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In defence of the selfie

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Cassie McCullagh of ABC Radio National on selfie culture. We chatted about popular perceptions of selfies, and their productive potential in political movements around the world.

The List page <here>. Podcast <here>.  Interview transcribed below. Any thoughts?

Cassie: There is also another side to selfie culture that fascinates our next guest, and that’s the way selfies are being used both in Australia and around the world as a tool of political empowerment to create solidarity with stigmatized minorities. Crystal Abidin is currently completing a PhD in the culture of selfies and microcelebrity at the University of Western Australia. I caught up with her recently and asked her if selfies are no longer just about narcissism.

Crystal: I’ll be quite hesitant to say it did start as a culture of narcissism. I know that when selfies were first theorized and studied academically, two schools took over really quickly. So psychologists were coming in and telling us that this culture was narcissistic, people were self-absorbed, people were more interested in curating their self-representations.

Then, people in the business school started talking about the productive potential and selfies and marketing products. But more than that, selfies really are a cultural meme. And depending on where you are, where you’re situated, the sort of activities you’re locked into, people innovate the way they use selfies to self-organize, to drive awareness and popularity for the different things they stand for, and for some people, to drive the sale of products, in the case of social media entrepreneurs.

Cassie: It seems that you’re saying that I should just take out all of the value judgement about selfies, from the way I am talking about it, and not call it narcissistic or self-obsessed, but merely a product of the time.

Crystal: I think it’s very common for people to see selfie culture as narcissistic. After all, it’s one person curating their self-presentation constantly, and then pushing all this information online for the masses to view. But to think about selfies more productively, that they’re widespread, they’re cross-cultural, cross-national, they span across generations, across genders even, it is probably more useful to think about how selfies are used by different people and the meanings attached to them, more so than brushing if off as a frivolous ‘young people’ activity.

Cassie: Okay, so give us an example then.

Crystal: I think the #OccupyCentral movement, as it was brewing, in the first 24 hours when it sparked off, at the height of it, people started moving into the city, into Hong Kong Central to take pictures, protest selfies started trending. Now it wasn’t necessarily that people were hashtagging ‘#protestselfies’, but they were documenting themselves in the midst of the event. There were people who were geared up, really heavily armoured with tear gas masks, with umbrellas, with flags, and then there were people who appeared more like tourists, just situating themselves in the bustle of the activity, marking evidence, marking their place in this time where there was a significant event happening.

So there are two ways selfie culture can be looked at here. In the latter with tourists, it was about placing yourself in a place, at a glimpse of real life, marking their authority and their presence there. With the first group of the locals, that was quite visually dominating, visually grabbing, for people to see selfies not just as a narcissistic self-absorbed documentary, but discourse from the ground on what is actually happening, subversive to mainstream representations. 

Cassie: What did you make of the protests in Australia of the Wish Campaign in which women were being encouraged to post hidjab selfies as a sign of solidarity with Muslim women in the country.

Crystal: Now this is not new. We’ve had instances where people use, let’s say, the pink ribbon as a sign of breast cancer support, or in the past, people would just turn up wearing all white or all black. But with selfies, when you have someone’s face up close and personal, self-circulated online, you’re bringing in a very personal narrative behind the picture. It’s no longer just a disembodied, distant, passive object, but rather, your body because the canvas for you to portray any sentiment you may have, along with some captions, and these glimpses at everyday life, where you’ve got thousands of people who look different but kind of take on the same aesthetic in wanting to support a movement really grabs the public – people are interested to know: Who’s involved in this? Do I want to know what they look like? Is there anyone I know? How different do they look? What could they be saying separately, individually?

This dominance of visual culture is more grabbing than say, a Tweet that is less likely to transverse across cultures. Selfies are a very quick way to garner attention, to show signs of solidarity and support across geographical boundaries.

Cassie: There is another example of this selfie activist movement. Earlier this year, Russia banned Apple imports from Poland, and Poles from all over the country were posting pictures of themselves eating apples and it was a kind of ridicule of Putin. 

Crystal: I think this is particularly interesting and slightly different from, say, the hidjab selfies or the Occupy selfies because you’ve got here a combination of some sort of critique coupled with humour, so it’s transgressive but it’s also accessible to the masses who may not be as involved with keeping up with what’s happening. These types of humourous, transgressive, capitalist critiques circulate more widely across different demographics, and there are two potential possibilities here.

The first is that the original discourse, or the significance of this meme, this cultural unit, may be diluted or watered down if people take it more to be just a fun, humourous, internet trend. And some people who jump on the bandwagon much later may not even be aware of how this originated.

But the second way of looking at this, at the productive potential is that when the meme spreads more quickly, and people are more curious to find out what’s happening, some may backtrack to find out the origins of the meme. We know there are hundreds of memes on the internet, and understanding where they originated from, how to use them appropriately, is more importantly a form of cultural knowledge that internet savvy people will need and want to garner.

Cassie: Well, there’s a lot of work ahead. I think this is a field that could occupy you for your entire career, Crystal. 

Crystal: I would hope so! Hopefully, it would be a long career.

Cassie: Well, thanks for talking with us today.

Crystal: Not a problem. Thanks for having me.

Cassie: That’s Crystal Abidin. She’s currently completing her PhD at the University of Western Australia, and we’ll ask her for a selfie of her that we can put on our programme page, and you can have a look.

Crystal: I’ll make sure I get you the best one, with the best lighting, just for you, Cassie!

2 replies »

  1. Hi there :)

    I have earlier produced a taxonomy of how commercial bloggers or social media entrepreneurs have used selfies with an implicit/subtle or open intention to guide readers on purchasing decisions –

    Elsewhere, a group of international scholars and I have theorized that selfies can be studied in terms of identity, celebrity, dataveillance, gender, the subaltern, and place. A full write-up of these different strands are related readings are available here –

    Hope this helps!

  2. Hi! Very interesting post here, and a refreshing perspective of the selfie culture. You mentioned how it’s more productive to view this as a cultural meme, and as a meaningful activity for young people. You also cited various interesting ways it’s been used, like in #OccupyCentral. However, I’m wondering about selfies which have no “real” purpose or cause, other than to show off a goodlooking shot of oneself. For example, selfies that literally show nothing but one’s face– no indicative background or anything. How would you anaylse such shots productively?

Beep here.

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