The Sociology of Selfies

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On a recent trip to San Francisco with my wife we laughed as we kept trying to frame our selfie with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Was it enough of the bridge? How did we look? Bike helmets on or off? What was interesting was we were surrounded by hundreds of other tourists that were all doing the same thing. We all would have been happy to take each other’s picture for the opportunity of them then taking ours. But, no! We all sat on the same stone wall, arms outstretched, fumbling with which button to push to take our own selfie picture…why do we do this? Why the selfie? And why have they become the force majeure behind self-expression for the millennial generation?

For clarification, a selfie is a self-portrait picture (usually with others alongside) taken using a smartphone or webcam and then uploaded to social media. But selfies aren’t new. People took selfies of their handprints millions of years ago using charcoal dust on the walls of their caves. Vincent van Gogh painted his famous selfie before taking the time to cut off his ear. And of course, Ellen DeGeneres and friends broke the internet with their selfie from the Oscars that was seen and re-tweeted by millions of people.

Two of the most disturbing selfie trends are not who is taking them but where. According to report published in 2012 by the Institute of Advanced Motorists, 10% of people admitted to taking a selfie while driving a car! The figure rose to 15% of 18-24-year-olds and 19% of those aged 25-35. Another disturbing trend are people taking selfies at the scenes of accidents, fires, or tragedies . One of the most infamous is a young woman who took a selfie smiling at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Days later the negative backlash went viral on Twitter.

So why do we go to such lengths to immortalize ourselves in selfies for the world to see? Perhaps three reasons:

  1. We want to be noticed. Technology has created a culture of digital connection, yet social isolation. Perhaps we cry for attention on social media because we feel it is harder to be noticed in the real world. Technology has made it easy because we all carry a high definition camera in our pockets and are one click and push away from making sure the world notices us. It is a digital version of thrusting your hand in the air and screaming “I know, I know” in class when the teacher finally asks a question you think you have the answer to.
  2. We want to leave a mark. Social media has also created an illusion that our individual lives are inadequate when compared to our community. Taking a selfie at a concert, popular new restaurant, photo bombing someone famous, or even in front of the Golden Gate Bridge is a way for us to say “my life is interesting…my life matters…I do cool things and you should be jealous.”
  3. We want to engage. We want feedback. The isolation that technology has caused creates a vacuum for feedback. The psychology behind the Facebook “like” and Twitter “retweet” options is profound. Facebook has explored creating a “dislike” button, but the social implications would run deep. We not only desire feedback but we crave positive reinforcement and affirmation. We cherish how many “likes” we receive and the number of re-tweets one of our selfies has becomes a benchmark for how popular we are.

 

So what do we do about this? In spite of our efforts to the contrary, God’s word tells us that we will never receive the level of acceptance we want from others. In the book of Romans, chapter 6, we are reminded to greet and affirm each other for the glory of God and not the glory of each other. We need to look to God for acceptance and worth not from others or within ourselves. God formed us uniquely in the womb before anyone else knew us. Why would we ever feel the need to look beyond him for our worth?

Selfies are fun. They are creative. They show our goofy side. They are not evil. But we have to be careful as they may be a symptom of a deep need that we have to be noticed, affirmed, liked, and wanted from people that were never designed to give us those things.

PS.  “Favorite” our selfie on Twitter  and tell my wife how cute she looks in her bike helmet. I couldn’t resist.  🙂

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Able to start a conversation with a phone pole. Adaptive extrovert, Disruptive thinker, Intuitive philosopher, Perceptive influencer, Idea futurist, Believer, and hater of labels. 😉 Follower of Jesus cleverly disguised as a husband, father, student, and friend.

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