The Self and The Selfie

Over the last little while, I’ve been thinking about the way we represent ourselves in both real life and the online realm. The online world is a strange space where you can be whoever you want to be with very few limitations; you can become famous overnight or build an empire. I’ve been reflecting a lot about how I am perceived online and what others may think of me just through following me on Instagram. I’ve decided to explore a few related issues over the next few blogs so further flesh out this idea. Today I am asking, how do our images and most of all, our selfies, come across to our followers and how do they affect our real-life selves?

On Instagram, there are currently over 424.22 million photos that have been hashtagged using the word ‘selfie’. A selfie is a digital self-portrait that is taken generally with a mobile phone and is characterized by its ubiquity (Wendt 2014). Considered one of the most popular free apps of all time in the AppStore, Instagram’s popularity is due it being an all-in-one photographic processing and editing program that can publish and share an image in seconds. The ability to add multiple filters over photographs and up to 30 possible hashtags gives Instagram users infinite means to customize their selfies in order to achieve an aesthetically pleasing photo. Despite the ability to instantly alter our images, the ability to express our individuality is restricted to the set of commands within the programming of the Instagram app (Wendt 2014).

The global phenomenon of capturing and sharing selfies, as well as the unprecedented amount of selfies that would be generated, was unseen by anyone. Theorist Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Narcissus myth’ can be closely linked with the selfie phenomenon as he explains how, “men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves” (McLuhan 1994). This observation can be perceived through Instagram as its filters and hashtags allow users the ability to customize and edit their images, thus becoming even more fascinated with themselves and increasing the chances of further misrecognition. McLuhan argued that contrary to the Narcissus myth, Narcissus did not fall in love with himself, instead, he became numb to his image, and could not recognize his reflection to be his own (McLuhan 1994, Wendt 2014). Narcissus thought that his image was an image of another.

When many of us post an image to Instagram, we post it under the persona of who we want to be online. As a pinup model, my images all have something to do with vintage, fashion, vintage beauty or pinup yet in real life, I could be in my track pants and jumper on the couch. How I present myself as a pinup online can be quite different to how I am when I’m at home. Avid Instagram users carefully alter and craft their images before posting; many even edit in other apps and add specific filters or pre-sets to keep their images uniform and within a certain aesthetic. Are we slowly becoming more and more obsessed with our online image rather than who we are in real life? And how is it changing our lives in the real world?

I’ve been wondering why we are becoming obsessed with our own image and what drives us to post so much online. Selfies are one of the most popular things shared via social media but the obsession can go deeper than that where just the act of taking a selfie is becoming an issue. There’s been a bit of a push to start shaming people for taking selfies in public and even I myself have become a bit more conscious of doing it in public. I personally don’t take many traditional selfies and if I do, I don’t often share them online (most just get sent to my mum as she wants to see what I’m up to). However, there is such a thing as being obsessed with taking a selfie. Selfitis is a condition described as the obsessive taking of selfies, although it is currently not listed as a mental disorder in the DSM-5 (Balakrishnan 2018, Saroshe 2016). Obsessively taking  selfies and posting to social media has been found to be linked to many symptoms common to mental disorders including narcissism, low self-esteem, loneliness, self-centeredness, and attention-seeking behaviours (Kaur 2016).

Wendt further extends this argument by stating that through the medium of Instagram, although we are aware that we are looking at ourselves, we are becoming numb to our self-portraits and therefore produce multiple and different versions of ourselves. Moreover, we are becoming powerless and lured into Instagram’s tools for creating ever-greater stylized identities (Wendt 2014). Instagram users create multiple digital versions of themselves with different styles and looks compulsively abstracting their actual appearance. McLuhan argues that this action in the Narcissus myth is when Narcissus became a ‘servomechanism’ to his reflection meaning a servant to his own image (McLuhan 1994).

Many large Instagram accounts are constantly altering and editing their images in order to maintain a certain feel or aesthetic. Certain image patterns are used to keep their feed as smooth and coherent as possible. For a while, I attempted to post three images from the same set in order to create a pleasing grid when followers would visit my Instagram feed. Although I have recently gone back to a mix of posts, I do find myself more aware of posting images that are cohesive and flow. Although I don’t have a specific way of editing or filtering my images to pull out certain colours, I have thought about doing so; much like Narcissus, I became really engrossed with my image even though it wasn’t an exact representation of what I actually look like. Instagram is encouraging users and those seeking a large audience to pay close attention to their feed and their images which is time-consuming and restrictive. Users are being forced into a box and are doing so all in the name of becoming Insta-famous.

Instagram has created a means that perpetually tempts and traps users, relying on our ‘inherent fascinations with ourselves to lure us to our selfies and, thus, the program’ (Wendt 2014). McLuhan outlines two processes; self-amputation (numbing oneself) and self-amplification (extending oneself). These processes occur when people look at their images and prolong their engagement with their selfies (McLuhan 1994). When Narcissus gazed upon his reflection, it became a counter-irritant to the stresses and pressures of his environment, however, ‘self-amputation forbids self-recognition’ (McLuhan 1994). Images of users become magnified and the relationship between themselves and their selfie intensifies and isolated them, and their image, from the surrounding environment.

McLuhan argues that ‘the selection of a single sense for intense stimulus, or of a single extended, isolated, or “amputated” sense in technology, is in part the reason for the numbing effect that technology as such has on its makers and users’ (McLuhan 1994). Though McLuhan’s argument, It can be reasoned that the action of taking and viewing multiple selfies is an ‘attempt to maintain equilibrium’ by finding ‘pleasure’ and ‘comfort’ in our images (McLuhan 1994, Wendt 2014). Users of Instagram churn out a never-ending cycle of images and selfies which could lead to suggest that they frequently experience numbness and amplification whilst taking and viewing selfies.

Although Narcissus ignored the world around him, upon realizing his limitations, he paid a price for feeling artificially limitless (Wendt 2014). With Instagram being an app downloaded onto mobile devices, the program travels with the user thus giving people more opportunities than Narcissus to become mesmerized by our own image. Narcissus’ dream of having the image communicate back to their creator has come true through the interactive platforms that Instagram offers. Instagram encourages users to ‘like’ and comment on selfies; when this action occurs, a message is directly sent to the recipients smartphone in the form of a notification. Notifications can be viewed immediately and thus continuing the interaction between the self and the selfie. Instagram also offers a sharing function where users can forward their selfies and images to appear on other social media such as Facebook or Twitter which can increase the number of ‘likes’ or comments and continuing the users to be engaged in a conversation between their self, selfie and social networks (Wendt 2014).

As the number of selfies uploaded to Instagram grows every day, users are encouraged to continue raising, lowering, tilting, lighting and applying more to their selfies in order to create the best possible image and version of themselves on screen. Through this action, users construct perceptions of themselves that are built purely within a screen. Much like Narcissus looking into the pool of water, users gaze into their smartphone screens with socially learnt criteria in their heads on how to take the perfect selfie, thus becoming enamored by the reflection. Instagram not only is a means of creating images of oneself, but also a way of constructing an identity. On YouTube, there are hundreds of videos which teach viewers how to create and construct the perfect selfie thus capturing the perfect version of oneself; each mentions the importance of lighting, face angles and how to come across to the viewers.

One YouTube broadcaster, Kalyn Nicholson, starts her video by presenting a makeup tutorial commenting how photographs are two-dimensional and therefore highlight your dark circles and blemishes thus making concealer important to make ones face appear bright and welcoming. Another YouTuber, Michelle Phan, describes how to make ones face cuter by posing to create a ‘baby face’. Both video hosts engage directly with their smartphones as if they were more than machines capturing their full attention. The messages in these videos appear to be contradictory as they promote a version of the self that does not extend past a digital image. The application of heavy makeup, the use of strong lighting, the angling of the face as well as the process of applying filters and edits only works on the screen it is viewed and not in real life. The true versions of oneself will never be able to match the Instagram version as people do not walk around the streets pulling ‘kissey faces’. The attempts to create and construct the perfect self through a smartphone detaches one from their true self.

I’ve been chatting a lot with friends who use Instagram a lot and the topic of editing apps, filters and photoshop often comes up. Some users push the editing too far which results in their image no longer looking ‘human’ and more like a digital image. To fully remove lines, blemishes, wrinkles, pores and other ‘imperfections’ only forces us to widen the gap between what is real and what is “for the ‘gram”. I’ve seen many accounts fall too far into the editing apps to their point that others now mock them. I can’t help but feel sorry for those people who feel the need to change so much about their face and/or body to the point that in real life, they may now be unrecognisable. We’ve all edited an image of ourselves; but there’s a line between “removing a blemish or two” and looking like a cartoon character. I’ve always wondered how users with heavy editing think of themselves in the real world. If you want to gain fame and connect with an audience, wouldn’t you want to come across as yourself and not a filter?

We’re becoming so concerned with our online image and how our selfies look to others that there has now been a rise in plastic surgery. Doctors have come forward saying that patients bring in edited selfies of themselves as an example of their ‘ideal self’ and ask to be altered in real-life accordingly. Our selfies are not accurate representations of how we look; the camera is to blame. If you were to ask a professional photographer to take your photo, you would look very different from how to appear through a selfie. The front camera lens on most smartphones often distorts our faces as they are a wide-angle lens and the device is held too close to our faces (our arms are only so long). Our faces will appear slimmer but features close to the camera, such as our nose and chins, will appear larger by up to 30%. To look at these images and think there is something physically wrong with our features is detrimental to our mental health and relationship with ourselves and others (the rise in envy).

Through Instagram and the selfies posted, people have started to replace their true selves with digital versions that are trend and consumerism obsessed. Wendt argues that through such a construction, “we fragment ourselves through electronic mediums for the sake of expression but lose a portion of ourselves in the process” (Wendt 2014). Furthermore, people rarely realize how picture-taking influences behavior outside of social media and separation outside of social media is not often experienced. The ability to capture and share photographs of our daily lives is extremely common and such an action is rarely questioned.

Instagram, along with other social media networks, is slowly conditioning users to view themselves more as surface objects, as opposed to encouraging them to engage in meaningful self-reflection (Wendt 2014). The simplicity of Instagram allows self-portraits to be captured, edited and shared in record time thus reducing the time needed for self-reflection. The selfie, it seems then, is absent of self-contemplation however; it expresses our individual desire and creates a particular image that matters to its users.

This series will be continued with a further discussion and alnalysis of our relationship between Instagram and ourselves in two parts entitled ‘Instagram’s Monster’. Links will be posted upon their publication so please check back soon.

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Miss MonMon takes a “selfie”. Photo by Frank Hobbs.

References:

BALAKRISHNAN, J. (2018). “An Exploratory Study of BSelfitis^ and the Development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale”(PDF). International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. 16 (3): 722–736.

KAUR, S. “Selfie and mental health issues: An overview”. Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing.

MCLURHAN, M. (1994). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. MIT Press, Cambridge.

SAROSHE, S. “Assessment of Selfie Syndrome among the Professional Students of a Cosmopolitan City of Central India: A Cross-sectional Study”. International Journal of Preventive and Public Health Sciences.

WENDT, B. (2014). The Allure of the Selfie: Instagram and the new self-portrait. Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam.

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Note: This is not a sponsored post. All opinions and thoughts expressed are solely my own and not influenced in any way. 

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