This article is published via Thrive Global portal: Selfie: it is not a novelty in the human desire for (self-)expression
Nowadays, for most people everyday life comprises a comprehensive use of modern technologies, communications in the digital world as well as sharing information and content in real time via a large number of social networks. Mobile – Smart phones are with us almost all the time but their initial, primary function – telephone conversation – is increasingly giving way to other forms of online communication.
At one of the last conferences on the subject of arts in the United States, Marcus Romer, an actor and director, stated that while it took 38 years for radio to reach 50 million users from its founding, on the other hand, it took 13 years for television, Facebook achieved the same success in just two years. This is an indication of how the future of communication based on information technology is uncertain because the options are immeasurable, and the speed of development is unknown. (Tatomirović T., „Virtuelno komuniciranje u budućnosti: upotreba i zloupotreba”, CM Časopis za upravljanje komuniciranjem [“Virtual communication in the future: the use and abuse”, CM Journal for communications management,] 7/2008, 103-112.)
If we look at commercials for mobile phones only superficially, we will notice that few of them show people as they talk. Most commercials contain scenes with young smiling customers who are shooting entertaining photos, usually selfies (self-portrait photography), intended for sharing on social networks.
The use of modern technology in all aspects of life also inevitably affects the way we view and experience the world and people around us and the way we see ourselves in the environment. Photos of others, and more and more of ourselves, as well as portraits and self-portraits that we make with an unprecedented ease – are provided to us by tools that are no longer the privilege of a small number of people, but the mass means of communication.
The connection between the latest technological solutions and social networks has offered a platform in which a self-portrait gets its own mass version in the form of selfies and its visibility and distribution has been supported by sharing information in real time.
Opinions differ over whether the selfie is just a reflection of narcissism or it may represent a process of self-exploration, or a deeper needs to communicate with other people through the images – photos, reflections of ourselves. In this context, this paper deals with the question of whether through selfies their authors primarily want to “impose” themselves to the views of others or the communication which may be developed from such interactions is also important to them.
In relation to these issues, this paper analyzes the findings published in 2015 in the International Journal of Communication no. 9, which were reached by two teams of scientist exploring the potential importance of selfies, – Dr. David Nemer and Dr. Guo Freeman, and Dr. Theresa Senft and Dr. Nancy Baym, as well as the views of the authors of traditional self-portraits such as Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol. This issue is dealt with by Dr. Pamela Rutledge, an expert on the subject of relations between psychology and media technologies within her work published on the portal Psychology Today.com (Rutledge, 2013).
Furthermore, monitoring hashtag #selfie on the social network Twitter, for a period of four weeks, from August 11 2016 to September 7 2016 (https://www.tvitni.com/campaign/at3PJ/mxh9Nv4,2016.) provided a quantitative analysis, i.e. an insight into the data on the number of users, in this case of the Twitter social network, which were during a randomly selected period in some way engaged in online activities that were related to digital self-portraits (selfies). Thus, we want to show that, although it is not a novelty in the human desire for (self-)expression, the frequency of the phenomenon definitely takes on a whole new dimension thanks to modern technologies and new media.
The aim of this study was to confirm the hypothesis that selfie, as a form of communication via self- portrait, is not basically a novelty but it is the phenomenon which is the result of the technological development, as well as to try to explain the purpose of self-portrayal ie. selfie phenomenon.
Selfie and a painting self-portrait as its forerunner
People have always felt the need to present themselves to others, but also to themselves, and thus the first known self-portraits emerged along with the improvement of the process of the mirror production during the Renaissance. Until the nineteenth century, they were most often created only by painters like the pioneer of self-portraiting, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).
The development of cameras and photos has enabled more people to capture themselves, of course with the cost and time which were linked with the development of the film. The first known photographic self-portrait was made by Robert Cornellius in 1839 (www.petapixel.com, 2014) ..
Digital cameras and the Internet have facilitated for an even greater number of people to share with others the moments they recorded themselves in a short period of time. Then, the twenty-first century has brought smart mobile phones with front-facing camera (iPhone 4 was released later in 2010), as well as social networks focused on photo and video content, such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook , YouTube and others.
In its proclamation of the word “selfie” for the “word of 2013”, the Oxford Dictionary has stated that the reason for its proclamation that very year was that it had not gained wider popularity from the moment when it was first used in 2002 on an online forum until 2012 – but it experienced enormous expansion in 2013. Analyzing the frequency of the use of these words, the Oxford Dictionary has stated that it was used even 17,000% more in 2013 than in the previous year.
The word “selfie” was included in the Oxford Dictionary by the definition: “A photo of oneself, typically taken with one’s smartphone or webcam and posted on social networking site.” (Oxford University Press, 2013)
In order to be able to make a parallel between selfies and a traditional self-portrait, it is necessary to take into account the definition of the word “self-portrait”: “Portrait of oneself made by an artist and the word “portrait”: “A painting, drawing, photograph, engraving of a person – especially the one that displays only the face or head and shoulders” (Oxford Dictionaries) . From this, we can conclude that the only difference between selfies and traditional self-portrait is that the first does not have to be made by a famous artist, but by any person who subsequently may also become famous after the selfie was being shared on social networks.
Drawing parallels between selfies and self-portraits in the context of art analyses and evaluations is not something that this paper deals with. Another type of parallel will be discussed and it refers to the essence of what exists in both forms of auto-portrayal, and that is the communication with the reader.
Distribution and popularity of selfies can certainly be associated with the mass availability of technologies and platforms that allow them, but there is another aspect, the one that relates to human needs and desires. Most people see and experience themselves through relationships with others, beyond how other people see them.
The need to present ourselves to others in a certain way, and so to participate in creating a perception of who we are, also lies in the basis of older versions of (self)portraits. Throughout human history, painting, sculpturing or stonemasoning material have not always been easily and widely available and those who could afford the resources and talent to create works of art also sought to create their portraits, primarily as a form of documentation, “capturing” or status. Thanks to technological solutions, selfie excludes “intermediaries” (the artist who would make a portrait), but not the need to say or express something through the display, image of ourselves.
The past and the impact of technology on the development of the prevalence of self-portraits
How important are selfies in social and cultural terms, and whether their great presence contributed to a better communication among people – are issues dealt with by the International Journal of Communications no. 9, from 2015. It implied that selfie fosters relationships, communication between people who share, comment or like them – and therefore may serve to convey the deeper messages. (International Journal of Communications No. 9, Introduction, 2015)
This description, which unlike the Oxford dictionary also states interaction between people, and not just the act of posting photos on the social network, is also supplemented by explaining that the interaction is enabled through technological factors. Selfie exists thanks to mobile phones, computers and the Internet. This very technology is responsible for the fact that original selfie, which is made in real time and for the first time shared – will become a part of the infrastructure of the digital space – and therefore outlive the moment and place of its creation. (International Journal of Communications No. 9, Introduction, 2015)
From the cultural point of view, the selfie can contribute to a better understanding of different cultures, their traditions, the acceptance or rejection of various phenomena and attitudes. By detailed monitoring of online trends, we can come to the conclusion whether and how a certain attitude/message is expressed through selfie, accepted by people of different genders, ages, economic statuses, skin colors, religions etc. In short, selfie can help spread an opinion and accelerate discussion about it.
Opinions differ regarding the fact that the selfie is a phenomenon that primarily affects the society in a positive (encouraging communication and exchange of views) or a negative way (alienating us and satisfying our narcissism or objectivization).
Dr. David Nemer and Dr. Guo Freeman of the University of Indiana, in an article entitled “Empowering the marginalized: reflecting upon selfies in the slums of Brazil” (International Journal of Communications No. 9, Nemer and Freeman, 2015) say that exploring the phenomenon of selfies in Brazilian favelas they reached a conclusion that young people who live in them use selfies “to talk about the violence in their area, to document their lives and to inform their parents that they are safe during the day.” They post selfies on social networks as a form of realization of freedom of speech, interconnection, sharing of information which may be of vital importance. Therefore, selfies become a very important and powerful tool for expressing social and personal attitudes and concerns, as well as the means by which young people in the favelas document their lives. (International Journal of Communications No. 9, Nemer and Freeman, “Empowering the marginalized: thinking about selfies in the slums of Brazil, 2015)
Documenting personal life situations, statuses and the impact of broader social developments on an individual can be found in the self-portraits by famous painters.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) is considered to be one of the most important painters of self-portraits. During his life, he made nearly 100 self-portraits, but he is not the greatest so much due to the number of self-portraits, but due to reality of his self-portraits. He painted himself as a young, old, poor, rich, serious, smiling man… He analyzed himself and his life’s ups and downs – trying to document them as closely as possible.
Looking at his works, three stages of creating self-portraits can be recognized, each of which has portrayed a situation which he was in. His early self-portraits give the impression of freshness, curiosity, creativity and desire to undergo self-experiment and research. Then, followed a phase of life in which he was recognized, famous, respected and wealthy. Self-portraits from this period reflect the dignity, although they seem to have lost the immediacy that distinguished the previous period. Before the end of his life, impoverished Rembrandt returned to a more direct and introspective style of self-portrayal.
Although Rembrandt’s work, such as Night Watch and numerous portraits of his contemporaries, are among the most famous artistic works of this period, self-portraits are distinguished by their wider significance. Art historian James Hall even believes that: “In a way, self-portraits are what makes Rembrandt famous more than his art. Copies of his early portraits were distributed everywhere, so that everyone knows what he looked like even though they never saw another work of Rembrandt’s” (Hall, 2014)
While Rembrandt sought to portray himself as closely as possible – both in the spiritual as well as in the physical sense – other great painters of selfies from later eras were replacing physical reality with imagination and allegory, or simplified it – at the same time trying to primarily depict their spiritual condition in self-portraits.
Among them is Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), the author of more than 30 self-portraits. In his letter to his sister, van Gogh wrote: “I am searching for a deeper resemblance than that which a photographer manages to achieve.”
He wrote to his brother: “… it is difficult to know oneself. But it is not easy to paint oneself. Portraits which were painted by Rembrandt are more of the viewing of nature, they are more like a revelation.”
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) represented her mental and physical pain by over-painting her broken body. Often staying alone and bedridden, Kahlo said: “I paint myself because I am often alone and because I am a model who I know best.”
This sentence largely explains the urge to make selfies. People still know themselves best, so it is not surprising that they selected themselves as models that they show and explore. Therefore, behind selfies can stand and a deeper desire for self-exploration, not only mere vanity, narcissism or the tendency of self-objectivization.
In the aforementioned International Journal of Communications no. 9 – Dr. Theresa Senft and Dr. Nancy Baym oppose the generalized opinion about selfies as a reliable indicator of narcissism and vanity.
Most young people have less need for privacy than the people of the older generations, and therefore they make more selfies and are more active on social networks. Their selfies can be a reflection of vanity, but not always – but we must consider the fact that selfies are also made by politicians in order to convey an attitude, celebrities to get closer to the fans, ordinary people who want to make someone laugh (International Journal of Communications No. 9, Baym and Senft, 2015).
Addressing the possible link between taking selfies and low self-esteem, dependency and narcissism, the authors claim that “… we have not seen a single reviewed work of scientific literature that demonstrates convincingly that the creation of selfies and mental illness are correlated.”
In other words, selfies in most cases cannot be linked to the development of mental illnesses and the desire to impose on others, but it can be linked to the need to people connect and communicate with other and convey a message to them.
Dr. Pamela Rutledge also wrote about selfies impact on everyday life on the website of “Psychology Today”: “People are social animals, governed by the need to stay connected and respected in society. We all want to be appreciated, respected and included in groups that are important to us.” In these groups, it is possible to express one’s attitude, belonging to a or the artistic gift. Selfie can help others to analyze us and better meet through the large number of photographs. It can be a tool in ensuring acceptance by those whose opinion we care about or the incentive to self-analysis. With selfies, it is possible to win or lose supporters and fans, it is possible to be yourself in real life too, or play a role. (www.psychologytoday.com, Rutledge, 2013)
Not even in the context of creating different roles and personae, selfie does not deviate too much from such form of communication applied in the art of earlier periods.
The pop-art artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987) had no desire to represent himself realistically, either in the physical or the mental sense. “Who wants the truth? That’s what business is for – to prove that it does not matter what you are, but what they think you are“, Warhol wrote in 1980.
Creating a traditional portrait in the past, and digital self-portraits – selfies today – certainly does not provide arguments for the equalization of these two processes. However, the space for analyzing similarities found in communication and interaction that is consciously or unconsciously initiated in relation to the author and the viewer. In this sense, modern technologies and global networking are a means that make this type of communication more widespread and transform it into a sort of a phenomenon.
A quantitative analysis of the hashtag #selfie on Twitter may also show us to what extent the phenomenon of selfies is widespread and which scope it has (performed by a service www.Tvitni.com). Until a decade ago, hashtag or the symbol # meant only a term that refers to phones or is marked only by the term “sharp” in the music field. All these perceptions have changed in the meantime, but this simple symbol represents one of the basic tools for communication and has grown into a phenomenon of popular culture without which the communication on online channels is almost no longer possible and is increasingly expanding in communication outside social networks.
Analysis of hashtags has been conducted for four weeks (period from November 8 2016 to September 7 2016). Research has shown that the total number of original tweets with the hashtag #selfie amounted to 199,629, while together with retweets (repetition, quotation of tweets) that number increased to 291,717. In addition, 147,584 people marked the activities with the hashtag #selfie as the content they like in this period.
The aforementioned tweets, retweets and likes comes from the 152,733 Twitter users.
However, when taking into account all users’ followers (potential reach) – we come to a remarkable fact – during less than four weeks, there were as many as 547,697,200 of them. More than half a million people were in some way involved in online activities related to the hashtag #selfie.
Since the analysis was performed only on one social network, without taking into account the media like Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat (primarily intended for sharing photos and video content) – it is clear that mobile technology and social networks played a major role in turning selfies in global social phenomenon.
Traditional and digital self-portraits are essentially formed as products of the same aspirations – to capture the moment of one’s life and to offer it to the insight and analysis of others. In this way, a self-portrait, as well as a selfie, open up the possibility of creating relationships and communication between the author and the viewer.
In the case of selfies, considering their value might choose a negative approach and interpret the popularity of this trend as a reflection of the overwhelming crisis of society. However, the angle of viewing may be similar to the attitudes presented by the Dr. Pamela Rutledge (Psychology Today – selfies: Narcissism or Self-Exploration?, Rutlidge, 2013), where it is clear that there are potential positive and constructive aspects of creating and sharing selfies. Self-analysis and understanding of one’s own identity can significantly improve a transparent and open communication with others, where viewing oneself by the eyes of others can also help in the growth and development of personality.
The result of the analysis of the representation of #selfie hashtag on Twitter says a lot about the potential power of this phenomenon. Through it, the large number of people any information can be transmitted to suggest something – or research public opinion. In other words, the real power of a selfie lies not in self-promotion, but in the promotion of an idea – and connecting people.
It remains to be monitored how this type of interaction will thrive, i.e. how the growing development of technology and the increasing digital networking will affect the communication and exchange of notions that we have about each other and ourselves.
Rembrandt had the talent and time to document his life on canvas. Most people today have none of these two preconditions – but they have the front camera on their smartphones, and an incredible number of people who they can potentially get in contact with through social networks, to present them an idea and to perceive themselves – through their eyes, and their own photo, too.
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4. Warhol, Andy (1980) Popism, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
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You can download this text from Academia.edu: “Self”-way communication through self-portrait