The magnificient selfie culture

The Oxford English Dictionary included the ‘word of the year’ as ‘selfie’ in 2013 and defines it as “A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”

The above not only gives us a clear notion of what a selfie is but also establishes the power of selfie as part of popular culture in the global society as it formally paved its way into the basic linguistic structure of all vernacular cultural milieu in a span of just a few years since its inception. Such is the power of selfie in today’s world. People of all ages, religion, gender, classes across the globe post selfies with different backgrounds, depicting various emotions all around the globe. It serves as an expression of impression generation and also project the obsessive compulsive attitudes of the society’s narcissism in general.

History tells us that the concept of ‘selfie’ dates back to the advent of photography and the first selfie was taken in 1839 by photographer Robert Cornelius. The growing popularity of selfie can be accredited to the overwhelming shift in technological patterns. Throughout the twentieth century, photography was quite an expensive affair when capturing photos required skilled precision and procuring them in print was a time-consuming affair during the era of lab processing of camera film roles. The introduction to digital cameras in the late 90’s marked the beginnings of new wave in photography which changed not only the economic dimension of photography but also the social politics of it. Subsequently emerged the replacement of dial-up connections at home with broadband internet facilities and the very first of the viral social networking sites began stretching its widespread networks globally. The concept of “profile pictures” as alternate virtual identity began laying its ground in 2004.

With the Apple’s invention of the iPhone in 2007, the trend of carrying cameras in the pocket made its way. Then, newer and cheaper smartphones made its way into the market. In 2010, in an effort to facilitate video chatting services, Apple launched the idea of front-facing cameras and roughly the concept of ‘self-portraits’ was initiated in the ‘social-network’ milieu. These changes in the newer invention of technology enhanced a highly competitive market for smartphones which resulted in smartphones becoming cheaper, making it universal to all classes.

These changing patterns created the abundance of images and the easy availability of it. The emergence of viral social networking giants like “Facebook”, “Twitter”, “Instagram” etcetera and their growing popularity paved way for the society to act on its narcissism and established the new politics of photographs- the representation of self-identity through images. This started a global competitive milieu of superiority politics in establishing and defining one’s self-identity and the social-networking sites became a self-regulatory system of hierarchizing the representation of the self through images.

Erving Goffman’s book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” can be used to understand the social milieu of what can be called the “selfie culture” quite effectively. Goffman who uses the theatre analogy to comprehend human social interaction in his concept of “Dramaturgy” is how the social interactions through ‘selfie’ takes place in the world of social networking sites. In lieu of Goffman’s theorisation, ‘selfie’ is a method of interaction through which the individual attempts to control or guide his ‘self’ impression as projected to the ‘other’. The “front-region” of the stage which is the networking sites, the individuals as ‘actors’ try to fix their settings to generate and improve the ‘self’ impression through a selfie. This individual tendency to better the self-image in a competitive milieu of ‘selfie culture’ has been taken up quickly by the capitalist society and can be greatly attributed in understanding the reason behind its fast growing popularity. Eventually a lot of selfie editing mobile applications such as face-beautifier apps and background-generation apps made its way into the market wherein the social actors gets to ‘choose’ their background, setting props in order to generate self-impression, thereby making the ‘selfie culture’ more and more interesting and far-reaching to expand its ‘popular’ status.

While a ‘selfie’ is an individual’s portrayal of the self, it is hugely dependent on the ‘others’- the targeted audience (friendlists, followers etc.) as can be made evident from Goffman’s analysis of the mutual co-constitution of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. The way we take a selfie- the background, the expression, the face-angle, the emotion is not only dependent on the ‘self’ but more so on whether the desired impression is made sense of by the ‘others’. The response and reaction of ‘others’ creates more and more selfies, engulfing more individuals into the ‘selfie culture’.

This constant generation of ‘selfie’ in the everyday lives of individuals creates the active process of varied interest, tensions and conflicts of ascribing power to the ‘self’-image through selfies. This power-play of generating meanings of the ‘self’ through selfies has given rise to the ‘hegemony’ of the selfie-culture which makes it an inescapable social process and definitely gives ‘selfie’ the stature of being an active discourse in ‘popular culture’ or ‘mass culture’.

The most important aspect or meaning that a selfie generates is that of ‘self-worth’. An individual’s psychology is ‘reified’ due the overpowering hegemony of the ‘selfie culture’ to an extent that one tries to make sense of his/her self-worth through the amount of power his/her selfie holds which can be directly proportional to the number of ‘likes’ or the nature of comments that the selfie is capable of generating. More amount of ‘likes’ would enhance or boost one’s self-worth and confidence. This has given rise to a sort of measurement of something as abstract as self-worth through selfies and created a sort of stratification system of self-worth in the milieu of social-networking sites as well as the society in general.

The overflow of abundant selfies in the social milieu has resulted in what can be called the “global network of emotions and expression”. There are widely categorised facial expressions denoting specific meanings that operate in the virtual world. Some examples of such expressions are the ‘pout’ selfie, the ‘tongue sticking out’ selfie, the ‘puppy face’ selfie etc. While the ‘pout selfie’ creates a network of individuals ascribing to the feminine sexual expression, the ‘puppy- face’ selfie creates the meaning of ‘cuteness’ which defies the conventional idea of feminine portrayal of sensuality. Also emotions such as “friends for life” selfies, “best friends forever” selfies, “college days” selfies, “you live only once” selfies generates a network of generic human emotions that give us an excellent ways to analyse the shared space of emotions in a society. Such common expression selfies connects the shared space of emotions and personality traits of various individuals all over the globe. When representation of such network of expressions and emotions are created, it inadvertently leads to the hierarchizing of such expressions and also gives rise to the interpretation of the various meanings of expressions and emotions operating in the society.

The media which is an important tool to propagate and circulate popular culture as well as one of the most powerful and popular culture in itself has adopted ‘selfies’. Films, Television, music and all forms of media have traces of selfie in them. The Bollywood and television celebrities have hugely adopted and widely ascribed to the culture of ‘selfies’ as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are almost flooded with their selfies all around. They use it as a weapon to affirm as well as intensify their ‘popular’ status in the media. The Bollywood has also implemented posting selfies depicting glimpses from ‘behind the scenes’ to promote films. Such portrayal of the ‘popular’ self attributes to the power-play of self-definition of the ‘star’ statuses. Recently the Salman Khan movie, Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s song “chal beta selfie le le re” (“Come, let’s take a selfie”) boomed the chartbusters and the masses took to the song like wild fire. This legitimization of selfie by the Bollywood industry, television industry, and music-industry leads to further establishing the hegemony of the ‘selfie’.

With the advent of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India, national politics have ascribed to the popularity of the selfie and uses it as a medium to propagate meanings of various ideological and political discourses. Narendra Modi uses selfies as an “ideological state apparatus” to represent and reproduce the central government’s power to the masses of India. Posting selfies with eminent political leaders of various nations all over the world, Narendra Modi has opened arenas to vest immense political power to the selfie. These selfies generate the meaning of ‘growth’ and ‘advancement’ of Indian political, economic and social discourses as represented by Narendra Modi and the central Government to the masses. Another example of the “#selfie_with_daughter” campaign which was recently launched by Narendra Modi as an attempt to battle the skewed sex ratio of India can also be seen to generate meanings of positive social change as represented by the central government.

In a concluding note, I would like to say that selfie as popular trend has been so magnificent and rapidly evolving social process that for one to escape it is almost an impossible phenomenon in a capitalist world. When selfies established its powerful status in popular culture, it gave birth to a wave of rejection to the ‘selfie culture’ which involved individuals from consciously defying it by not ascribing to it. In projecting rejection to the ‘selfie culture’, it establishes the power of it in unimaginable ways. For one to ‘consciously’ defy a culture, one just ascribes to its very structure.