United by the selfie
Selfies are the epitome of the cellphone era. People were photographing themselves long before the age of camera phones and, in the previous decade, multimedia messages sent from camera phones often contained a self-taken photograph of the sender’s face. However, selfies were never an actual phenomenon or referred to as a distinct genre of photography.
There is no point in discussing selfies without taking account of the nature of smartphones as communication devices. The convergence of photography and telephone communications has led to a situation where photographs have evolved into a means of communication and keeping in touch much more prominently than before. This was the theme of my doctoral dissertation “Visual mobile communication: Camera phone photo messages as ritual communication and mediated presence” published in 2010.
The key idea behind my dissertation was that cameras and telephones are two very different communication devices:
- The camera is geared towards communications across time, while the telephone communicates across space.
- Photographs are stored as documents of the past, while telephone calls come and go and are rarely saved anywhere.
Camera phones fuse these two means of communication by permitting photographic communication in almost real time. Photographs are becoming more momentary, immediate, temporary and personal, turning into tools of interpersonal communication. The crucial point here is that all of these attributes now describe communication by telephone. Visual and verbal communications are becoming more alike: photos are being used as a means of engaging in visual chat and small talk – people talk using images instead of words.
The use of photographs as a means of communication is also strongly influenced by online communications and social media in particular. Many social media services that have lately gained in popularity are based on images and visual communications. The most obvious examples are Instagram and Snapchat. Photos are also an important element in Facebook and WhatsApp. Users share hundreds of millions of photos via these services every day.
An important factor behind the selfie phenomenon is that people – in this case, young people in particular – have cameras on their personal smartphones. Since anyone can take whatever self-portraits they like, they are not at the mercy of other people’s cameras. Taking photographs has become more personal in many ways. As recently as ten years ago, few young people had their own camera. This meant that their photography depended on their parents, whose cameras they had to borrow. In many cases, sharing pictures with friends was even more difficult.
The selfie is not just another chapter in the tradition of self portraits. Selfie takers and sharers have been accused of narcissism, exhibitionism and smugness, and have been shown contempt. While such factors are probably part of the selfie culture, in my opinion the key motivation behind taking and sharing selfies is to communicate one’s presence (why not existence, too) to other people. In such case, selfies are used in communication to create a sense of togetherness and share feelings. In many ways, selfies are a visual form of mediated presence.
The Snapchat mobile application lends itself well to the selfie culture. Snapchat users send photos that are viewable for a maximum of ten seconds on the recipient’s screen, before the image is deleted. As a consequence, the value of photographs does not lie in the future, but in the interpersonal connection in the present between two people who are physically apart. A photograph is a fleeting thought, a kind of a “visual butterfly” that lives for a moment and then dies away (very tangibly so, in the case of Snapchat). Just like spoken words, photographs become disposable goods that only have meaning in a certain communicative context. A single photograph is just part of the visual flow.
The selfie culture – existing at the intersection of photography, mobile communications and social media – is part of a development whereby the purpose of photographs is shifting from preserving memories and documenting the passage of time, towards communicating transient experiences. Selfies reflect broader developments on the web: content has become increasingly ephemeral and momentary, maybe even fleeting. The selfie culture should be understood as an aspect of communications, social media, instant messaging services and camera phone usage rather than in the context of traditional photography – although self-portraits have become more popular among tourist photographers, for example. The most recent example of this trend are selfie sticks, or cameras mounted on a long stick for the purpose of taking personal or group selfies in front of famous views and monuments.