A “selfie” is understood to be dumb, and it really is, but it’s also the ordering feature of the internet.
Illustration by Penelope Gazin
Anything that is commonly understood as the province of teenage girls or their proxies – any girl, really, with hair that has something to do and patented Dreamskin – is understood to be something dumb. A “selfie” is understood to be dumb, and it really is, but it’s also the ordering feature of the internet, or rather, of the individual internets we create and re-create daily in our own images. A selfie is a photograph taken by a person of themselves for use as an avatar, maybe, or more often for the kind of portraiture that seems gray and naked but is really a conceptually sophisticated, self-adjudicated pose and articulation; selfies are more exposing and exposed than whatever random angle another photographer might find on their or the eventual viewer’s behalf. (If that even happens anymore; if it’s even possible to have a photo taken without its subject demanding to see and approve it.)
“Selfie” is a conscious, natural pejorative; an anxious cutening of what is, essentially, a humiliation of Instagrammed self-regard. Contained in any selfie is an embrace of this type of embarrassment, or rather, an incorporation of it, where it is folded into an emboldened, satisfied who-gives-a-shitness (notably, this is also seen in the anarchic mien of barfing, smiling socialites who leave their heels stuck in sewer grates as velvety memento mori; they do good selfies). As the internet pervades even the littlest pockets of personal experience, so too has the idea that ever more specific, ever more aesthetically controlled visions of an individual – of a teenage girl with That Hair or otherwise – are virtually expected, almost required, and sort of appealing, despite the thing where everyone in a selfie is doing a Photo Booth face of smug, though adopted, insouciance, or wide-mouthed sex, or a grainy iPhone simulacrum of something approaching captured shame.
In the same way that the internet finished normalising nerd culture and organised both self-deprecation and self-importance into near genres of their own (what is “humblebrag,” in the doing and in the charge of it, but pathos?), the internet has made such explicit self-representation a central tenet of social media. Selfies are the first and final wall between a vision of one’s self and its actualisation online. Even if they’re shitty – and most selfies are shitty, in concept and execution, with their bad lighting and worse ideas – selfies are an abrupt and indisputable realisation, if not idealisation, of what and how their subjects want to be seen.
Selfies, by now, fall outside sort-of-apologetic-but-not-really titty-and-pec pics; at this point, a more significant number of online self-representations – status updates, tweets, whatever – are legitimate “selfies” too. Overexposure to the internet has made it increasingly difficult to operate within it without offering these compositions of the self in myriad selfie forms. And much like reality television has inevitably and obviously (and boringly) informed future reality-television stars in such a way that “reality television” is basically impossible (even that Amish show was illegit!), the internet is now dominated by these autobiographical miniperformances.
But all of this is fine, really, and is ultimately the internet’s way of doing “status life.” One of four elements that constitute Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism, status life is officially “the entire pattern of behaviour and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be,” and unofficially is the way that everyone has always known (and always will know) about everything that isn’t themselves, even outside fiction or quasi fiction or New Journalism. Leaving aside the semiotic and just generally jag-offish grotesquerie that is “curation,” the content of selfies is a ready exponent of status life, offering a viewer the objective details, and the subject’s self-interpretation of those details.
Inferred, then, is… everything: emotionality, aesthetics, values, etc. The number of girls who tag their selfies with “blond” (and, more darkly, “pretty”) suggests that the otherwise uninteresting feature of blond hair means a lot to them. (I get it, I get it: I, too, participate in the sacraments around artificially blond and painfully long hair, in both cases unflattering choices that have more to do with my imagination than any actual aesthetic benefit. We all do it.) Like most fake blond hair, and fashion and gesture and speech and everything else so brutally, vulnerably self-conscious, a selfie communicates the wrong stuff about what’s “good” – a captured mirror face, a face twisted into a version of what is desired by its taker. Even if the image is autonomously beautiful or compelling or revealing, it is by definition, if not by name, still a picture.
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