Selfies : A Mechanism for Online Identity Construction?

Rise of the Selfie

As our new competition is now in in full swing, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at the theme identity and how it can relate to photography. An obvious place to start seemed to be a brief exploration of the exponential growth of the selfie trend and its place in modern photographic practice.

"Selfie (noun, informal) : a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website."
Oxford English Dictionary

The first usage of the word "selfie" allegedly dates back to 13th September 2002 when it appeared in a comment written by Nathan Hope on an Australian Internet forum. Since that date the preeminence of the selfie as a form of self-expression has increased exponentially with over 17 million selfies being uploaded to social media sites every week, according to research. But what has led to the sudden rise in popularity and notoriety of the selfie? And what makes it any different to the widely accepted self-portrait?

The first photographic self-portrait is believed to have been taken in 1839, when Robert Cornelius took a picture of himself outside his family's store in Philadelphia. Since then, the complex history of photography has led to a gradual democratisation of the process. The invention of Polaroid followed by the introduction of the compact digital camera meant that a large proportion of the population now has access to the technology necessary to document their lives at any given moment. The advent of smart phones with front facing cameras, the internet, apps and various social networking platforms has since contributed to the popularity of selfies.

On 18th November 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary declared "Selfie" as the word of the year and since then selfies have been a hotly debated topic concerning the issue of how digital media affects our behaviour. There appear to be two main camps. Firstly, there are those who believe that selfies are simply a harmless pastime, a way to document moments in our lives and share them with those around us. In this way, they are perceived to be nothing more than a means of creative self-expression, a way to construct a positive image of ourselves, and a way to prove that we belong to a certain community. People in this camp see selfies as a photographic means of participating in and affiliating with the world. However, those in the opposing camp see selfies more as a symbol of the narcissistic decline of an increasingly self-centred society.

Could it be though that the selfie is simply an emerging sub-genre of self-portraiture? Can we classify the selfie as a form of hyper networked self-portraiture for the digital age? Are selfies a modern form of vernacular photography?