The Selfie Age. Selfiedom. Selfie Sunday, Selfie Saturday, Selfie All Day Every Day. You’ve got the gym dude selfies, the girlfriend selfies, the OOTD (outfit of the day) selfies, the “strong hair game” selfies (may replace with “makeup game”), the “I’m going to say I look bad but only so you tell me I look good” selfies, the couple selfies, pet selfies, and now I’ve written the word selfie so many times that it doesn’t even look like a word anymore (which the Oxford Dictionary claims it actually is). In her blog entry, Alexandra Petri describes a humorous account of the selfie’s “history” but sheds light on an important concept with her satire:
Slightly Later But Still Early 21st Century: The combined trends of Increasing Need to Look Cool For Your Internet Friends and Decreasing Supply Of Real Friends leads to a new golden era of selfie-taking. “Classic photos have been taken of every place on earth,” people reason, sensibly. “But not with me in them! I must change that!”
Here, Petri brings up the idea that selfies are used to craft a persona online. And not only craft a persona, but also to prove your attendance at anywhere from a famous monument to a frat party last weekend. Selfies are increasingly being used to document one’s life. Instagram is chock full of selfies galore, most of them with mundane settings. A selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower may be permissible, but a selfie displaying your boredom in class might be a little much.
So the question is, why must we document every moment of our lives? And what sort of implications could this have?
The term “FOMO” has gained popularity lately, which means “fear of missing out”. It’s defined as a form of social anxiety but it is used colloquially today in a much less serious tone. Even BuzzFeed has hopped on board with the term, pinning together a list of signs that you suffer from FOMO. The list uses FOMO in the way that directly relates to this idea of selfies (and other photos) documenting our lives: we participate in these activities sometimes for the sole purpose of posting photos on social media. Going to school in New York City, you’re bound to find photos of classmates on social media with captions such as “no big deal” or “casual day” as they’re standing next to a big name celebrity or have a Playbill in hand for a coveted Broadway show. Aside from it being incredibly annoying, it also brings up this idea of people needing to document every single thing that happens to them. It highlights the exact reason that we selfie: we want a reaction. It isn’t even out of the realm of possibility to say that some people may do certain things because they know that documenting them online will garner likes and comments.
The question then comes into play as to whether this documentation devalues these events. And, does it change the meaning of these events entirely? There are a few specific instances related to selfies that I believe help formulate a way to tackle these questions.
A strange and disturbing trend caught on last year which is taking selfies at funerals. A Tumblr page was created in order to exploit these photos and the people behind them, not bothering to blur out faces unlike this BuzzFeed article discussing the same matter. A lot of the selfies found on the blog are posted with a joking intention, some of them even acknowledging the poor behavior in their captions. Many of the photos have people either making silly faces or over-exaggerated sad faces. The performance aspect that is present with Instagram is seen clearly with these photos. It’s obvious that the users are posting these photos for the attention that will be received from the photo. They want to be provocative and raise eyebrows. They also are experiencing this need to document their day by day activity. The idea that it didn’t happen unless it’s posted on social media rings true here, even if that event is a funeral.
These selfies also disrupt the social norms that are attributed to funerals and appropriate behavior for them. An interesting video from ABC discusses the issue, with Dan Abrams taking a surprising stance on it. His opinion is that this behavior is permissible because nobody can tell a person how to grieve. When the other newscasters unanimously disagree with his opinion, he says that there’s nothing to be done about it because it’s just “teens these days.” Abrams believes that the accepted behavior at a funeral is something that can be changed because of social media; and not only can it be changed, but it is inevitable. It’s the way the world works today.
This is an interesting perspective on the matter. I would assume that most people would be in uproar if they were attending a funeral and they saw a thirteen-year-old making a duck face with their deceased grandmother. However, the fact that these selfies are even occurring in the first place should make people stop and question the impact of this need for constant documentation. Clearly, the generation that has grown up with digital media from a young age is already starting to rework societal norms and traditions. And this specific trend isn’t something contained only to young teenagers; even the president has jumped aboard. At a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, President Obama was caught taking a smiling selfie with the Danish and British Prime Ministers. The photos received a good deal of backlash, many people finding it to be disrespectful and distasteful (even the First Lady doesn’t seem too pleased with her husband’s actions in the photos). The author of the article even calls it a “funeral faux pas.” Clearly, the general public response to this kind of behavior is unaccepting. People find it offensive and are outspoken about it.
Not only have funeral selfies taken place, but there have also been instances of what’s referred to as “lockdown selfies.” True to its name, these selfies consist of people taking photos of themselves while their school is in lockdown. All of the selfies express a joking attitude and usually include the poster making a funny face either alone or with friends. Despite the potential danger the students are in, they seem unperturbed. Rather, they’re focused on documenting their presence in this situation, something that is bound to make news.
Do these selfies show a lack of empathy in teenagers and young adults today? Or is it the response to an environment in which everything needs to be documented? I’m inclined to side with the latter. I think that the lines are often blurred as things that are happening in real life meet social media, clearly seen in these instances. It’s become almost a value in teenagers today, this need to document everything occurring in their lives. These teens are grappling with deciding what is acceptable and unacceptable to post. I don’t think that this makes an excuse for disrespectful behavior, but it might shed some light as to why it is happening. Teens are tossed into a society that has its values from the past while they have values of their own related to digital media. It’s a question of how these values will overlap and how they may clash. There’s no clear answer as to what this means for the future, but it is something that people should consider and recognize.
After all, the First Lady has made her opinion on the matter clear.