The Selfie and the Self: In Defence of Duckface

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In The Social Photo, social theorist Nathan Jurgenson develops bold new ways of understanding the transformations wrought by these image-making and sharing technologies and the cultural objects they have ushered in: the selfie, the faux-vintage photo, the self-destructing image, the food photo. Jurgenson shows how these devices and platforms have remade the world and our understanding of ourselves within it.

Below is an excerpt from the book, calling for a reevaluation of the selfie, and an end to the shame and stigma associated with this vital form of social photography. 

The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media is 40% off until May 20, 2019. Full info here!

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The selfie – the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2013 “word of the year” – is perhaps the most conspicuous, notorious, and debated type of social photography. The term selfie is widely used as shorthand for the exhibitionism, narcissism, and other enduring social worries aroused by technologies of visibility. But selfie taking is hardly aberrant; it is not rare or limited to some unusual subset of smartphone uses. The selfie is instead quite familiar. Most simply it is the social photo one takes of oneself. It is a means by which the new image-taking and sharing technology has been attached to the traditional workings of identity, and it also makes those workings more explicit. Selfies make plain the ongoing process of identity construction. And perhaps this exposure is part of why selfies are so often deplored.

There is an interesting difference in how photo software can be designed to handle an image taken with a device’s front-facing camera. Some give you the view that someone looking at you would see, but others flip the image so that it looks like what you would see in a mirror. In the mirror-reversed applications, the words on your shirt are backwards and the part in your hair goes in the direction you are familiar with seeing in your own reflection, but it is unfamiliar to others who are used to seeing you and not your reflection. The apps either produce what others usually see when you are among people or what you usually see in the intimacy and privacy of the mirror.

The subtle distinction between these views can help illustrate how making a selfie mimics the making of a self. Researcher Anirban Baishya compares it to the difference between the selfie and the traditional self-portrait:

The self produced by a selfie and a traditional self-portrait are not the same. The connection of the hand to the cell phone at the moment of recording makes the selfie a sort of externalized inward look, and the point of view of the selfie is not necessarily the external gaze of the painter’s eye as he steps out of his body to see and render his own form, but that of the hand that has been extended the power of sight. Thus, in a strange way, the so-called amateur look of the selfie also becomes an index of the real—the point of view of the selfie seems authentic, because it is as if the human body is looking at itself.

The selfie is “authenticated” by the markings of the form (holding the phone and pointing it at oneself), which conveys an intimacy akin to looking in the mirror. In the tension between mirror view and external view is the self, and, like the self, the selfie traverses that space, puts it into social circulation. The selfie lets us share that mirror-view, what we see when contemplating our self, considering what we are. In this way, the mirrored view subtly conveys to others not the objective fact of who we are but instead what we see in our private back stage, which is a self in the active process of being made and also being passively shaped by the world.

Erving Goffman, perhaps the most influential sociologist of identity, built such a dramaturgical framework for understanding the self in his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which conceives our social behavior in terms of actors performing, making use of specific scripts and props. In addition to the “front stage” where we perform, there is a “back stage” where we get ready to be in public. The back stage isn’t where we are more “real” because we aren’t performing; instead, it is where we learn to perform. For example, we might look into a mirror and practice our photo smile or try out different hairstyles, clothes, or makeup. All this will later be passed onto the front stage, often as seemingly cool and unrehearsed.

While much of this prep time goes unrecorded, selfies can capture that backstage work: the effort to set the scene, the staging and prepping and practicing of the self. Most photographs hide the photographer, whose subjectivity is usually conspicuously missing from the resulting image. The selfie undoes this photographic fourth wall, because the observer is observed. You all see me, the same me, the me that I see and choose to share.

In making overt reference to the other side of the camera, the selfie plays with the distinction between the front and back stage, acknowledging the performance for the image by incorporating it as part of the image. The moments after a selfie is taken, looking at the camera to see which of the shots should be deleted – this is work that happens outside the frame and is rarely seen. But some of the selfie aesthetic makes explicit reference to this work, frontstaging some of the process of performing the self: so-called ugly or sick selfies in particular capture our play with mirrors, our making faces, our self-aware stabs at being (un)attractive. By making light of our own posing, the selfie gives practicing at selfhood a public facet, which troubles the idea that the self is transcendent, fixed, given. The selfie confirms what we already know but are reluctant to admit about identity, a view that is culturally suppressed in everyday life: that the “self” is what you think others see when they see you – not the impossible view into our inner truth but your perception of what others think that view would be. The desire to see a more true self behind and beyond performance is the horror impulse to see the body stripped of skin. Trying to find the real, naked self by undressing the layers of performance is a tragic impulse because play and pose and pretense reveal a person more than they conceal.

The selfie captures how the self has long been understood in sociology, offering the third-person mirror view that Charles Horton Cooley articulated more than a century ago with his foundational concept of the “looking-glass self.” His definition of the self is sometimes summed up like this: I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think you think I am.

The uncomfortable implication of this is that we come to know ourselves as selves precisely by taking on a third-person perspective on ourselves. That is, there is no “self” without other people—no intrinsic, essential, or natural authenticity to our own identity without a mirror or camera to reflect it. As historian and theorist Sharrona Pearl argues,

self-presentation – through all visual media, including non-screen interactions – is always a kind of self-portrait, a performance of the self, a self-fashioning. The self is always a selfie.

The self is a mirror of this near-constant production of identity.

In 1925, D. H. Lawrence linked Cooley’s looking-glass metaphor to how we remember ourselves and maintain that continuity of identity over time: the “identifying of ourselves with the visual image of ourselves has become an instinct,” he claimed, arguing we had developed a new, “Kodak” understanding of ourselves, in which our self-concept is pegged to how we think we might appear in a snapshot. Even then, the self was understood as something manufactured, something exchangeable, something that is preserved and shareable as an image-object. As writer Rob Horning puts it, the selfie “manufactures a self to present to the world as an artisanal product.” The corollary is that the self doesn’t quite exist until those moments of production.

Because social photography is about visibility, it’s no surprise that it’s also deeply gendered and stigmatized. As much as the selfie reflects how identity theorists have long described the construction and maintenance of the self, it has at the same time been conspicuously derided. While photos of tourist attractions and sunsets and possessions are liked or ignored, photos of bodies, and especially of faces, are obsessed over and tightly regulated. When the Oxford Dictionaries officially added the word selfie, it included the following example sentence:

Selfie (noun): 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."

As researcher Anne Burns points out, “When even the dictionary definition of ‘selfie’ is prescriptive, we can see how regulation has become naturalized as part of public discourse.” Burns’s work forcefully describes the emergence of selfie-hate and its consequences. She argues that when selfies are criticized as “narcissistic,” when selfie “duck faces” are mocked, and the frequency with which selfies are taken and posted are counted and condemned, it’s often to express sexist attitudes and sort women, especially young women, into moral hierarchies:

Selfie discourse does not merely express prejudice toward others; it also justifies their denigration by establishing punishment as a socially accepted response to certain activities (taking selfies) and subjects (women who take selfies).

Selfie-takers thus become scapegoats for identity’s irreducible social and performative dimensions. The selfie is the paradigmatic example of how social photography more broadly has become a locus for imposing systems of rules and conduct for the self, a place where the self can be regulated with shame and stigma. 

- this is an edited excerpt from The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media by Nathan Jurgenson. 40% off until May 20, 23.59 EST.

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