Reframing the Selfie: How Selfies Dictate our way of Experiencing the World and Ourselves

Young friends taking a selfie
Young friends taking a selfie

What do a gym locker room, an upscale restaurant, your grandmother's tombstone and Chernobyl have in common?

I'll take "Places Where I Can Take Selfies" for $400, Alex.

The selfie phenomenon has grown to epic proportions over the past few years. People of all ages feel the need to document every waking moment of their lives in photo. Having a night on the town with the girls at that swanky nightclub? Take a selfie. Want to show off your new "Get Swole" t-shirt in between sets of bicep curls at the gym? That calls for a selfie. How else can you convey your esoteric, pseudo-intellectual tastes than to pose for a selfie at Barnes and Noble with a copy of Crime and Punishment, even if you don't actually buy it?

And yes, in case you were wondering, someone even snapped a selfie at the aforementioned Chernobyl...the site of one history's most catastrophic nuclear accidents. As a matter of fact, the Chernobyl selfie, along with others, comprise an entire blog devoted to taking serious selfies, many of which would best be suited as Christian rock album covers.

The selfie, and our culture's predilection for visual mediums in general, has created a new sub-population that, according to The Guardian, has been deemed the "SnapChat Generation." They reportedly range in age between 21 and 30 and have adopted the selfie as their primary mode of communication. But before this piece turns into another finger wagging, excoriating admonishment of today's youth, I would be remiss to exclude the fact that millennials aren't the only ones snapping pics of themselves doing everything from eating cake to defecating (or a "shelfie" as it is affectionately known).

According to The Guardian, Americans reportedly take more pictures every two minutes than were taken worldwide in the entire century. Moreover, 1tn photographs were taken in 2014 alone, more than a quarter of all previously existing photos. Granted, not all of these photos were specifically selfies. Still, you don't have to be a mathematician to know that 1tn sounds like a hell of a lot of photos, and you don't have to be a social scientist to recognize the potential repercussions that selfies have on our culture.

To best illustrate the last point, I turn to Karl Marx. Aside from his contributions to communist theory and hipster beard trends, he offered some other interesting insights into human nature. He once wrote: "As individuals express their life, so they are." If I may extend this a bit further, the way in which an entire culture expresses itself comes to define it. To that end, selfies and other visual mediums are potent reflections of our culture current state.

First and foremost, selfies encourage us to live in constant need of validation from others. If the adage about the medium being the message is true, then what kind of message does a selfie deliver to its viewer? For starters, it encourages us to exercise every aspect of our existence, from the most private moments to the most mundane, in an online, public forum. It is as if we constantly seek vindication, and moreover, feel like every moment of our lives needs to be watched; as if we exist only when others see us, or are able to endorse our behavior with the swipe of the "like" button.

Second, the selfie, like most of today's media, encourages us to communicate in a purely visual manner and this has important implications for how we process and analyze information. Media critics like Neil Postman have argued that a society dominated by visual mediums tends to lack the critical thinking and analysis skills inherent to a print-based culture. Pictures, unlike text, encourage quick, fleeting judgment, but in the past when Americans were more literate (and actually, you know, read), a print-dominated culture existed wherein folks were able to think critically and logically.

Moreover, printed text inevitably spawns an idea. It may be a trivial idea, but it is still an idea. This is not say that images cannot inspire ideas; for some of the greatest paintings and photographs in the world can and have engendered critical thought. But realistically, how often do you stop and think about a selfie or some random image on an Instagram post? Beyond that, does a single image even hold our attention long enough these days to warrant such analysis? There is a greater likelihood of Kanye West actually not being a douchebag than of a selfie inspiring any serious dialogue or intellectual curiosity.

The problem herein lays not within the selfie itself, but the selfie's replacement of language and literacy in the public forum, which in our case is the social media arena. People communicate through images as opposed to language, and there is much to be lost because of this, including verbal abstraction, problem solving, reasoning and critical thinking skills.

In form, selfies also demand nothing of coherence or context. Weddings, birthdays, breakfast at the diner, even a visit to Chernobyl, are random strings of virtual fabric that weave no tapestry; there is no cohesion. And because our minds are growing increasingly accustomed to processing information devoid of context, it could very well spill over into how human beings interact with and experience reality. Ever wonder why so many people can't hold decent conversations these days, or why, even when conversing, the dialogue tends to meander, lack order and jump from one utterly random topic to the next? Our thoughts, our language itself, are being systematically altered, possibly even dismantled by the way we are directed to think in a visual culture.

In light of this, how exactly can we change course? It's ostensibly not pragmatic to think that we can simply return to a time when print and literacy was dominant, or to ask the SnapChatters to suddenly soliloquize what they are quite used to expressing in photos (imagine describing a penis versus sending a dick pic). However, we can become cognizant of not letting visual culture interfere with our other modes of communication or reasoning, or of letting it eradicate a rich literary tradition. We can also try to actually experience reality without creating a virtual effigy for the sole purpose of seeking validation from others. And we can go back to a time when the sanctity of human experiences, even wiping our own asses, was intact.