Week 12: Selfies for good or evil

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DEVIL INSIDE 224/365 by Dennis Skley (Flickr image, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

When searching online for videos and images to attach to my Week 11 Pinterest board on ‘things that are popular among youths’, I was surprised what a simple google search on the term ‘selfies’ revealed.  Search results declared: ‘Naked Selfies on Flickr’ and ‘Selfies 18+ on Tumblr’.  This combined with alarmist media headlines all portray an overwhelming impression of the selfie as a potent, harmful and extremely unwholesome cultural phenomenon.

I am aware of selfies as a popular and somewhat addictive practice among teens and have  observed smart phones being ‘snuck out‘ in class or in the schoolyard on countless occasions so that students can snap digital portraits of themselves and their friends. While I am aware of some youths engagement in distasteful selfies, including provocative poses at parties or engagement in illicit behaviour, it was my view that the majority of teens engage in selfie sharing as a form of self-expression or self-investigation through new media.  As Hardey (in Day 2013) states, ‘the selfie is revolutionising how we gather autobiographical information about ourselves and our friends…it’s about continuously rewriting yourself.  It’s an extension of our natural construction of self.  It’s about presenting yourself in the best way…[similar to] when women put on make-up or men bodybuild [in order] to look a certain way: it’s an aspect of performance that’s about knowing yourself and being vulnerable.’  I was interested to investigate the ins and outs of the selfie phenomenon further and explore the advantages and disadvantages the selfie may have in the context of using popular culture in the classroom.

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SEE-MING LEE by See-Ming Lee (Flickr image, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 Selfies have notoriously been described as the ‘ultimate symbol of the narcissistic age’ (Day 2013) and John Paul Titlow, the American writer described selfie-sharing as ‘a high school popularity contest on digital steroids’ (Day 2013).  Even the online Oxford dictionary, which added the term as a new word this year, cautions against the egotistical nature of the selfie, as the definition below shows:

 Pronunciation: /ˈsɛlfi/ (also selfy):  noun (plural selfies):  informal

  • a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website:
  • occasional selfies are acceptable, but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary
  • http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/selfie

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SHE’S JUST COOL LIKE THAT by D. Sharon Pruitt (Flickr image, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

But is the selfie really a ‘trashy’ artefact of our ‘me me me’ culture and is this generation of digital natives really more narcissistic than the last?  I vaguely remember myself as a self-absorbed teenager, fussing over my outfit before I graced the public eye and spending an entire morning working on my hair before the school photo shoot so I’d look good in the yearbook.  Furthermore, self-portraiture has been a popular art form and highly expressive media for centuries.  Surely Van Gough or Frida Khalo’s obsession with painting themselves didn’t see them branded as narcissistic.  So what has changed?  I suppose the difference now is the speed and ease with which a photograph can be shared and disseminated to such a wide audience at the simple click of a button.  As Day (2013) suggests, the selfies’ ‘instantaneous nature encourages superficiality’.  While the selfie may give us more control over our image and the image we intentionally project to the world, it seems there are dangers inherent in that.  We are still struggling with the private made public conundrum.

At their most extreme, selfies have been branded as contributing to the rise of amateur porn and of degrading and disempowering women.  There are now entire internet sites dedicated to ‘young women posing for selfies in a state of undress’ (Day 2013) and according to author Gail Dines, ‘because of porn culture, women have internalised that image of themselves.  They self-objectify, which means they’re actually doing to themselves what the male gaze does to them’ (in Day 2013).  In her critique of selfies, eleven year old school girl, Olympia Nelson (2013) says that girls post images of themselves in sexually suggestive poses to score approval and to increase their number of ‘likes’.  In this way selfies may be seen as a perverse popularity contest that demeans young women.

At the other end of the spectrum, selfies may actually work to empower individuals and give voice to the marginalised.  Janmohamed (2013) writes about the potential for the selfie to shift social boundaries.  She points to a recent case in India in which selfies were declared as un-Islamic and Muslim girls were banned from posting pictures of themselves on social networks (Janmohamed 2013).  Janmohamed (2013) suggests ‘it’s possible that for some, publishing pictures of themselves living lives their foremothers could only have dreamt of, is itself a way of breaking traditional gender oppression and of finding their own place in society’.  Furthermore, Janmohamed emphasises the selfie as a medium entirely within the individual’s own control.  The selfie enables one to construct an identity and project an image the way they want to be seen (Janmohamed 2013).  ‘The mere existence of such photos moves boundaries about what is acceptable, bringing into the mainstream what might once have been hidden.  It subtly changes our social boundaries’ (Janmohamed 2013).

Delving into this idea further, I was interested to come across numerous selfie movements or causes that are dedicated to giving the marginalised or disadvantaged a voice.  For example, Selfie for Silence is a movement that encourages people to ‘end the silence around anti-LBGT bullying and harrassment’.  Individuals are encouraged to post a selfie on Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter with a written message on how they can ‘end the silence’.  Fedoras for Fairness is another campaign that uses the ‘fedora as a metaphor of the many hats that women wear to create a brighter future for all’ and encourages women to share their own fedora photos.

Beth’s blog on Selfies for good? Or Just Tapping into Another Narcissistic Trend was another site I came across that had some interesting and novel ways that selfies can be used for social good.  Of particular interest to me, as an aspiring teacher librarian, was how the New York Public library was using selfies to attract ‘selfie-loving patrons’ and to engage an online presence.  As Snapshots from NYPL and How Selfies are Re-energizing the New York Public Library describes, the New York Public Library installed photobooths in two of its libraries and encouraged visitors to step inside, with results then being uploaded onto Flickr.  The initiative was highly popular and proved valuable as a marketing tool and in establishing communication with patrons in a physical as well as digital format.  This idea could be modified or appropriated to extend the online identity of the school library.  Selfies of students posing with their favourite book during book week or even just using the library could be uploaded as a means of engaging students and forging an online relationship with them.  Images could be kept private on a library blog or wiki or on the library intranet site if privacy was a school issue.  Given the popularity of the selfie, this may be one novel way of encouraging students to develop a relationship with the library.

Jackie Gerstein’s educational blog and her post on User Generated Education: Photography for Enhancing Social Emotional Learning includes a number of valuable ideas on how selfies and other forms of photography can be used in the classroom to build students social emotional skills.  Gerstein suggests that learners can ‘use photography and digital images to make personal connections with themselves, the content, each other, and other “cultures” with the ultimate goals of increased self-awareness, cultural awareness, and empathy’.  The website suggests how selfies and self-portraiture can be used in a number of disciplines, including history, art and language arts. There’s even a Science link with lesson ideas and website links on how students can research and then take selfies to communicate what type of scientist they are or aspire to be.

The website also details how photography can be used to empower and give the marginalised or disadvanted a voice.  I found Photovoice, a form of participatory photography, an interesting concept and one that could be adapted for use on a smaller scale in a classroom or school context.  More information on this initiative can be found on the Photovoice website and The Community Toolbox provides information on Implementing Photovoice in Your Community.

Other resources focused on using photography for social good includes Bridges to Understanding, which includes a Gallery of Digital Stories and Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling.  Although these resources again move beyond the selfie to photography in general, the same ideas and attitudes could be applied to the selfie in a smaller classroom context.

Whether you love them or hate them, it seems that selfies have lodged themselves into the digital lifeworld of the adolescent. Given the popularity of the selfie among youth today, I can see only the benefits of integrating the selfie concept into the curriculum in a way that impacts positively on students’ lives and the world around them.  This is one area that I will definitely be willing to incorporate in my Art and/or English classes in the future.

Day, E.  (2013).  Selfie Obsession.  Sunday Independent, 4 August.  Independent News and Media: Dublin.

Huppke, R.  (2013).  ‘Selfie’ photos say me, myself, mine.  Chicago Tribune, 16 May.  Tribune Publishing Company: Chicago.

Janmohamed, S.  (2013).  How the selfie has shifted the boundaries.  The National, 17 August.  Abu Dhabi Media Company: Abu Dhabi.

Nelson, O.  (2013).  Dark undercurrents of teenage girls’ selfies: Pouty self portraits have turned boy-girl relations into a cut-throat sexual rat race.  The Age, 11 July.http://www.theage.com.au/comment/dark-undercurrents-of-teenage-girls-selfies-20130710-2pqbl.html

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3 thoughts on “Week 12: Selfies for good or evil

  1. Love this post Michelle! It has only just hit me in the last year about how many people take selfies and I often wonder why?? Surely someone nearby can take a photo for them? That’s what we had to do! To also see there is an actual definition of a ‘selfie’ now also makes me laugh. Especially the point that goes along the lines of ‘occasionally is ok but not everyday!’ When I flick through my Facebook feed there are the same people who post pics almost every day ‘living up’ their life – beach, relaxing, dining out, frocked up ready for a night out. Gets a bit over the top. The young friends who constantly post pictures of themselves posing (again almost everyday) with no background, just themselves is even more concerning to me. Seems they are just wanting the ‘likes’ and the positive feedback. I guess this is welcome to the 21st century…

    • I agree with Angela, great post Michelle! It is something that has been bugging me for a long time – selfies. I am SOOOO glad that I’m not a teenager with today’s technology because like Angela, I too can remember obsessing about my hair, clothes and make-up as an impressionable, self-obsessed teen. My ‘selfie-abundant digital footprint’ would have been beyond embarrassing, I’m sure!! I have seen it used positively though, at the library where I have been working they promoted ‘selfie with a shelfy’ for bookweek – take a photo of yourself with your bookshelf at home and email to the library for a prize. Another positive is that when you’re travelling alone you can still be in all the photos without that awkward “Would you mind taking our picture?” moment…!

  2. I hadn’t thought about how young people use selfies so much! And I love your example from the New York Library. What an awesome idea! I can see how it would be very popular in a school setting and a great way to entice more students into the library. That’s an idea I will be keeping for future reference!
    Kristy S

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