The selfie, pt. I: What is it, really?

Posted Nov 11, 2016 | New Media Project

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By Nick Buck

The selfie, a photo of or including oneself posted to new media, has been an oft criticized element of social media. Often seen as evidence of overgrown narcissism at best and an indication of psychopathology at worst, it is worth considering an alternate way of understanding the phenomenon. It seems to me, rather, that the selfie is far more complex than these overly simplistic dismissals, and it provides a window into the nature of social media.

Understanding the selfie as a form of narcissistic expression per se is to understand it in the wrong context and miss something fundamental about social media. In a non-relational context, be it private or through a one-way medium, the proliferation of self-portraits could certainly be a sign of excessive obsession with self-image. Yet in the context of social media, a fundamentally dialogical and relational context, the selfie is less certainly an indication of unhealthy self-interest. It is important to note that “taking a selfie” includes not only the act of capturing of a photo but also the act of sharing it in some way on social media.

To be clear, there’s no doubt that selfies can be narcissistic. It’s certainly the case that some users post selfies for reasons that include self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. While such reasons might be fairly criticized, they neither fully capture the phenomenon nor recognize the mixed motives of so many human actions. Some selfies are indeed taken to put some aspect of a person on display, but how different is that from crafting one’s public presence and/or appearance? Both the former digital act and the latter physical one can certainly be attended to appropriately. I see no reason to think both don’t pose the risk of becoming occasions for excessive self-concern and self-flattery.

Seen in its proper context, the selfie is fundamentally a form of relational self-expression. The selfie is, irreducibly, an act of sharing.

This way of thinking about the selfie provides a window into exactly what we are doing with social media: on the one hand, we are sharing our lives with others, and on the other, we are sharing in the lives of others. Perhaps an undervalued aspect of social media, certainly overlooked by condescending dismissals of it, is that its use – particularly in the United States – can be interpreted in part as a longing for sociality in an increasingly individualized world. By way of digital media, we reach out from our isolation toward one another. And doesn’t it only make sense that doing so includes photos of ourselves and others? As Emmanuel Levinas explained, “it is as a neighbor that a human being is accessible – as a face.”(1)

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Notes:

(1) Emmanuel Levinas, “Is Ontology Fundamental?” Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press) 8.


Nick Buck is the associate director of the New Media Project.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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