The Official Blog of the John F. Kennedy-Institute for North American Studies

Commentary, Events and Announcements by the JFKI's Departments


In the Sunday Review of The New York Times, I found a piece by Jenna Wortham about the phenomenon of selfies, the media-tech update of the artistic convention of the self-portrait. At one point, rather in passing, the article seems to suggest an understanding of the cultural significance of the selfie that challenges my own reductive, uninformed, and anything but ingenious Sunday morning sermon on how certain online platforms that are geared to visual presentations of the self are about our narcissism, about presenting ourselves to our peers, and about those infamous fifteen minutes of fame; or how these platforms are about staging our selves and our in-group as distinct by linking to and exposing others who are stupid enough to fall for that fifteen minutes of fame thing. Turns out selfies may be about something else, too. While they are about the wish to leave a mark of one’s existence (still an interestingly persistent thought in these fleeting digital times) and about one’s face (selfies are visual, after all), they are not just about face-work but also, and quite simply, about one’s facial self being somewhere and doing something ordinary and sharing it – Wortham suggests the phrase „visual diary“ at the end of her article.
Below is the excerpt that caught my attention. It contains the wonderfully rich phrase of turning one’s camera inward on one’s self and it starts with a quote from Dom Hofmann, co-creator of the video clip app Vine:
„‚It wasn’t really about vanity at all,“ he said. „It’s not really about how you look. It’s about you doing something else, or you in other places. It’s a more personal way to share an experience.‘
The feedback loop that selfies can inspire doesn’t hurt, either. As an early Instagram user, I rarely turned the camera on myself. I preferred sharing pictures of sunsets, crazy dance parties and bodega cats to showing off a new haircut or outfit. But over the last year or so, I’ve watched as all my peers slowly began turning their cameras inward on themselves. It’s made my feed more interesting and entertaining. And I’d much rather see my friends’ faces as they prepare food than a close-up photo of the finished meals instead. The rare occasion when I feel bold enough to post a full-face frontal, I see spikes in comments and feedback, the kind that pictures of a park or a concert photo rarely get.“

Here is the link to the full article:

Der Beitrag wurde am Sonntag, den 20. Oktober 2013 um 08:55 Uhr von Florian Sedlmeier veröffentlicht und wurde unter General Information abgelegt. Sie können die Kommentare zu diesem Eintrag durch den RSS 2.0 Feed verfolgen. Kommentare und Pings sind derzeit nicht erlaubt.

4 Reaktionen zu “Selfies”

  1. James Dorson

    “‘It wasn’t really about vanity at all,” he said. “It’s not really about how you look. It’s about you doing something else, or you in other places. It’s a more personal way to share an experience.’

    What I find interesting about these “selfies” is how they are apparently less about staging the self than this need for sharing personal experiences in public, as the quote makes clear. They all have a feeling of intimacy, in part because taking your own picture seems less mediated (literarily removing the mediating third party of the photographer between viewer and viewed), and in part because they stage the unstaged and spontaneous, i.e., they seem to perform how you would look when you are not trying to perform or impress someone (hence the apparent lack of vanity and greater feeling of authenticity?). But why this need for sharing personal experiences in public? If the answer is that it’s a reaction to the perceived impersonality of technology, it’s perhaps ironic that we seek to reclaim the personal and intimate through new social media. Is there a sense that we need to feel a personal connection in order to make something meaningful to us? That personal experiences are more interesting than public (staged) ones? The “selfie” concept raises a lot of interesting questions, especially about technology’s role in the private/public distinction, so thanks for sharing!

  2. Florian Sedlmeier

    James, thank you for sharing your inspiring comments. Very much appreciated. I share your constructivist observations and questions about the selfies and the effects of authenticity they produce (btw, how beautiful that the auto-correct function insists on transforming the neologism into „selfless“).

    Yet maybe we can push our inquiry a little further and destabilize the distinction between the private and the public. One question you ask directly in this context reads: why this need for sharing personal experiences in public? But some of your other comments, to me, also allude to another set of questions: what understandings of publicness, privacy, and the personal are we dealing with? And why is this distinction so remarkably persistent in the first place? If I would share a selfie that shows me cooking whatever dish with a circle of trusted friends – and trust seems to be a central category here –, how public or private is that circle?

    I am also not sure whether we can readily assume a perceived impersonality of technology. A larger discussion of the technological hardware might be useful and necessary in this respect. It seems that various technologies, at different times and in different contexts, are culturally endowed with notions of intimacy. I have in mind the changing function of the landline phone, which now seems to be reserved for longer conversations considered to be more intimate and private than the ones conducted via cell phone, a device that signifies permanent accessibility and mobility.

    Andreas Bernard wrote a nice piece about „Das Prinzip Festnetz“:

    And yet: cell phones, in their current shape of the smart phone, become extensions of man to the degree that they seem to pre-structure daily activities and social interactions on a constant basis. This functional extension comes along with the omnipresence of the touch screen as the user interface. Doesn’t this technologically dramatized return to a sense of intuitive tactility hold the promise of a more intimate connection to whatever it is you access and to whoever it is you communicate with? And doesn’t the particular technology of the touch screen – by extension – produce the sense that we get back in touch with our selves?

  3. James Dorson

    You raise some very good points. It is true that the categories of public and private seem completely anachronistic today. But what makes them so? Is it that the third category you mention, the personal, has bridged the two and made any distinction between them seem frivolous? Your question as to why the public/private distinction has been so persistent for so long to start with of course begs for a historical answer that goes beyond any weekend blog ruminations here, but one reason must certainly have been the functional one, that it has served a practical purpose in a democratic society. Whether this purpose has been for the good, bad, or ugly (a smokescreen obscuring intrusive modes of power, as for instance when public policy regulates spheres of intimacy, or when the private sphere is used to mobilize public events) is another can of worms, yet I think it is worth considering what we lose by dismissing the public/private as a false distinction, even if, as the “selfies” now suggest, it is one that is increasingly being made difficult to uphold by developments in technology and related cultural change. Perhaps two of the realms where the corrosion of the public/private distinction is felt the most are those of work and politics, and I think in both cases there are positive and negative consequences. In terms of politics they seem to relate to the participatory vs. representative democracy debate. In terms of work, we might say that being required to draw on one’s private skills and resources makes work more interesting and fulfilling, but of course this also makes work potentially more stressful (with the realm of non-work being endangered) and opens it up to new forms of exploitation.

    But to return to the “selfies”. I think you are right in saying that “selfies” and the technology that fosters them is all about the “promise of a more intimate connection” and getting “back in touch with our selves”. Yet shouldn’t we ask whether this a promise that technology is actually fulfilling? (I grant that your point about the intimate tactility of the touch screen is very tempting; even so, all “touches” are not intimate, nor are they always welcome). My question would be why the promise of intimacy holds such a great allure at the moment, and which we see amplified by technology (I could not say “co-opted” even if I had wanted to, because new social media seem to produce this need as much as feed off it). What is it about connecting and being connected that is so important right now? Does it relate to what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have called a “connexionist world”, where social networks have become the primary route to a successful career? Do we seek intimate connections where we have not sought them before because technology has given us new means for doing so? Or do we seek more intimate connections because we feel that we lack them, and if so, why do we feel that we lack them?

    As the article you refer to seems to suggest, “selfies” may be considered a new form of emoticon that makes a text more personal and expressive. At first I could only agree with the author’s defense of “selfies” as providing a more personal context to something and thus making it more interesting, but the more you think about it the more problematic I also think it is. She writes:

    “But over the last year or so, I’ve watched as all my peers slowly began turning their cameras inward on themselves. It’s made my feed more interesting and entertaining. And I’d much rather see my friends’ faces as they prepare food than a close-up photo of the finished meals instead.”

    OK, photos of meals may not be very interesting, but what if we extend this logic. What if one were also to turn the camera inward at, say, riots or demonstrations or any other sort of happening or event where strangers gather (to avoid saying “in public”)? It may be more interesting to see one’s friend’s facial expression while cooking than a picture of the actual meal, but is it also more interesting to see one’s friend’s personal expression at a political march or a traffic accident or watching police brutality than the actual events that trigger the personal reaction? Granted, this is taking the example to a logical extreme that may seem implausible. Still, is it not plausible that making the personal the most relevant currency of communicative exchange actually functions to devalue other forms of communication that do not revolve around the personal?

  4. Curd Knüpfer

    FYI: Here’s an article on the Oxford Dictionary’s „Word of the Year“: