABC Online, posted a photo of the injury he had acquired on a drunken night out. In the post, he apologises “about the focus” and explains that the photo “was a selfie”.

The invention of social media and, perhaps more importantly, the reverse lens on smartphones, have meant that the selfie has exploded. A poll commissioned last year by smartphone maker, Samsung, found that selfies make up 30% of the photos taken by people aged 18 to 24.

“I certainly think they have their place in social media,” says Rosanna. “But I don’t like to post too many of them, as nobody wants to see nothing but my face all over their Twitter and Instagram feeds.

“I tend to take them when a make-up artist has done my make-up, or I’ve had my hair done, or if I’m wearing an outfit that I think my followers would like to see, or to know more about. They do serve a purpose, in the right context.”

For models like Rosanna, the selfie has its place. It is, in her case, akin to an advert.

But if the selfie is advertising, what are the rest of us selling? For some, it’s harmless fun, a demonstration of how-wow-happy we are, but the selfie can also be self-indulgence and narcissism.

“The selfie phenomenon is psychologically very interesting,” says clinical psychologist, Marie Murray. “On the one hand, taking and distributing selfies demonstrates, and celebrates, confident ego and identity, in which people are content to inform the world of their whereabouts, their appearance and their social life. On the other hand, some people see it as further evidence of the egotistical self-promotion to proclaim one’s importance and social connections.”

Marie says, “We have always taken selfies, by getting other people to take photos of us” or, as the great artists did, by painting a self-portrait. The issue is how much intimacy are we prepared to show the world.

“It’s another example of the demise of boundaries between public and private life,” she says. “There is a blurring of identity between these two worlds, and there is something very disturbing about the sexual selfies that have become increasingly common; now, that is pathological exhibitionism at its most vivid.”

The danger of sexual selfies was shown last month in Mexico: a 16-year-old girl was arrested for allegedly stabbing her best friend 65 times, after nude pictures of the two together appeared online.

But even innocent selfies have caused tragedy. Two weeks ago, in the United States, 32-year-old Courtney Sanford died when she crashed her car into a recycling truck on a highway.

Seconds before her death, police said she had updated her Facebook page and had taken selfies in her car. Earlier this year, some English newspapers reported of a boy suffering from body dysmorphia who had tried to commit suicide after becoming obsessed with taking the perfect selfie.

Of course, these examples are extreme, but a recent tri-universtiy study has discovered that there may be a connection between body image and photos posted on social media.

After surveying 881 students, researchers from the universities of Strathclyde, Ohio and Iowa have concluded that the already existent mass-media pressure to look as good as a supermodel has been compounded by the daily pressure of having to look as good and as happy as your friends and peers.

Perhaps the selfie is the perfect symptom of a world obsessed with accumulating records of experiences through images, which we use to convey an image of ourselves to the outside world.

As sociologist Sherry Turkle observed about text messaging, “it allows us to delete and edit” and, therefore, it allows us to control. Bad stuff is filtered out, good stuff is left in. No wonder the selfie is so popular.

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