I read somewhere recently that the good folks at Oxford (I can’t remember if it is the dictionary people, the university people, or the shoe people, but in any event it was a name that signified Quality and Serious Business) recently named 2013’s word of the year. It is, I am sad to report, “Selfie.”
A selfie, for both of you out there who don’t know what the word means, is a picture of oneself, taken by oneself. There may or may not be something significant in the background, and there may or may not be another person in the picture. More often than not it is a ridiculously close close-up. These pictures are then instantly uploaded to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever social media I am too middle-aged to know about is the Next Big Thing.
Having viewed gazillions of selfies, and seen a good number of them taken, I know for a fact that there isn’t a whole lot of thought behind them, beyond, “*I* need a picture of *me* RIGHT NOW.” But they say a whole lot more than that, no matter what the caption says. They say 1) I want a picture of me so badly and so instantly that I’m not going to bother asking someone else to take the picture for me, and 2) I believe deep in my heart that other people out there will not have a complete, fulfilling day until and unless they see a picture of me. Me me me me me me me me me.
Don’t get me wrong – one of the reasons why I like social media is that it allows me to keep up with people from my past lives, which includes seeing what they (and their kids) look like now and following their travel and other adventures. I enjoy seeing my friends in Germany during Oktoberfest wearing actual lederhosen. I like photographic evidence that my friends came out of surgery ok. I like your gorgeous family photos; the picture of you pretending to straighten up the Leaning Tower of Pisa as if you are the first person who thought of that perspective joke; and the picture taken moments after your boyfriend proposed while your whole body radiates through the pixels with a happy glow. I especially like pictures that make me laugh
What I DON’T need is a way too close close-up picture of you with your eyes cut to the side and the caption, “I’m bored.” Oh, are you? Thanks for sharing. Now I’m bored looking at you. “Look! Here I am driving my car!” “Here I am at McDonald’s!” “Here I am on line waiting to see the new Hunger Games movie!” Picture me saying ‘woo hoo’ with the least amount of enthusiasm possible.
As if the basic egotism of these pictures and their public dissemination wasn’t enough, lots of them seem to be done in intentionally dumb looking poses. My (least) favorite is the ‘duck lips’. In this one, she (it is usually a she) will flatten her smile and poke out her lips to make the best approximation of a duck’s bill the human face is capable of without a mask or plastic surgery. No one claims to know where this came from, but I have a theory. Models, with their silicone bee-stung lips, and Botox™ on the sides of their mouths to prevent both wrinkles and the appearance of genuine pleasure, are often seen in magazines wearing this (supposed to be) brooding, sexy pout. I think duck lips are the ‘sexy pout’ taken to a ridiculous extreme.
Sometimes I think about what these kids (it is mostly kids who do this – and bear in mind that I consider anyone under 30 a kid) will think of these pictures 25 years from now. As someone who spent all but six months of her teenage years in the 1980s, I am no stranger to embarrassing fashion, hairstyle, and eyewear choices. When my children see some of these pictures, they ask what I was dressed as for Halloween. They can’t believe that I looked like that on purpose. So part of me laughs for the present, but part of me cringes on behalf of the future of these people who have hundreds of published photographs of themselves looking like something Elmer Fudd is hunting for. At least my old, embarrassing pictures are limited to the paper copies in mildewed albums and dry rotted and disorganized negatives.
My daughter, who is on the bottom of the age range for selfie-mania (almost 10), thankfully does not take many. In fact, not too long ago she asked me, “Why do girls take so many selfies? Are they afraid they’re going to forget what they look like?” I just laughed when she said that, and didn’t give her a real answer, but the truth is that I have one. No, honey, I should have said. They aren’t afraid they will forget what they look like. They are afraid that YOU will forget what they look like or who they are unless you are staring at their faces. For a generation whose entire world has an on or off switch, where a social life can come to a screeching halt without an electronic device, and data can be lost in a flash, maybe they think they are no more permanent than the bits and bytes that make up the pictures.
Which begs an existential question: if a person’s picture exists in the digital world, and there is no one with their iPod turned on to see it, does the person still exist?