Scrutinizing Selfies: A look into what the selfie stands for

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By Darrell Koh (16A13A)

When I look back and consider something that irked me in the past, my thoughts fall to Phewtick, the app that paid you to meet strangers. While fresh in concept and promising to strengthen social ties that have been weakening more than ever today, it pulled us even further apart by reducing strangers from people to money-making opportunities. There were countless more interactions happening yes, but what seemed to happen instead was genuine interaction being lost amidst superficial – and at times annoying – conversation. The focus of conversations shifted from the person being asked to the money to be earned from each person met. At least then, I could refuse by simply stating I did not have a Phewtick account.

Things aren’t as simple with selfies; a whole shutter-flurry of them. The first worrisome issue lies in the nature of the selfie itself: it puts us in danger of forgetting the experiences we are shaped by. One might think of the selfie as a modern form of photography, adapted to suit today’s needs.  This being assumed to be naturally true, photographs can indeed allow us to relive specific memories and reminiscence about halcyon days . It is indeed nice to take photographs to remind oneself of particular scenes in order to capture certain emotions belonging to that moment and crystallise them forever. In other words, anything along the lines of celebrating meeting a friend you haven’t met for a long time, or a scenery from somewhere else. But when this moment to treasure happens every day for the most trivial of things, then does the intent of taking pictures change from immortalising memories to something else? It then seems that we have confused selfies for photographs; looked at them through lenses perhaps not entirely suited to viewing them. Rather, selfies seem to be a fundamentally different social function that is geared towards feeding a sort of narcissism increasingly present in our society that favours material shows. Selfies thus   distort this supposed role of pictures to capture evocative moments and instead degrade the act into outward shows of extravagance and indulgence whose only purpose seems to be a bid for attention.

In the end, the exercise itself seems to have become reduced to nothing more than a display of pretentiousness and superficiality. For what other reason would there be to take countless pictures of one’s social life other than to share among groups and to post on social media websites? Even then, these activities do not warrant nor require that many photos to accomplish; even Facebook limits you to having one profile picture and one cover picture.  I say the selfie has become a symbol of self indulgence because of the overwhelming focus on presenting oneself in a socially desirable manner. Now it can be proudly displayed on Instagram or Facebook or whichever social media website is best for showcasing just how exciting your life is and perhaps flaunt some artistic flair.

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Photo taken from

Take a standard scenario of the selfie taking process; it starts with the suggestion of a selfie. We then prepare ourselves and decide on what pose would look best on Instagram; people at the edges squeeze in to make sure they are captured in that iPhone 6 screen while those in front tuck a tuft of hair behind to ensure a picture perfect look.The camera button is mashed rapidly and in an instant, 10 or so photographs are uploaded to the whatsapp group.  Fascinatingly, so many photos are taken that, viewed like a flip book,  they tend to show 3 people blinking at different times.  This process is repeated outside the lecture theatre, in the classroom just before the next teacher enters, at the end of the day…basically a whole lot of times. One could say that some people are inclined to show their affection in this manner  and want to take pictures so that they can create many happy memories, but do people seriously need 100 pictures a day to accomplish this? It all becomes rather comical, because taking selfies sort of becomes part of the standard procedure that we somehow attach a special quality to. Ultimately, the selfie seems to have become an excuse for a sort of “indulgent-verging-on-farcical-preening” that we may have failed to notice or, more disturbingly, continue to indulge in.

Furthermore, what meaning do the photos that don’t make it onto the public sphere hold for the owner of the phone in which they are stored? As time passes and more and more photos are added to the collection, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss as pictures are buried under more pictures. The pictures that matter more than others, and the pictures that mean little to nothing– they all eventually get relegated to the past, forgotten unless some particular event stimulates a similar memory. Perhaps it could be said that you regularly look back at the pictures you’ve taken, but when reviewing 500 pictures in one go, can you tell what separates picture 34 from picture 40 when you are done? What is truly frightening is when pictures that actually mean something to you, pictures of actual sentimental value that deserve attention, become lost in all the others. For instance, if time spent with a friend migrating overseas were to be replaced by the gloriousness that was your group breakfast today complete with close ups of that luscious burger, is there not something deeply unsettling about this? This incessant selfie taking threatens to overwhelm our memories with shots that have little to no significance to us by the time the day is over.

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Photo taken from

Moreover, selfies are a growing trend in today’s society and are linked with narcissism. Studies have found that people who constantly take pictures, edit them and upload them are those that score highest on narcissism meters. The act of taking a selfie itself is already a step towards narcissism, a purposeful inspection of the self that yield no reflective value. But going further and posting in on social media exposes deeper problems. For one, this act increases the likelihood of self-objectification. Posting a picture of your new haircut leads one to inevitably worry about how they will appear to their followers. The act of taking numerous selfies and posting them on social media increases the likelihood of people viewing themselves as mere objects and this rather ironically leads to lowered self-esteem. It seems a #newhaircut picture that has what, 100 likes? isn’t really helping to boost self-confidence after that initial surge from seeing the notification “Someone has liked your photo”. In the end, what seems to happen  is the owner of the picture going back to look on the “condition” of the status to check that the likes and comments are in order. It is through this very act that the selfie highlights how it causes one to obsess over others’ perceptions of oneself, thus becoming a potential source of unneeded anxiety in our- arguably- already stress filled lives.

Moreover, it seems posting selfies also has the effect of distancing oneself from friends. It seems that the more selfies you post, the more distanced you become from your friends. Who is to blame them when what you are doing is essentially adding layers of images and appearances that deceive others into viewing you in a certain way and obscure the “true you”? The purposeful selection of certain selfies results in a manufactured image that can be interpreted differently by different people and can create conflicting impressions of one’s true nature. Another mechanism at work here is The Pratfall effect: those who never make mistakes are perceived as less likeable than those who commit the occasional faux pas. Messing up draws people closer to you and makes you more human whereas perfection creates distance and an unattractive air of invincibility. Another possible explanation is a rather ironic tendency to inspect the self instead of consciously connecting with others as expounded on above.  In brief, there is already a virtual distance between people on social media due to the nature of all content being created and by putting a crafted image in between, this distance only grows larger. This distance may seem harmless at first, but the story of Madison Holleran tells us otherwise.

Madison Holleran was a 19 year old student at the University of Pennsylvania who had a penchant for browsing and posting pictures on Instagram. The pictures she posted to Instagram painted a perfect life: a successful and happy college freshman. Yet, this flawless image concealed the problems Madison faced and on January 17th 2014, she committed suicide. As chilling as this tale is, it is imperative that we see how social media had constructed perfect images of college life that might have pressured Madison to be as happy and content while also serving as a medium for Madison to construct such a life without revealing the struggle she went through. She felt overwhelmed upon entering college and sought her friends for advice, who revealed that they underwent similar difficulties. “Yet in her mind, the lives her friends were projecting on social media trumped the reality they were privately sharing.” This led to Madison believing that she too must live a perfect life, for the dangers of Instagram compared to similarly constructed advertisements is that they are passed off as real life, and often mistaken for real life. The danger of pictures, especially purposefully constructed ones, is that in presenting dreams as a reality to others one deceives others that they too should be capable of living such surreal lives and thus subconsciously pressures others to follow suit, or as illustrated in Madison’s case, deceive others into believing that one is fine.

To conclude, it might be wise to perhaps consider the greater implications the seemingly simple selfie may lead to and decide if you truly need that one more picture in your album before your pressing that camera button. No doubt, there are appropriate situations where the selfie is apt, a fun way to snapshot memories. That being said, unmoderated selfie-taking seems to have far more serious implications than annoying others. Perhaps we could all take a break from seemingly relying on the selfie to bring us together and instead practice a little appreciation everyday to think about the moments we share with friends. In a world where apathy and cynicism seem to be a default, I believe it is sincere moments of intimacy with those we treasure that will give us a true sense of belonging and make life that much more worth living for.

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