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Scholarly reflections on the ‘selfie’

When Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘selfie’ as their Word of the Year 2013, we invited several scholars from different fields to share their thoughts on this emerging phenomenon.

“’Selfies in science are way cool!,’ reads the status update that accompanies a series of not-quite focused, off-centered selfies that made its way to my Facebook page recently. In successive frames are images of a blurry young woman with a series of tired, puzzled, and smiling high school students in the background. For the participants, these selfies are at least a little about irony and absurdity: as they’re taken in the most ordinary of school classroom settings, they call into question the very idea that photography — and even selfies — are supposed to be about capturing something meaningful and someone special or important. And in the bureaucratic setting of the public school, the images take on a further irony as they are evidence of young people acting out of their own agency in a setting not of their making. Part of the fun is in knowing that this is an inappropriate place to take a selfie. Selfies like this are about awareness of our own self-awareness. They can create a moment of playfulness that helps us to recognize the truth about living in culture that celebrates the individual and the spectacle. They can help us to deal with the absurdity of the ordinary in the face of all of that expectation of fame and spectacle. They can be disruptive of expectations. And sometimes, even the blurriest of selfies can help us to see ourselves, and the specialness of our own lives, more clearly.”
Lynn Schofield Clark, Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media at the University of Denver and author of The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age

“A recent trip to Stonehenge had me cringing as I watched visitors to the site posing for selfies in self-absorbed abandon beside the ancient monument. Did they feel that the intriguing thing about Stonehenge was their own presence there? Maybe I’m not alone in my mixed feelings about the message that selfie-obsession sends about the self-documentarian. Research shows that there’s a direct relationship between how many selfies you share on social media and how close your friends feel to you. There are many possible explanations for this finding, including the self-portrait artist looking or being self-absorbed or lonely or lacking the social skills to know when to say when.”
Karen Dill-Shackleford, Director of the Media Psychology Doctoral Program at Fielding Graduate University and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Media Psychology

Group Photo selfie

Theory of mind may be foremost among the factors that set people apart from other species. Yet, to know that others have a mind (full of beliefs, expectations, emotions, perceptions — some the same and some different from one’s own) is not enough to be really successful as the social animal. Missing is the wish of the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns: ‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as others see us!’ It was his humorous way to point out that avoiding vanity, hubris, embarrassment, etc., depends on imagining oneself from another’s point of view, and to note that our sensory apparatus is pointed away from “the self,” poorly positioned to help much with that. The selfie (an arm’s length close-up self-portrait) photograph is a way to control others’ images of us, to get out in front of their judgments, to put an image in their heads with purpose and spunk. Others’ judgments are no longer just their own creation, the selfie objectifies the self, influences others’ thoughts. And, since the selfie is one’s own creation, it also affords plausible deniability; it isn’t me, it’s just one ‘me’ that I created for you.”
Robert Arkin, Professor of Psychology in the Social Psychology program at The Ohio State University and editor of Most Underappreciated: 50 Prominent Social Psychologists Describe Their Most Unloved Work

“In the age social media where consumer brands seek deep consumer engagement, the human race is following suit. We now all behave as brands and the selfie is simply brand advertising. Selfies provide an opportunity to position ourselves (often against our competitors) to gain recognition, support and ultimately interaction from the targeted social circle. This is no different to consumer brand promotion. The problem is, like most advertising done on the cheap and in haste, the selfie can easily backfire making your brand less desirable.”
Karen Nelson-Field, Senior Research Associate, Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, University of South Australia, and author of Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing

“From a social psychological standpoint, the selfie phenomenon seems to stem from two basic human motives. The first is to attract attention from other people. Because people’s positive social outcomes in life require that others know them, people are motivated to get and maintain social attention. By posting selfies, people can keep themselves in other people’s minds. In addition, like all photographs that are posted on line, selfies are used to convey a particular impression of oneself. Through the clothes one wears, one’s expression, staging of the physical setting, and the style of the photo, people can convey a particular public image of themselves, presumably one that they think will garner social rewards.”
Mark R. Leary, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University and author of The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life and editor of Interpersonal Rejection

Selfies on Snapchat

‘My friends won’t stop sending selfies on Snapchat even though I already see them all on Instagram and Facebook’ according to the sender of this Snapchat-post. Are all selfies the same? I don’t think so. There is quite a difference in taste and message between selfies on various social media platforms. Facebook selfies tend to be the most ordinary self-portraitures; they are pictures posted by people who want to look normal, happy, nice. Instagram is for ‘stylish’ selfies or ‘stylies’. On Instagram, you don’t portray yourself; you paint a desirable persona. The apex of good taste may not be a self-portrait but an artistic picture of your most coveted object, such as an expensive bracelet on your wrist or four pairs of shoes representing you, your trendy husband, and your two adorable kids. Snapchat selfies are more like funny postcards: look at me, see how waggish I am, how abrasive I look, you’re not going to catch me in a snapshot. Snapchat selfies are meant to fade away like a dream as they vanish in less than ten seconds. So each selfie peculiarly reflects the flair and function of the platform through which it is posted, perhaps even more so than its sender’s taste. The medium is a big part of the message.”
José van Dijck, Professor of Comparative Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam and author of The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media

Selfie is an excellent Word of the Year. That -ie ending echoes hundreds of predecessors, and gives it a familiarity, succinctness, and colloquial appeal that’s somehow lacking in such coinages as selbstportrait and autoportrait. It’ll be truly multilingual by the end of the month.”
David Crystal, writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster on language, and most recently co-author of Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain

The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013 is ‘selfie’. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a word, or expression, that has attracted a great deal of interest during the year to date and judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance. Learn more about Word of the Year in our FAQ, on the OUPblog, and on the OxfordWords blog.

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Image credit: (1) Young people taking picture of themselves with camera – selfpic series. © Lighthaunter via iStockphoto. (2) Selfies on Snapchat image courtesy of José van Dijck.

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5 Responses to “Scholarly reflections on the ‘selfie’”
  1. Andrew Byrne says:

    Selfie is a narcissistic unworthy successor to last year’s choice – reflects the age we live in, I guess. Ever wondered what happened to last year’s OED WOTY? Find out here (well, sort of)….
    http://wordwatching1.blogspot.co.uk/

  2. [...] den Oxford Dictionaries hat man ein paar Wissenschaftler/innen gebeten, sich zu selfie zu äußern, auch den geschätzten David Crystal: „ein exzellentes Wort [...]

  3. [...] that are posted online, selfies are used to convey a particular impression of oneself,” says Mark R. Leary, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke [...]

  4. [...] boredom into fascination with the self(ie), and to connect with friends and family online. Says Mark R. Leary, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and author of The Curse of the Self: [...]

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