CHICAGO — “In the world of networked individuals, it is the person who is the focus: not the family, not the work unit, not the neighborhood, and not the social group,” write authors Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman in their 2012 book Networked: The New Social Operating System. In this spaceless place of the new media neighborhood, the selfie is an individual’s identifier and recurring yearbook photo. The internet is a participatory medium on which a cluster of social networks exist. In order to be a part of, one must regularly return to and engage with it and them. Trust is currency in the social network, and selfies are a way to help someone feel closer to you. Won’t you be my neighbor?
The networked individual is defined by their way of connecting, communicating, and exchanging information through looser, more fragmented networks both on and offline rather than tightly knit and wound communities, groups, families, and villages. Yet at the same time, networked individualism locks people into their own internet filter bubbles, a term coined by Eli Pariser. In the filter bubble, algorithms on Google’s personalized search and Facebook’s user-centric news feed offer up the information that you, the user, want to receive. While networked individualism is looser and more fragmented, it isn’t a great space for learning the viewpoints of people whose opinions are unlike your own.
Selfies hashtagged as such become one exception to the filter bubble’s rule. Post a selfie on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram or Tumblr with the hashtag #selfie, and you’ll pick up results that you wouldn’t normally encounter. Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr do not rely on algorithms like Facebook and Google do; instead, those three social networks are dependent on a user’s decision to follow the information sources that they so desire. Selfies become the de-facto trust currency on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr moreso than on Facebook and Google+. Being a networked individual on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr requires selfies moreso than on the algorithmically metered social networks of Google+ and Facebook. Furthermore, selfies and networked individualism are both very much American concepts, and results of a generation of iProducts, location-based services, facial recognition, and biometrics.
When I was in high school, I had a brick-like cell phone that I only turned on if I wanted to call my parents. They had no access to my life away from home unless I allowed it — but they could leave me a voicemail, and I was expected to answer it quickly. Teenagers today have phones that never sleep or take breaks, and are always connected to the network. They have to block or hide their parents from their social networked selves if they want any sort of privacy, which is perhaps more ominous than privacy from big tech companies. Teenagers today must be the filters of their bubbles, lest they encounter adult spies.
Adolescents and those who operate in the adolescent selfie aesthetic act as social networked individuals whether at a funeral or about to rob a bank. In an age of image-focused iMessages, tumblelogs, Instagrams, and smartphones as extensions of the self, to capture one’s own face is not only natural, it is to be expected. Trust the face, and look into the eyes.
Share yourselfie with Hyperallergic. Email it to selfies [at] hyperallergic.com along with a 150–200 word explanation of why you shot it and what it means to you.