CHICAGO — A selfie is a certain type of self-portrait photography shot with a digital camera or smartphone. Selfies are typically of-the-moment images, require little to no planning, and usually occur in domestic settings such as the bedroom or bathroom. When shot with friends, they become a group selfie. Rarely are selfies associated with a couple unless they happen to dress like twins, actually be twins, or present as some variation of partners in crime. Selfies are often uploaded immediately to social networking sites, but they may also stay on a user’s smartphone until they are discovered by the cops, as was the case of two Swedish adolescent girls who took a selfie before robbing a fast food restaurant.
According to the authoritative Wikipedia entry on selfies, the term was first coined by Jim Krause in his 2005 book Photo Idea Index. He wrote: “One of the best things about selfies is that they can be taken just about anywhere, anytime.” For the typical consumer, selfies began on MySpace alongside the advent of the digital camera; the image-maker didn’t have the allure of instant gratification like they do today on Facebook or Instagram because there wasn’t an option to upload immediately. Unless the camera was set on a timer and positioned away from the subject, the photographer most likely engaged in the long-arm selfie.
The rise of the selfie makes sense. We are visual communicators first and foremost, and sometimes sending a selfie or some sort of visual image of yourself to a friend or partner in addition to a text or phone call can make one feel more connected. In a 2011 study published in the academic journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking entitled “Manifestations of Personality in Online Social Networks: Self-Reported Facebook-Related Behaviors and Observable Profile Information,” we learned that social networks are not an escape from reality, but rather a microcosm of peoples’ larger social worlds and an extension of offline behaviors. The big five personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism — were all accurately reflected in online social networks such as Facebook. The selfie is now an integral part of a user’s social networked identity, which is constructed over time and constantly in flux.
In a recent story in Time, selfies were blamed for “ruining relationships”, which is quite a simplification of the messy reality of lasting relationships. The story was based on a study that discovered how people who “constantly share photos of themselves generally tend to have more shallow personal relationships.” Too much time spent in a mostly public, semi-anonymous social network does take a toll on one-on-one relationships. But there’s a way to share the selfie privately through photo-messaging apps like Snapchat, or even private communications on iMessage or text. The selfie is just a manifestation of our online identities in a global social networked age, and we’re still learning how to be ourselfies in the age of social networked selves.