Enter a raging club and go into its bathroom where two girls are fixing their hair. The brunette is ranting about a guy, spouting abuse at the girl he is with as well as at the DJ. She sends the club into a frenzy when she utters, “But first let me take a selfie.”
The music video of the hit song “#Selfie” from The Chainsmokers has gone viral with over 80 million views on YouTube. While the “#Selfie” video mostly mocks the narcissism of today’s generation, “Everyone seems to really love the song and the humour of it, and to be able to share in the excitement is super fun,” says model Lindsey Diane Alton – who portrays the vain clubgoer in the music video – in an interview with Syracuse.com’s Geoff Herbert. The song features selfies of fans from various social media sites as well as a few of celebrities.
Selfies are everywhere, clogging social media feeds and even making newspaper headlines. US President Barack Obama made front-page news after posing for a selfie with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Kim Kardashian posted a very risqué selfie of her behind in a white bikini while Justin Bieber made an entire advert for his perfume, Girlfriend, with selfie video clips from fans. Even the pope has joined in on the selfie phenomenon. The “Oscar selfie” that Ellen DeGeneres posted crashed Twitter, breaking the record for number of retweets: the selfie was retweeted 2.4 million times and received 32.4 million views.
Selfie was chosen by Oxford Dictionary as their 2013 international Word of the Year above the words bitcoin, binge-watch and twerking. Language research conducted by their editors found the frequency of use of the word increased by 17 000% from 2012.
The word first appeared in 2002 when it was used in an Australian forum. Judy Pearsall, editorial director for Oxford Dictionary, explained the evolution of the word on their blog: “Social media sites helped to popularise the term, with the tag ‘selfie’ appearing on the photo-sharing website Flickr as early as 2004, but usage wasn’t widespread until around 2012 when selfie was being used commonly in mainstream media sources.”
According to an infographic by TechInfographics.com, people are taking over one million selfies every day and, according to Samsung, selfies make up 30% of the pictures taken by people between the ages 18-24. On Instagram more than 100 million pictures are tagged with #selfie.
“The selfie revolution highlights the global demographic shift underway with 60% of the world’s population now under 35 years old. Young people are discovering their unique identities and expressing it through creative selfie pics on social networks like Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, Tumblr and Pinterest,” says iHumanMedia.com director James Rickman.
Selfies have helped raise money for several charities. Samsung donated $3 million (more than R30 million) to charities of DeGeneres’s choice, including St Jude’s and the Humane Society, after her “Oscar selfie” reached three million retweets in 2014.
In Eli Langer’s article “Ellen’s viral selfie leads to $3 million donation” published on CNBC.com, a Samsung spokesperson reported, “While we were a sponsor of the Oscars and had an integration with ABC, we were delighted to see Ellen organically incorporate the device into the selfie moment that had everyone talking.”
The #nomakeupselfie craze that sweeped social media in March this year helped raise £8 million (more than R140 million) for Cancer Research UK. Women posted pictures of themselves on social media sites without any makeup on and nominated their friends to do the same.
A study that was conducted by the University of Michigan found that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time a person spends on social media and how narcissistic they are. The study compared Facebook to a mirror and Twitter to a megaphone. “Among young adult college students, we found that those who scored higher in certain types of narcissism posted more often on Twitter,” said Panek, who recently received his doctorate in communication studies from the University of Michigan. Middle-aged adults with narcissistic personalities tend to post to Facebook more frequently and update their statuses more often. The researchers were unable to establish whether narcissism leads to an increased use of social media or if the opposite, that social media use exacerbates narcissistic tendencies, was true. It is, however, one of the first studies trying to map this relationship.
Dr Robyn Silverman, an award-winning writer and PhD fellow from Tufts University’s child and teen development programme, says, “It’s a matter of adolescents and teens constantly trying to define themselves.They crave positive feedback to help them see how their identity fits into their world. Social media offers an opportunity to garner immediate information. The problem is they are looking in a dangerous place.”
“Of course, while this article talks about teens – we know that adults look to the internet for validation too,” he adds.
Selfie-snapping can become an addiction. Danny Bowman, a 19-year-old boy from the UK, attempted suicide because he couldn’t capture the perfect selfie. Bowman was taking up to 200 pictures of himself daily, spending as much as ten hours each day trying to get the perfect shot. “I was constantly in search of taking the perfect selfie and when I realised I couldn’t, I wanted to die. I lost my friends, my education, my health and almost my life,” he told The Mirror.
Bowman lost almost 17 kilograms, dropped out of school and remained housebound for six months in order to capture the perfect selfie. He became so depressed that he took a drug overdose. His mother rushed him to hospital where he underwent intensive therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder, body dysmorphic disorder and technology addiction. “People don’t realise when they post a picture of themselves on Facebook or Twitter it can so quickly spiral out of control. It becomes a mission to get approval and it can destroy anyone,” he said.
The future of the selfie is unclear. It could be a fad, a passing obsession of our generation. Sharing your picture online has become so common that it is almost a part of our digital identities. People validate their importance and popularity by the number of “likes” a selfie receives. As long as people find the validation they seek on social media, it does not seem like the trend is likely to slow down.
Illustration: Johann van Tonder