Why We Selfie

The Sociological Take

469875265.jpg
Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

In March 2014, Pew Research Center announced that over a quarter of Americans have shared a selfie online. Unsurprisingly, the practice of photographing oneself and sharing that image via social media is most common among Millennials, aged 18 to 33 at the time of the survey: more than one in two has shared a selfie. So have nearly a quarter of those classified as Generation X (loosely defined as those born between 1960 and the early 1980s).

The selfie has gone mainstream.

Evidence of its mainstream nature is seen in other aspects of our culture too. In 2013 "selfie" was not only added to the Oxford English Dictionary but also named Word of the Year. Since late January 2014, the music video for "#Selfie" by The Chainsmokers has been viewed on YouTube over 250 million times. Though recently canceled, a network television show focused on a fame-seeking and image conscious woman titled "Selfie" debuted in the fall of 2014. And, the reigning queen of the selfie, Kim Kardashian West, debuted in 2015 a collection of selfies in book form, Selfish. Some, like yours truly, might suggest we are living in the moment of "Peak Selfie" (à la, Peak Oil). 

Yet, despite the ubiquity of the practice and how many of us are doing it (1 in 4 Americans!), a pretense of taboo and disdain surrounds it. An assumption that sharing selfies is or should be embarrassing runs throughout the journalistic and scholarly coverage on the topic.

Many report on the practice by noting the percentage of those who "admit" to sharing them. Descriptors like "vain" and "narcissistic" inevitably become a part of any conversation about selfies. Qualifiers like "special occasion," "beautiful location," and "ironic" are used to justify them.

But, over a quarter of all Americans are doing it, and more than half of those between the ages of 18 and 33 do it.

Why?

Commonly cited reasons -- vanity, narcissism, fame-seeking -- are as shallow as those who critique the practice suggest it is. From the sociological perspective, there is always more to a mainstream cultural practice than meets the eye. Let's use it to dig deeper into the question of why we selfie.

Technology Compels Us

Simply put, physical and digital technology makes it possible, so we do it. The idea that technology structures the social world and our lives is a sociological argument as old as Marx, and one oft repeated by theorists and researchers who have tracked the evolution of communication technologies over time. The selfie is not a new form of expression. Artists have created self-portraits for millennia, from cave to classical paintings, to early photography and modern art. What's new about today's selfie is its commonplace nature and its ubiquity. Technological advancement liberated the self-portrait from the art world and gave it to the masses.

Some would say that those physical and digital technologies that allow for the selfie act upon us as a form of "technological rationality," a term coined by critical theorist Herbert Marcuse in his book One-Dimensional Man. They exert a rationality of their own which shapes how we live our lives.

 Digital photography, front-facing cameras, social media platforms, and wireless communications begat a host of expectations and norms which now infuse our culture. We can, and so we do. But also, we do because both the technology and our culture expect us to.

Identity Work Has Gone Digital

We are not isolated beings living strictly individual lives. We are social beings who live in societies, and as such, our lives are fundamentally shaped by social relations with other people, institutions, and social structures. As photos meant to be shared, selfies are not individual acts; they are social acts. Selfies, and our presence on social media generally, is a part of what sociologists David Snow and Leon Anderson describe as "identity work" -- the work that we do on a daily basis to ensure that we are seen by others as we wish to be seen.

Far from a strictly innate or internal process, the crafting and expressing of identity has long been understood by sociologists as a social process. The selfies we take and share are designed to present a particular image of us, and thus, to shape the impression of us held by others.

Famed sociologist Erving Goffman described the process of "impression management" in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. This term refers to the idea that we have a notion of what others expect of us, or what others would consider a good impression of us, and that this shapes how we present ourselves. Early American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley described the process of crafting a self based on what we imagine others will think of us as "the looking-glass self," whereby society acts as a sort of mirror to which we hold ourselves up.

In the digital age, our lives are increasingly projected onto, framed by, and filtered and lived through social media. It makes sense, then, that identity work takes place in this sphere. We engage in identity work as we walk through our neighborhoods, schools, and places of employment. We do it in how we dress and style ourselves; in how we walk, talk, and carry our bodies. We do it on the phone and in written form. And now, we do it in email, via text message, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and LinkedIn. A self-portrait is the most obvious visual form of identity work, and its socially mediated form, the selfie, is now a common, perhaps even necessary form of that work.

The Meme Compels Us

In his book, The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins offered a definition of the meme that became deeply important to cultural studies, media studies, and sociology. Dawkins described the meme as a cultural object or entity that encourages its own replication. It can take musical form, be seen in styles of dance, and manifest as fashion trends and art, among many other things. Memes abound on the internet today, often humorous in tone, but with increasing presence, and thus importance, as a form of communication.

In the pictorial forms that fill our Facebook and Twitter feeds, memes pack a powerful communicative punch with a combination of repetitious imagery and phrases. They are densely laden with symbolic meaning. As such, they compel their replication; for, if they were meaningless, if they had no cultural currency, they would never become a meme.

In this sense, the selfie is very much a meme. It has become a normative thing that we do that results in a patterned and repetitious way of representing ourselves. The exact style of representation may vary (sexy, sulky, serious, silly, ironic, drunk, "epic," etc.), but the form and general content -- an image of a person or group of people who fill the frame, taken at arm's length -- remain the same. The cultural constructs that we have collectively created shape how we live our lives, how we express ourselves, and who we are to others. The selfie, as a meme, is a cultural construct and a form of communication now deeply infused into our daily lives and loaded with meaning and social significance.