From Hesse to Sartre, the domain of existentialist literature has been preoccupied with a fundamental attribute of self-deception: the disturbing realization that each new insight, no matter how inconsequential, alters one’s relevance to the outside world. The intensity of emotion that we experience from new information is relative to its saliency in defining who we are and how we see ourselves.
This is why people take selfies. In order for us to derive personal meaning from an event or encounter, we need an artifact that confirms our sense of self in relation to the event. At any given moment in Mountain View, someone is taking a photo of themselves in front of the Googleplex — perhaps to show some tenuous connection to what we imagine is happening inside the building. The selfie operates as rendered proof that we have had an impact on the world, even if we’ve done nothing more than simply be a part of it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t exist.
In the classic psychology book Understanding Human Nature, written in 1927 by Alfred Adler, the author suggests that this quest for personal affirmation is inherently part of our makeup from the moment we’re born:
It is the feeling of inferiority, inadequacy, insecurity which determines the goal of an individual’s existence. The tendency to push into the limelight, to compel the attention of parents, makes itself felt in the first days of life. We orient ourselves according to a fixed point which we have artificially created.
The narcissistic nature of self-portraiture has a long history, from Hippolyte Bayard faking his own death in 1840 to the theatrical self-absorption conveyed by such modern artists as Cindy Sherman. Selfies play a somewhat more universal role in this evolution because they happen in real time, their success metrics publicly available for all to view. As a selfie attracts more “likes” or “followers,” the more it operates as a benchmark to justify the life experiences in which we choose to participate.
However, this doesn’t explain why people feel compelled to take self-portraits when they’re drunk, or while they’re working out, or what they look like when they wake up. It doesn’t help us understand why a 34-year-old adult took a photo of himself in front of his dead uncle’s corpse at a funeral. And it doesn’t even begin to signify the incomprehensible rationale behind taking a selfie at a former Holocaust concentration camp, or at the scene of a crime, or in front of a building engulfed in flames after an East Village gas explosion.
— EventPhotosNYC (@Eventphotosnyc) March 28, 2015
What compels people to do this? In a recent article for the Guardian UK, Jacob Silverman (author of the book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection) describes social media broadcasts as “records of existence and accumulating metadata … the very process of thinking tak[ing] on a kind of trajectory: how can this idea be projected outward, towards others?” He mentions how every moment captured in time presents an opportunity for inclusion — a means to demonstrate that we’re worthy of belonging to a network that might otherwise reject us.
In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag writes that taking a photograph “imposes a way of seeing” and “appropriate[s] the thing being photographed.” The selfie represents an interruption in time, presuming our audience possesses an inherent curiosity about our lives. It’s a way to capture a moment as proof (“a band played and I was there!”) at the risk of not actually experiencing it. Putting ourselves literally in the frame harbors a sense of empathy for one’s fellow humans, perhaps a way to convince others that we’re really good people at heart. We made the effort, now here’s the evidence. It’s first-person storytelling without setting up a narrative.
At the same time, the person taking the selfie creates an imposition, fully aware that one’s quest for visibility means stealing precious social capital away from others in the same network. Although the act of taking a selfie in the presence of catastrophe may be in poor taste, the ephemeral nature of social media ensures that any indignation will quickly evaporate. We know there will be something in our feed to replace that selfie within the next 20 seconds, most likely another selfie. It’s less a record of our living and more a temporary justification for having been alive in that moment.
What results is a strange dichotomy in which we actively seek attention to and distraction from ourselves. We want the world to know where we’ve been and what we’ve done; meanwhile, we quickly scan our Facebook feeds looking for something, anything to capture our fleeting attention. Perhaps, as Dr. Adler suggested nearly a century ago, we are searching for ways to conquer our innate sense of inferiority, using self-reflexive media as curator, distributor and therapist.
One thing is clear: our collective preoccupation with self-documentation is becoming a public nuisance. Museums, monuments, and concert promoters have instigated policies prohibiting the use of selfie sticks on their premises. Already, selfie sticks are prohibited at The Palace of Versailles, The Smithsonian, the National Gallery of London, The Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim Museum, The Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And just last week, selfie sticks were deemed sufficiently “annoying” to be banned from the upcoming Lollapalooza and Coachella music festivals.