by DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) It’s easy to hate selfies; after all, we’ve laugh when we catch people looking at their reflection in a mirror since the day we realised what mirrors really were. Here, then, an attempt to defend the noble selfie.

A lot has been written about selfies and, for the most, they’ve been horrific judgments, putting selfies out to be little more than the narcissistic indulgences of ‘the youth’ — that same demographic that does all things humiliating. Before you judge the youth too harshly, though, recall that they kicked the gates of Parliament down to go have a long overdue word with our leadership. Yes, they might be demanding but, when it comes to government services, we can all take a leaf from their book.

Modern phenomenon

Selfies are definitely a modern phenomenon. The technology to do so dates back hundreds of years and there is even an outrageous conspiracy theory that the Shroud of Turin might be a selfie taken by none other than Leonardo da Vinci.

I recall my first camera in the late 90s. It was a Pentax SLR that might as well have been made of cast iron. It was a hefty piece of machinery that clicked and clacked and could run on a single watch battery for about a year, simply because it had no electronics to speak of. To take a picture, you needed both hands and strong shoulders. To take a selfie, you needed the wrists of an arm-wrestling champion and a good amount of luck to know you were in focus. Range finders existed and many were automated, making it easier, but the selfie was not a cultural phenomenon — to get the real selfie-effect, you need shareability — likes for approval — which translates into gratification.

But technology is not actually human nature. To create and leverage technology is human nature and, in that, technology can either compliment or harm us, but we cannot focus upon the technological leaps in photography if we are going to understand human nature. A person’s obsession with him- or herself goes further than simply being handed a device that captures an image. Certainly, the other African apes can manage the technology but I wonder whether they have the inclination to take and share selfies to the extent that we do [apparently, cats can take selfies, too — ed-at-large]. This approach is important because, if we are going to criticise and eventually improve human behavior, it’s important to know where it comes from.

Humans are social

Humans are social. I think that’s one fact that is no longer disputed so I won’t go into any detail. The evolution of our large brains are attributed to it (you need a big brain to be social), the complexity of symbolism only serves a purpose in the social realm; and that, even in prison, when locked up with societies outcasts, people still prefer being with other people than in solitary confinement, should only further reinforce this fact.

Being with other people anchors us. When we talk to someone we, on the one hand, send information. But on the other hand, as we send it, we are scanning body language and facial expression to see what is coming back. What are we perceived as? What does this mean? Much like mirrors reflect light in a way that it preserves detail to the human eye, so social interaction allows us to ‘see’ ourselves through the eyes of others. Our ability to scan another’s face, combined with what is in layman’s terms call mirror neurons, makes for a very effective (albeit primitive) social mirror. If we tell someone how we enjoyed punching someone in the face, their sudden withdrawal from the conversation would become apparent and their fear would trigger alarm bells and make us feel uneasy. We would therefore quite literally see ourselves through another’s eyes. A form of social regulation emerges from this soup of action and reaction. Because we feel what our neighbours feel (via mirror neurons), we regulate our behavior so that they are happy. Happy neighbours means happy people.

The idea of recognising ourself in a mirror is said to be key to understanding ourselves and forming a self-identity. Mirroring is not simply a fad; it’s a formative stage in our sense of identity. If that is true, if identifying the self in a ‘mirror’ is key to acknowledging the self as both ‘myself’ and ‘another’, then we are left with another situation where modern society is over-supplying to a very basic need. This I discussed in another article on memory.

Two interesting ideas

But how does this make sense? How did an impulse that is fundamentally social get so out of hand? Here are two interesting ideas that might shed both light and hope upon the subject on selfies. But understand, first, that we are an evolving lot — both in what we are (timescales of millions of years) and in terms of how we understand the world.

Steven Pinker speculated about why we like music. There is very little that points in any evolutionary benefit to liking music. There are, however, links between our basic biology, interaction with others and rhythm. On a personal level, our heart has a beat and our breathing is in rhythm; on a social level, we march better when in rhythm, language has rhythm and sex has a rhythm to it. An idea of sticking to an external norm (the rhythm) allows us to coordinate social efforts. Rhythm therefore has benefit. But nature didn’t program against hacking. So, when we discovered music, it pushed the same buttons, just harder. So we invented a technology that can push the same buttons as social interaction, and even sex, without the trouble of finding another person (depending upon how charming you are) or maybe even being able to deliver greater satisfaction (depending upon how charming the other person is).

I’ve been on the other side of the research mirror more than I care to remember and what I’ve often found interesting is when someone walked up to the mirror after the group to clean teeth or straighten out their look. It’s fascinating to not see someone from the point of view of a ‘social mirror’ (another person) but rather from the point of view of an actual mirror. People often have a look of curious distress on their face as they adjust their collar here and their hair there in order to make the reflection just so (which in turn will make their emotion click into place).

Deep desire for affirmation

It is obvious that this desire to ‘see ourselves’ panders to a deep desire for affirmation. To be reflected in either a smooth surface or the expression of another. To know that my effort, my existence has reached another consciousness and has bounced back. My existence stirs a sentient being and can therefore validate me and give me another building block for my self. This, I believe, is at its core the driver behind the selfie fad.

The second point is that we always abuse (or misuse) a new technology until we figure out what the real strengths and weaknesses of the medium are. Take, for instance, video cameras. For a long time after they were invented, cameras were simply used to film shows from an audience’s point of view. It took an insightful guy or two to figure out that the camera is mobile and you can ‘take’ the audience to the actors. Only then did cinema start leaning away from the audience POV and into the finer details of cinematic art. Similarly, photographs remained rather lifeless, even after photography improved, as the culture of photography was created in a world of long exposures (making lifeless poses, literally, the sharpest poses).

Our current photographic and self-portrait culture was shaped in a world where cameras were designed to shoot away from you. This means that any self-portrait happened when someone else saw it fit to take the picture of you — you had to look great. Even this culture came of the idea that ‘reflection was assessment’, fostering an idea that, when the eyes look at you, you must look good.

Barriers dropped through the floor

The barriers to taking pictures of yourself then dropped through the floor. Cellphones have front-facing cameras that dwarf any digital camera from five years back. GoPro has head, wrist and chest mounts that focus upon you and, if you’re willing to fork out a few thousand rand, you can get a drone that will follow you at a distance, videoing only you.

What’s alarming is that we are now getting our ‘self-image’ directly from high-quality video and it no longer needs to filter through societal opinion and back through mirror neurons (which are key to empathy). Our identity can therefore be shaped in complete isolation, steering us away from ‘us’ to ‘me’. Malcolm Gladwell made the comical observation that no one wants email; we want me-mail. Amusing as it is, it’s becoming a social norm.

The upside is that we tend to adjust to our media. Cinema branched off from theatre to give us the art of cinema. Photography embraced higher ISOs and shutter speeds to give us more life-like ‘captured moments’. In the same way, people are starting to speak out about the fake and curated nature of our selfie-lives. And I’m not just talking about the duck-face with the arm departing from the bottom of the frame. I’m talking about the entire curated online life that makes people say ‘yes, I am awesome’.

Caricature of reality

The other option is that online lives become a bit like Wes Anderson films. We enjoy them but we see them for the caricature of reality that they are. Red Bull events are filled with safety precautions, the UFC is heavily regulated, and pornography is a business. But we still bite our fists when we watch the Red Bull rampage, we still stand in awe when men such as Fabricio Werdum step into the octagon, and Chrome is still running an incognito function.

I would not want the selfie or any outlet for our narcissistic selves to be banished. Narcissism can be a good influence and we understand that the curated lives of social media most certainly do not reflect any actual life. Much like makeup or a manicured beard, we should not accept it as truth but rather as a representation of what people think they ought to be and something that is ultimately a request for respect and status — and what Alain du Botton simply called love.


DK BadenhorstDK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) is lead strategist at Cape Town ad agency, FoxP2, and brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication through cultural insight and semiotics. He contributes the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to

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