In response to it being named as the Oxford Word of the Year, the Irish Times ran a piece today on the phenomenon of ‘selfies’ that in its vague emptiness sums up the silly furore over the word. The article argues that the ‘selfie’ is the most appropriate – or “depressing” – “symbol of the kind of society we have become” that “sums up our age of narcissism”. But Jennifer O’Connell never really explains how this act (of taking a picture of yourself) points to this grave social illness, or how the ‘selfie’ is in any way a new activity.
People, with the means, have been commissioning self-portraits of some manner for centuries. All that has changed is that the means to do so (and broadcast) have become readily available to the masses. If ‘selfies’ tell us anything, its that the means of production of self-portraiture have been acquired by all, not just the elite. That in itself might be interesting, but it shows us that the ‘narcissism’ (if it’s true) has always been there.
One of the ‘selfies’ described in the IT piece is of a family out at a meal who take a picture of themselves. That is a family picture at a meal. I assume it was a ‘selfie’ because one of the members of the family physically took the picture themselves? Had they handed the camera to a waiter to take they would be doing something that has never prompted a columnist to write about it before. But it seems the act of being in a picture, whether alone or with others, whilst also taking the picture, magically transforms it into the narcissistic ‘selfie’ – the act that ‘sums up our age’. This family portrait was “the perfect nuclear family for the age of ego.” When me and my family posed awkwardly with our nan in 1986 it was a cherished memory we were only talking about the other day. But this family in a pizza restaurant took a ‘selfie’, and we should sneer it as such.