Selfies: the portraits defining the digital age, for better or worse

With balmy summer weather abounding in East Lansing, groups of MSU students often take to the open-air patios of restaurants to enjoy a meal among friends. Throughout the dinner, smartphones are checked occasionally for varying periods of time and intermittently, a diner holds their phone aloft, staring intently into the screen, their face contorting with the intensity of their expression.

They’re taking a selfie.

The advent of the smartphone front-facing camera has made the selfie a ubiquitous part of the social media landscape.

A selfie is an instantaneous self-portrait, often published though applications such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat.

The selfie has become so widespread that in 2013 the term was named Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year.

But the trend is so new that a variety of analyses have only begun to merge about the meaning of the instant portraits, which are often flattering, sometimes silly and almost always shared publicly.

Experts and students alike are in disagreement about just why the selfie has become such an significant part of life both on and off the Internet.

Selfie Science

Pre-law sophomore Christine Burke said she gets the urge to post pictures of herself online frequently.

She said if she’s bored or if her hair looks good on a particular day, she can’t help but post a picture.

“When there’s nothing exciting going on, it’s like ‘why not post a selfie?’” Burke said.

Associate professor at the University of Southern Mississippi Chris Barry is conducting research on the meaning and implications of selfies, examining the psychological implications of how selfies are framed.

“It can be a sort of way to demonstrate positive things going on in your life,” Barry said.

But Peg Streep, an author who has written for Psychology Today on the topic, argued selfies have much more negative implications on a larger scale.

“Narcissism in terms of American culture isn’t new,” Streep said. “But this is a new twist on it.”

She claimed the selfie is a symptom of the impulse to show-off.

“Self-aggrandizing yourself has to do with the realization that not everybody can be cool,” Streep said. “You need to look cooler than you actually are in life, and you’re hoping that the selfie will do it for you.”

In Barry’s research, which uses selfies collected through Instagram, a photo-sharing social media application, photos are placed into three loose categories — physical appearance, affiliation and generic.

Barry said selfies in the physical appearance category tend to display a feeling of grandiosity within the selfie subject.

From a workout at the gym to a new haircut, the cause for a selfie occasion can be almost anything.

“We really think we need to dig deeper (into) context and caption,” Barry said. “Captions might convey a pretty strong sense of superiority.”

Regardless of their meaning, Streep is unabashed in her condemnation of selfie culture.

“The chances are that if you really are a person of talent and substance, you do less of this,” Streep said.

Demographic Divide

It seems the perception of selfies may shift along key demographics — age and gender.

Like Streep, who is in her 60’s, 72-year-old Lansing resident Terry Frank, said selfies are “self-indulgent, narcissistic.”

“What purpose does it serve?” Frank said. “‘Look at me, look at me.’”

But his companion, Mary Frank, said selfies are “fun — they’re spontaneous.”

Jill Weber, a clinical psychologist and writer who specializes on the impact of culture on young women and relationships and devoted a chapter of her new book to the selfie, said more women engage in taking selfies than men.

She said selfies can have both positive and negative implications.

“I can see the value in both sides. I’ve worked with teen girls, college girls — it can be a positive thing for them,” Weber said. “It provides ... maybe a sense of control and power that women don’t always feel in terms of their image.”

Weber said for individuals with low self-esteem, selfies can boost confidence. But not in all circumstances.

“Sometimes people can get a little bit obsessive about it,” Weber said. “They strike a pose, they put it out there and they don’t really get any hits, they don’t get any likes. That can be invalidating or deflating to the person. Certainly, if you’re hinging your worth on it, that can be a negative thing.”

Hospitality business sophomore Christina Knutson said she thinks the popularity of taking selfies is a phase.

She said although group photos are fine, taking selfies alone is “a little distasteful."

“It’s more of an automatic way that people can see what you’re doing,” Knutson said. “It’s a hinderance on our social lives.”

But as an indication of the different viewpoints surrounding the selfie, computer science sophomore Chong Guang Bi said selfies are a positive way to share moments with friends and family around the world.

“It’s a way to express yourself,” Bi said.

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