So Why Do We Take Selfies Anyway?

The significant other recently complained about the amount of selfies flooding Facebook now. 

Suddenly, a glimmer of thought flashed in my head: I think I’m guilty too.  

After all, when is enough enough? How many #gpoy’s (that’s “Gratuitous Photo of Yourself”, in case you didn’t get to jump in the bandwagon) are you allowed to take and post before you are accused of reaching the threshold of  what’s socially acceptable? 

Do we really need to hate on the selfie? 

Just before I started writing this post, I was deciding whether changing my Facebook cover photo was a good idea or not. Was the act motivated by the narcissism which they say I share with countless other millennials, or a plea for people to validate my existence by acknowledging that I am worthy of their attention? 

And then I wondered: what if the act of taking selfies really boils down to the desire for acceptance? Being social animals, we enjoy being part of the in-group and invest more trust on people who are part of our circle.  As the internet widens our real-world communities, selfies could be a subconscious attempt to reinforce our connection with the larger world. 

Perhaps, more than plain narcissism, getting people to like our selfies facilitates bonding on the virtual level — also opening the opportunity for us to reciprocate their admiration. 

But wait — so it’s really not narcissism…? 

Anyone who has read the controversial Time article “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation” may quickly argue that self-obsession is this generation’s favorite pastime. Quoting its author Joel Stein: “The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58 percent more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.”

But is it really just our generation who’s guilty? The Atlantic Wire’s Elspeth Reeve rebuffs that claim. Citing the paper titled “It is Developmental Me, Not Generation Me“, she counters: “Basically, it’s not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it’s that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older.” 

Maybe Michael Jordan (I’m not a basketball fan by the way — I just encountered this quote!) was right when he said, “To be successful you have to be selfish, or else you never achieve. And once you get to your highest level, then you have to be unselfish. Stay reachable. Stay in touch. Don’t isolate.” In the case of selfies, it could be accomplishing both simultaneously: strengthening our social ties while advancing our selfish interests (that is, our desire to be praised/liked/appreciated.) 

Chill, it’s just a selfie

Think you can pretend to be anonymous these days? Not even famous politicians, sportstars — as well as religions and governments — can insulate themselves from scandals.  

Thanks to the internet, it’s become immensely harder to get away with a crime. Any stupid/insensitive/bigoted thing you say or do can get screenshot, shared to others, and subject you to online lynching. (Of course while this is a good way to reinforce positive behavior, the reverse of this is that it can also suppress free thought — out of fear that you will be castigated for even the slightest deviant move.)

As I see it, perhaps the selfie phenomenon bodes of a more open, transparent world. The instancy/ubiquity of selfies allow us to realize that we’re all just the same and thereby permits us to honestly reveal our multifaceted, ever-changing natures to each other, without fear that we will be hated for being real and indulging our persona/emotions for the moment. One doesn’t have to be perfect; one can never be perfect. And it’s okay, because images of perfection are mere myths/fantasies. Keeping appearances is slowly becoming a thing of the past. 

When we think about it this way, maybe selfies aren’t that bad after all.

By Evan Tan

Evan Tan is a writer & communications professional based in Manila, Philippines.

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