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Editor’s note: The following excerpt is the ninth chapter of The Selfie Generation: How Our Self-Images Are Changing Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent, and Culture, Alicia Eler’s new book from Skyhorse Publishing building on ideas first developed in a series of posts on Hyperallergic starting in June 2013.
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The selfie is an aspirational image, but it also an integral aspect of socializing, interacting, and being seen by others online. In an attention economy of likes that demands performance and absolute connectivity, the selfie is a way to visually grab some- one’s attention, mimicking a face-to-face interaction. In order to exist, the selfie most be produced by the individual, and consumed by the network. Even though the selfie is a singular image object, it exists as a continual piece of content when posted to the network because of the people on the network who interact with it. Yet upon posting, it also becomes an archive of one’s presence on the network. The selfie that is posted to the network is always about being seen the way you want others to see you. (#putyourbestfaceforward)
Though the selfie is a millennial phenomena, there are noticeably different selfie-ing habits between older millennials such as myself, who grew up using AIM and then joined Friendster and early MySpace; younger millennials who had Facebook in high school; and members of Generation Z who, born after 1996, are teens now or in their early twenties and regularly use Instagram, Snapchat, and Tumblr. One thing that distinguishes older and younger millennials and Gen Z is the question of online privacy. Older millennials remember a time when there was such a thing as online privacy, whereas younger Gen Zs do not.
“One of the reasons I (and a lot of us ‘older millennials’ in tech) get so nostalgic for the old days is because we believed in the power of living in public and the tools we used never got in the way of that; and the tools were for the most part, super naive about the potential privacy violations they presented,” says Harlo Holmes, director of newsroom digital security at Freedom of the Press Foundation.
Infinite mirror // selfie-ing
The selfie is perpetually here and now, but where is it headed? Madison Malone Kirscher writes regularly about selfies for New York Magazine’s section Select All, which asks questions about how we live online. I was intrigued by her stories about sealfies (selfies with seals), handless selfies (selfies taken with a timer in front of the mirror while the phone is flying in the air) and ballot selfies, and figured she’d have some answers to these questions.
“Anytime anybody whips out a phone to take a photo, people will call it a selfie,” said Kirscher when we spoke by phone. “If you can put ‘selfie’ in a headline, people will click it and people will care.” The word “selfie,” as we saw in chapter 4, is buzzy, cute, and clickworthy.
“When I think about people like my parents, they know what [the selfie] is,” Kirscher said. “Suddenly, this trend that maybe they don’t give a damn about — people taking pictures in their bedroom mirrors throwing their phones in the air, which is this ridiculous teen thing — there’s a touchstone there now because everyone knows what a selfie is this side of point-and-shoot cameras circa 2003.”
The social appropriateness of the selfie is constantly in flux. It was intensely vilified during its upswing, but now it has settled in to being an accepted aspect of how we live.
The selfie is fun. When shared, it becomes a social image. Ultimately, self-imaging is enjoyable and something that most every millennial does at some point, to see how they look on-screen and to connect with friends.
Willingly returned to my high school to see this year’s musical so now I’m hiding out in the bathroom because time is a flat circle. pic.twitter.com/IrMeGz9Twg
— Madison Malone Kircher (@4evrmalone) March 11, 2017
“I have this series of tweets where I take a selfie every time I wear tech fleece — [the other day, I was doing it, and] I watched some person who was probably thirty to thirty-five years older look at me and then pantomime, ‘Are you kidding me?’” says Kirscher. “And that’s not even an inappropriate setting. I’m just walking up 1st Avenue, I’m not bothering anyone, I’m not impeding on anything — I’m just taking a picture of my face.”
That’s one way of selfie-ing, and it’s also specific to millennials who are in their 20s. Because selfie-ing is largely a teen phenomena, as discussed in chapter 1, what about kids who are part of Generation Z, people who were born after 1996? If we’re talking about the future, this is who will determine it.
“I don’t use Facebook because Facebook is boring,” says George Yocom, thirteen, who’s in the eighth grade and lives in Minneapolis. “That’s where all the old people go and write about weird weather and stuff. I don’t want to hear about what you are doing right now.”
I’d been on Facebook just moments before talking to George. After talking with him, I felt incredibly lame. I’d met his mom the week before when she came by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, where I work, to give a talk to journalists about covering the trans community.
George and I talked about his social media — he really only uses Instagram, Snapchat, and Tumblr because that’s where his friends hang out, and that’s mostly who he follows on social media. He goes on every day, often first thing in the morning, and of course social media does affect his friendships and how he sees people in the world. It’s also important for him to post about the stuff he cares about and is doing.
“As a trans activist, I am more like trying to get people to support this organization, or do stuff and not just sit there and think about it — which is good, but to actually go out there and do stuff,” he says.
But really, I just wanted to talk with George about his selfies. Maybe, I wrote this whole book just so I could get to this part of it. I asked him, how often do you post selfies?
“I feel like, mainly I probably do because I don’t know what else to post and I don’t have any other pictures and like, why not?” he says. The selfies that he notices get the most likes are ones where he’s wearing really cute outfits, and doesn’t have his face in them.
“[When people see those photos they] are like, ‘Oh cute,’ and I’m like, ‘I know.’”
There’s an assumption out in the world, as mentioned in Nancy Jo Sales’ book American Girls that social media is affecting the lives of teenage girls in a negative way, and that they would leave the network if they could. Certainly, social media is changing the social behavior of teens today. When I asked George if social media has been a helpful way for him to connect with friends, he replied, “It definitely helps me connect with people because obviously I can’t be with people 24/7, but I want to know what they’re doing,” he says. “And like, sometimes it’s hard to talk to people because I have social anxiety, so it’s cool to see them online and be like, ‘Hey, you’re having a good time, that’s great!’”
Two artists of the selfie generation: RaFiA Santana & Brannon Rockwell-Charland
Selfies are a completely mainstream phenomenon. And like any pop culture phenomena, they are ripe for critique by artists of the selfie generation. Artists of the selfie generation use social media as part of building their persona or brand, and they also use themselves in their work. In this IRL-URL fluid space, artists of the selfie generation criss-cross from the digital to the physical, exploring and playing with the overlap between the two.
Artists of the selfie generation are diverse, geographically scattered about (location optional!), and connected by the Internet and social media. Artists of the selfie generation engage with intersectional feminism, a term originally coined by Black feminists to point out the unique intersection of oppression that they experience both as women and people of color. It now has come to include anyone who experiences oppression under white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society. As the blog Intersectional Feminism 101 writes: “Those with disabilities, mental ill- ness, non-Western religious identities, nonwhite ethnic or racial identities, nonthin bodies, non-Eurocentric features, low income, those who are not alloromantic, allosexual, heterosexual, or cis-gender [specically cis male by Western standards], or those who simply do not adhere to a Western model of gender or sexuality all experience oppression due to their relative ‘disadvantage.’”
One such artist who uses the selfie as one of her many means of self-expression is Brooklyn-based artist RaFiA Santana, age twenty-six. She is a millennial who selfies as a way to both create an archive of herself, and to make sure she is seen the way she wants to be seen. On social media she has said that she has a separate account just for people of color, and one where she creates a persona that’s read more by non-POC folks. Creating such distinct personas on social media is one way to navigate fluid social media identities.
Her selfie art is also a necessity in part because of systemic racism that she experiences. Santana knows that someone who takes her photo will come to it with their own visual memory and baggage of historical images of Black people. Santana works across platforms, and often uses herself in her work. She comes from a family of artists — her mother is a photographer and archivist, and her father is a photographer and filmmaker — and she started using a camera as a teenager.
On the top of her website, she has category for “selfie,” but this wasn’t on purpose. It just happened because she tagged a lot of images with #selfie, and that created a larger tag cloud on the top of her website.
“I have a ton of images of myself, and it does stretch across photography, graphic design, and just like Instagram pictures,” says Santana. “That was a way of categorizing it and putting it into different compartments — how to show it. Somebody picked it up as a series, and I was like, ‘Oh I guess it’s kinda like that, but I was like, oh wait it’s not a self-portrait series,’ but whenever I post a picture of me that I made, I put it under ‘selfie.’”
The main draw of the selfie, especially for people who have seen results they aren’t happy with when turning over the lens to a photographer, is that we can shape our own narratives based on how we want to be seen.
“You get these narratives with photography but if somebody else is taking your picture they are seeing you through their lens, and a lot of what I have been taking issue with and just noticing with a lot of Black photography in major magazines — a lot of the photographers are white and if they shoot Black people they are not conscious about the inherent biases they have — because they’ve been seeing Black people through the white lens forever. That’s like all they’ve been seeing — they’ll still photograph Black people the same way, making them look demonic or just the standard ghetto and not lit properly, they don’t understand how Black people want to look — they don’t understand the Black aesthetic.”
For Santana, she’s often had to go back and retouch photos that were taken of her at major magazines, because the photographer didn’t know how to photograph her. With the selfie, such issues don’t come up because she’s taught herself how to shoot, she knows what looks good, and she knows how to make it so.
“The selfie has been super empowering in that way, just being able to show myself as I am,” she says. In addition, selfie-ing is a way for her to self-reflect — she sees selfie-ing and self-reflection as overlapping.
“Self-reflection is important because you need that to grow,” she says. “If you don’t know where you’re at you don’t know where you need to be. Even if you are in a bad place, you usually want to get out of that bad place. You want to think about that and break down all the things that you do like and things that you don’t like, how do I change this, enhance this, the selfie is very important to me in that respect — it’s sort of like a record.”
It’s not impossible to get an image of yourself that you like that wasn’t taken by you, but it’s definitely harder. Finding a photographer who not only gets your aesthetic, but gets the essence of you and can bring that out in an image — heighten it to ensure that you look even better than you would in everyday life — is a rarity.
“I want to show myself how I wanted to be seen and that’s not going to happen if I let someone else take over my image,” says RaFiA. “Unless we have that relationship and are close with each other, and they know what I want to look like.”
Similarly, Brannon Rockwell-Charland, twenty-four, is an artist working on her MFA in the interdisciplinary studio program at UCLA. She engages often with the selfie, and for her it is a way to connect with herself and assert a sense of power. Rather than tell you more, I asked Brannon for her thoughts on her relationship to the selfie. Here’s what she shared:
Every time I make an image of myself, whether I make it in a darkroom or on an iPhone, I feel that I am reclaiming some kind of power. Selfies give me a sense of control in the face of the always-impending fetishization of black women’s bodies.
The way I’m “read” by others visually is at the center of my work, and there’s a lot at stake for me when I render myself. I’m attempting to clear some space to be able to express my full range of humanity while engaged with whatever aspects of my history I choose but without respectability politics.
I think about history all the time — my own personal history and the contentiousness with which we tend to view images of black woman-ness throughout time. Jezebel. Mammy. Slut. Superwoman. Tragic Mulatto. The list goes on. I’m as tired of that list as I am intrigued by that list. I want to be able to be all of those women simultaneously and at will. I want to be able to be none of them.
I resist erasure by redefining, by embodying, by existing artistically in spaces that are amazing and problematic when it comes to the image of the black woman.
The thing about selfies as a form of image-making that is so tied to social media is that, as we discussed in our queer Tumblr article, we are wrapped up in this paradox of self-reclamation and the social capitalist currency of the Internet. “We are subject to market logic.”
I think maybe I used to be more concerned with resisting and transcending late capitalism. But these days, having just moved to LA, having just started an MFA program, still feeling very uprooted in my art practice, wondering how I’ll afford to live in this city, I find myself wanting to engage with capitalism like I want to engage with the labels of black womanhood. I find myself wondering if I should make my Instagram public. Instagram is where I post most of my selfies; it’s the online space where I am my weirdest self. I find myself wondering how to sell my work. I am in my work. I’m sitting in this perpetually ambivalent space.
For Brannon, selfies are a continual part of her work, ever evolving and complicated in their multifacetedness. As an artist, she curates her image online as well, making her selfie collection unique to her aesthetic and sense of self. By being what she describes as her “weirdest self,” Brannon creates a type of artist persona through selfies and other content she posts to Instagram, while also recognizing that the images she is making are connected to capitalizing on one’s own body and image likeness.
In this way, there is a projected and curated vulnerability dis- played through sel es that traverses issues of privacy online. “When I talk about our ‘right to privacy,’ I usually frame it as a choice, or a positive action, rather than a defense,” says Harlo Holmes, of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “There is indeed a lot of power in creating a public self; everyone is going to share stuff, but make sure you use technology in a way that only you get to choose which version of yourself exists for public consumption.”
Genevieve Gaignard is another artist who creates work around complicated racial identities. As a self-identi ed mixed-race woman, she contends with different stereotypes and personas in her work, creating alter-egos in a way that is more Nicki Minaj and less Cindy Sherman. She also takes many, many selfies.
As I wrote in a review of her exhibition Us Only at Shulamit Nazarin Gallery in Venice, California, for CRAVE magazine, I discussed how her “high yellow femme” identity complicates her relationship to Blackness and how she is read out in the world, yet isn’t necessarily a conversation about what it’s like to “pass.” In her show she explores the multiple identities that she could embody based on the ways she is perceived.
I wrote about Gaignard’s art several times in Los Angeles. In a review of her exhibition Smell the Roses at the California African-American Museum for Hyperallergic, I was curious to think about her work as more than either selfie or self-portrait, and more like creating new mythologies that blend autobiography and fiction. I pointed to UCLA associate English professor Uri McMillian’s essay “Masquerade, Surface, and Mourning: The Performance of Memory-Work in Genevieve Gaignard: Smell the Roses,” which he wrote for the exhibition:
Gaignard’s performances can be positioned in a genealogy of feminist persona-play, including Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being, Lorraine O’Grady’s Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, and Howardena Pindell’s Free, White, and 21, as well as Nikki S. Lee’s Projects, Eleanor Antin’s black ballerina, Eleanora Antinova, and Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight.
Because of their shared interest in characters, Gaignard’s work is often compared to Cindy Sherman. But whereas Sherman reveals nothing about herself, Gaignard reveals a lot. And instead of working with female archetypes in the media, Gaignard makes the personal explicitly political.
She’s also damn funny. So I’ll leave you with this tongue-in-cheek work of hers. It’s called “Selfie Stick,” and points to the selfie’s origins: the mirror.
No selfies allowed but plenty of rewards received at Jumbo’s Clown Room
Speaking of the production and consumption of (cis)female bodies, there are no selfies or other types of photography allowed at Jumbo’s Clown Room, a strip club on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. I had driven by it many times while cruising through Hollywood, noticing the bouncer who eyed IDs at the door. The red-brick facade reminded me of how few brick buildings there are in Los Angeles because of earthquakes. There are no windows in the facade of Jumbo’s. There are no free shows for passersby.
I initially resisted going to Jumbo’s. I had seen amateur burlesque shows in Chicago, at dimly-lit dive bars on makeshift stages, and at storefront theaters squeezed between warehouses on diagonally directional streets. I didn’t want to pay an admission fee to see women’s bodies commodified, and then throw dollar bills at them, which felt even more demoralizing. Even though I am a cis queer woman, I grapple with questions of objectifying women. Also, why go watch live when this commodification is so readily available on TV, the Internet, and in porn? With all this screened play, why would anyone go see girls, like, real human beings, simulating what we are already seeing on screens all the time already?
Jumbo’s was different from other strip clubs. Unlike the plethora of other XXX nude girl joints, which I noticed the most when I first moved to LA, this one has been around since 1970, it’s not nude, and it is burlesque. It is rumored that workers there are treated more ethically. As with any strip club though, there are still plenty of dollar bills that patrons throw onto the stage, ready to be swept up after the dance is over. It’s the business of selling bodies, sex, desire, pleasure.
Curious and open to this new experience, I decided to go — but not on my own, of course. BFF Che Landon, who you remember from previous chapters, thought it would be hilarious to take our eight-months-pregnant-and-about-to-pop friend to Jumbo’s. What funnier place to spot a pregnant woman, am I right?? And who knows, maybe the baby would decide to make an appearance that evening!
There are no photos allowed inside the red-brick facade of Jumbo’s. A packed bar and a stage with a single golden pole erected into it sandwich the available seating area. A series of chairs lined the perimeter of the stage, just beyond the rail that separated the dancer and the audience members who have decided to sit right there in front of the stage and fling bills at the dancers rather than lounge on a black leather booth or on stools at a high stooled circular table further away. The bar that wraps its way around the stage is painted red, and dotted with yellow stars. Mirrors line the back wall of the stage, the ceiling above the stage, and another side of the wall adjacent to the stage.
No matter where you are sitting in the audience, you can see the dancer from multiple angles. Or you can just look straight ahead at her. There is no screen or screened bodies. Just sit back and look into the mirror — see yourself watching her, see her reflected back in the mirror, see reflections of bodies in space.
Sitting in the front row that night at Jumbo’s, I had the overwhelming sense that I’d experienced this dynamic before — this wanting to sit in the front row and look but not be seen looking. I turned to my left, watching as one of my friends gleefully dispensed dollar bills like a blissed-out bank teller to a happily receiving customer.
That’s when it hit me. I remembered this experience. My desire to look but not be seen reminded me of being at a comedy show and making the bold choice to sit in the front row, experiencing that same sensation — hoping that the comedian would make eye contact with me and single me out, put me on the spot with eye contact, but not actually acknowledge my presence. I was there to listen and be an objectified voyeur, but not to be seen.
There’s another important element of Jumbo’s that I mentioned earlier, but I want to reinforce. There are no phones allowed. No one can photograph the girls. They cannot photograph themselves, either. In essence, they are protected against the threat of social media and the Internet. Their bodies will not exist in data form. Their essence will never leave that room. The memories of their bodies will exist only in the minds of visitors that evening, hundreds of eyes gazing in, skin-deep, on the surface. They can only be seen directly, never in a meta-way or through a third-party app. They can only ever be performers and reflections in mirrors, various angles, ass, face, right here, right now.
Anyone seen with their phone out is reprimanded. I took mine out at one point just to check an app quick, and immediately a bouncer noticed and approached me, yelling: “No phones!” I was putting the phone away when the dancer on stage who donned an obviously sexy Halloween costume that included a fake bloodied sword moved toward me. I played along with her slashing roleplay motion. Then she slunk off, dropping to the floor where she gyrated awhile, then wrapped her legs around a pole, sliding up and down it until the song ended and she exited.
While she did this, I watched the mirrors. They created multiple reflected versions of her in this physical space that replicated the infinite reflection of a sexualized selfie put out on the Internet, available for anyone to see through the smartphone in their hands, a face appearing in the palm of your hand. Except instead of direct gazes and dollar bills landing on her as she moved across the stage, such a selfie would garner likes and retweets and comments, shares and often creepy @ messages. Every click is feedback, a like, a reward. Every dollar dropped on-stage is a monetary reward.
“The human reward system tends to be responsive to a variety of things that lead to a subjective pleasurable response,” says Dr. Mauricio Delgado, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University. “This includes the most basic of rewards such as food or money. This also includes more social rewards; things such as a simple smile, receiving compliments, or feeling accepted by peers.”
I was thinking about this effect of the body and face as a woman’s first and last weapon in the digital age and IRL, online as a selfie-er versus in-person as a body. In both spaces, the body becomes not just a brand or a means of gaining social capital, but a literal commodity.
I tell this story not to take issue with strip clubs, burlesque/ erotic dancers, or the act of voyeurism. My experience at Jumbo’s made me think more deeply about some of the recurring critiques of selfie culture, particularly those aimed at young women who find the act of selfie-ing to be empowering, experimenting with their bodies and sexuality in the way that they want to, being seen in the way that they want to be seen. It is empowering as a way to capture attention and to connect quickly, but it comes with the reality of literally releasing one’s selfie as data to the network.
Often, the young women who are purveyors of selfie culture replicate the same types of sexual submissiveness that wouldn’t be seen as “strong” or empowering at all. Women’s bodies are always sexualized. This becomes even more complicated within the realm of selfie culture, because while the image is of her and for her, it becomes something that is also consumed by others who see her as a sexualized object. It’s impossible to escape the gaze or the commodification of bodies under patriarchy.
Can the selfie ever be radical?
I’m a millennial who voted and then selfie-d about voting. I felt conflicted about this. Why did I need to share something I did? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, did it really fall? (#picsoritdidnthappen) Similarly, if I voted and didn’t take a selfie of that instance, did I ever vote? (#ballotselfieoritneverhappened) The answer is obviously yes, but considering that it’s only 2017 and women only gained the right to vote in 1920, not even one hundred years ago, I decided that I wanted to be part of the voting selfie moment on social media. This begs the question: Are selfies tools of empowerment for women in the digital age, or for other people and bodies that are usually othered? Is it meaningful to post a photo like this?
Professor Derek Conrad Murphy makes a case for selfies as a “means to resist the male-dominated media culture’s obsession with and oppressive hold over their lives and bodies.” Murray pulls out the ways that selfie-ing and self-imaging for women on and for the Internet do feel revolutionary, like a sea of faces all rallying together, even if there is no political motivation behind the selfie-ing. “Even if there is no overt political intent, they are indeed contending with the manner in which capitalism is enacted upon their lives,” writes Murray in his paper, Notes to self: the visual culture of selfies in the age of social media.
Murray is self-aware of this generous read on selfie culture, a seemingly ostentatious remark against the blanket accusations of narcissism. Despite the view that your dad might give about “the kids these days being such narcissists,” Murray disagrees, instead taking a more positive approach to the phenomena on the whole, noting the ways that it can be used to dismantle the repression and control of female sexuality.
“Teaching a lot of young women, I see them struggling with societal expectation around how they should behave and look, which often grates against their own desires,” Murray said to me, when we emailed about these questions. “For many women, pornography is very liberating, while others feel demeaned by it, and that’s OK. Antiporn stances, however, often exert just another form of moralistic control and shaming — and often strip women who participate in and consume it of their agency. In terms of the selfie, seeing young women in control of their own image and expressing an unapologetically bold form of sexuality, simply grates against a very repressive social role that women are meant to perform.”
In an attention economy on and offline that demands performance and absolute connectivity, a young woman must continue defining herself. At the end of the day, the selfie is a way to visually grab someone’s attention, mimicking a face-to-face interaction. It is a way to hold space.
The approval of others is not meaningless. I’ve long since wondered if taking and posting a selfie connotes anything beyond surface likes. Self-imaging ultimately comes down to a desire, perhaps even a need, to see oneself — not for someone else’s enjoyment, but just for oneself, to be seen. It is a mechanism for survival, a truly stark negation against invisibility, an action against erasure.
On social media, narratives are fragmented and stories drift off, consumed by the network. Facebook was originally conceived as a way to “tell your life story online,” which seems laughable at this point in time. Who except the people closest to you give a shit about what you ate today? (As I write this, the friend who sits next to me at this café is taking a picture of the cupcake she is about to eat. But she’s a foodie, so . . .) Yet the networks demand content, and everyone has their niche online.
To cast a social media narrative like a screenplay, reality TV show, memoir-like narrative, or series of jokes at a standup comedy show requires constant checking and posting. Plus, the narrative flow is much harder to accomplish on social media. Doing so would mean constantly anticipating reactions. Not everyone has time or interest to strategize that, unless there is a monetary incentive. Think back to chapter 5, the women in China who earn money live-streaming themselves on one ore more of the two hundred livestream platforms. But in the United States, this is less common. Becoming a believable character on social media is to create oneself as a character that is consumable for an audience of social media onlookers, and it is work. Plus, on social media there is an expectation of giving away content for free.
For those who do put time and energy into their social media realms, the article “Social Media Got You Down? Be More Like Beyoncé” by Jenna Wortham for New York Times Magazine rings true. Wortham takes a more optimistic approach to creating a persona or character for yourself online, especially if the rawness of just posting your life to the Internet is bumming you out. (#truth) Taking the time to figure out how to craft your own image, how you want to be seen, is also decidedly individualistic in nature.
Things got more live on social media in 2016, upping the possibilities for content creation. In Spring 2016, Facebook introduced Facebook Live, which allows anyone anywhere to broadcast anything they want to their network. Similarly, in August 2016, Instagram introduced Stories, which are like public versions of snaps, varying in length, but created throughout the day and logged as tiny videos to see and perhaps direct message someone about. Instagram described Stories as a way to “share all the moments of your day, not just the ones you want to keep.” By November 2016, Instagram introduced live videos on their Stories feature. Facebook owns Instagram, but no matter — this is always more content for the network. (There is also an archival feature.)
In Wortham’s article, she argues that this ability to share practically further toes the line of what is socially acceptable. In other words, what’s something to talk about and work out with people IRL, and what’s something to post about as part of one’s online brand?
“There’s nothing necessarily wrong with either example — but they each clearly underline the ways that social media has stripped away our ability to tell what is OK to share and what is not,” writes Wortham. “It’s not just that watching people vie for your attention can feel gross. It’s also that there’s a fine line between appearing savvy online and appearing desperate.”
Wortham suggests that actually, if people thought more about creating a persona for themselves online — in other words, more showing and less telling — audiences could spend more time just enjoying projecting a fantasy. She cites various examples of ways that Beyoncé has quelled rumors about her sister Solange and her marriage to rapper Jay Z through either playing into the drama or creating more of it for the sake of wonderment. In short, Beyoncé has found a way to create a fantasy, holographic selfie through her creative work and Internet presence that leaves people guessing based on what she shows them rather than what she tells them.
“Most people treat social media like the stage for their own reality show, but Beyoncé treats her public persona more like a Barbie — she offers up images and little more, allowing people to project their own ideas, fantasies, and narratives about her life onto it,” writes Wortham.
This is one way to go about creating the selfie, one that will get you the attention you want. It’s Creative Writing 101, to show the story, not tell it. Let the joke unfurl on its own — don’t give away the punchline up front. When it comes to just easily learning how to “be more like Beyoncé,” as Wortham suggests, making it seem like a casual, easy, fun-filled adventure for a leisure class that has time to even think about this, the joke is actually on anyone who thinks that it could be this easy to be like Beyoncé. She’s a celeb. You better believe that she’s got a PR team that guides her through the treacherous swamps, nooks, and crannies of the Internet’s social media landscape.
Despite the controversial nature of presenting any personal information online through social media, we keep doing it. The social media companies that house our selfies and accounts are using our personal data in ways we are not entirely aware of.
“So, while selfie-taking can be a powerful, radical means for expressing and championing forms of identity that have been historically rejected by a racist/patriarchal mainstream culture (think, queer selfies, selfies at BLM protests, hijab selfies, fourth wave soft nude selfies) all selfies shared on social networks are inadvertently participating in capitalism — the same structures that are marginalizing their identities in the first place,” says Alexis Avedisian, Communications Manager at the NYC Media Lab. “Digital formats of activism (like radical selfies) allow for inclusivity within that user’s network, but fully honoring inclusivity is made difficult due to the often apolitical, commercial goals specific to the social media platforms which host the activist action.”
The selfie is the most easily accessible and powerful image for asserting a sense of personhood and connecting with others in a fragmented, networked, and hyperconnected world. It is done without any cost other than the agreement that your image becomes quantifiable data, demonstrative of complacency within techno-capitalism. Yet we cling to the selfie: It is one of the last modes of self-expression and immediacy, an opportunity to create space online, and to connect for (the illusion of) free in a digital age that will transform our personalized interests, purchases, browsing history, and social relations into currency for them. The only social requirement is you.