If you’ve set foot on any social network in the last few years, you’ve certainly been unceremoniously greeted by more selfies than you would have liked to clog your news feed. Sometimes hilarious, often cringe-worthy, selfies are the sad combination between low self-esteem and a world-wide audience. Is there any value to this sustained effort and are there consequences to this obsession? Let’s find out, shall we?

From Self-portraits To Selfies

Leaving the actual definition aside for just a moment, the basic concept of a selfie isn’t very different from that of a self-portrait, meaning that someone creates an image of him or herself by using any creative or technical means available, such as cameras, canvases or a simple piece of paper. It began with the pencil and the brush, used by artists for centuries to not only explore their medium and perfect their art form but, through self-portraiture, discover themselves.

Although today’s selfies have no artistic value and reveal little more than the author’s vanity, the term has only recently lost its artistic appeal. You might be surprised to learn that the first selfie wasn’t taken for the sake of social media but as a form of artistic expression, exactly like the self-portrait. American photography pioneer, Robert Cornelius, took the first known selfie in 1839, while Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia – yes, that Anastasia – was one of the first teenagers to take a photo of herself in 1914.

Unlike today’s narcissism-driven selfies, these photos and the reasons for taking them have to be understood in the context of the age their were made in. Two or three centuries ago, 100 km was a very long way by carriage, families and friends couldn’t always afford to visit over long distances, and therefore, portraits and letters were often the only connection people had to each other. The invention of photography meant you no longer had to hang a relatively large painting of someone but were now able to carry a small portrait of that person with you all the time.

Body Image Obsession

A photo featuring a duck-faced, barely-dressed teenager has little to no artistic value, and I’m generously using the term “little” because I find it impossible to accurately apply Russell’s Teapot to an art construct. Therefore, one might wonder, what the selfie craze is all about and what could justify a mind-boggling 53 million Instagram photos using the selfie tag.

Social media is a great soap box for every self-absorbed individual, enabling them to reinvent, project and promote an often distorted image of themselves. No matter who wins this high-stakes competition to become more and more popular with every selfie, the invariable result is a lower self-worth and an ever growing drive to perfect their image, an exercise which will inevitably end in failure. This was the case with 19 year-old David Bowman who developed a selfie obsession which almost ended his life. Suffering from body dismorphia and obsessive compulsive disorder, David was taking up to 200 selfies every day and his failure to take the “perfect” one, lead him to eventually attempt to end his live.

Every Narcissus needs a reflecting pool in which to awe at his splendor and social media platforms are the perfect “looking-glass” for today’s self-absorbed individual. During a single week in October last year on Facebok, the term “selfie” was mentioned whopping 368, 000 times so comparison-selfie enthusiasts have absolutely no difficulty finding and analyzing their competition. Of course, this only worsens the already distorted image these people have not just of themselves but of others as well.

This above all; to thine own self be true.

William Shakespeare

You will, of course, have to figure out what that is, first.

The “self” within the selfie

The vast majority of selfies are strokes to the author’s ego, posted on different social media platforms in order to asses self-worth by putting a projected image on auction and ascertaining success based on the number of likes received from a random audience. It’s a rubbish way of discovering yourself and determining your place in society, especially since people online have a tendency to be much more direct and less forgiving with flaws, no matter how insignificant.

The term might be used freely to describe a wide range of images but the shoe doesn’t always fit. I strongly doubt anyone would put one of Kim Kardashian’s thousands of selfies in the same pile with Buzz Aldrin’s 1966 EVA selfie. Astronauts today still take selfies during EVAs and onboard the ISS and photographers takes selfies in order to express and perfect their art. The biggest difference between the two forms of photography is their purpose. While social media selfies are meant to advertise the “self”, those taken by astronauts depict every kid’s dream; man living in space and allow the viewer to identify with the “self” depicted. Sometimes the “self” in the selfie can even become secondary to the entire composition, as is the case of this amazing selection of self-portraits by 500 pixels.

 Where are we headed?

Well, Kim Kardashian has a 352-page book of selfies in the works but how about the rest of the selfie-obsessed crowd? Some will eventually give it up, just like they gave up The Harlem Shake, but others might battle serious psychological disorders. According to the PEW Research Center via Forbes, 91% of teenagers have taken a selfie. We already know that strong influence peer-pressure and review can have on developing minds, however, without studies specifically aimed at determining the impact this self-body advertising has on young minds, we can only infer that it is likely to have a negative impact on the long-run.

There’s no doubt that taking selfies can be very addictive, regardless if the desired result has been achieved or not. Those who struggle to attain some measure of social media fame or seek validation will continue to be a driving force behind the selfie trend, while those who reach their goals will find it hard to give up on the attention an, attempt to perfect their image, in what is likely one of the shallowest means possible.

What is your take on selfies and how do your think they influence our social status and self-image?

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