In this piece I will consider how mainstream discussions about selfies typically focus on the numbers of selfies taken and the ways in which this kind of approach feeds into a notion of ‘devalued practice’. I have to start by admitting that I simply do not understand the hand-wringing that goes on in relation to ‘too many’ selfies. We don’t have this kind of horrified conversation about ‘too many’ books, songs or blog posts – so why about selfies? The answer, I suggest, lies in what such a disparaging approach actually conveys: namely, an anxiety about the surge in visibility of certain groups, mostly young people and women. The volume of selfies seems problematic to many because of who it represents and of how it embodies an apparently frightening new form of agency – as well as this new agent’s ability to enter the public domain.
A meme made by Anne Burns using the meme generator at weknowmemes.com
Rules of Sharing Selfies
Selfies are subject to a particularly high degree of regulation in terms of where they should be taken and what shown be shown in them. But the predominant rule regarding the selfie relates to the regularity with which it is shared:
Once a day? F–k no. Once a week? That’s pushing it. Once a month or so, sure.1
Selfies only once a week: for the hoi polloi, this is helpful for encouraging self-restraint. 2
The prevalence of selfies is a key aspect of their denigration, with their volume standing for a lack of control, an overwhelming demand for attention and a sense of gratuitous surplus. The sense in which an entire form of photographic practice can be dismissed by virtue of there being just too many of its expressions demonstrates the culturally divisive nature of such accusations, where notions of ‘the mass’ are used to defend the preservation of an ‘elite’. Genres of photography that are popular amongst young people, and especially young women, are positioned as inferior and gratuitous, differentiating both form and subject from those who favour other types of practice.
In the comment below, the perception of there being ‘too many selfies’ becomes a justification for strict condemnation, a warning and an assessment of the subject’s right to use resources:
The amount of narcissistic women that post hundreds of images of themselves striking the same practiced pose over and over again on my Facebook feed is enough to make me want to verbally abuse them … If those of you that are reading are guilty of this, be aware of the type of man you will attract and please stop consuming valuable internet bandwidth with your extreme vanity.3
The selfie here embodies several aspects of ‘too much’ – in terms of images, repetitions of poses, vanity and consumption. But besides the condemnation of the women chastised for their ‘extreme vanity’, their prevalence and their overconsumption, this particular critic reveals a wish for the existence of a physical hierarchy by suggesting that selfie users should be denied access to the public sphere. Selfie photographers, by virtue of their unrestrained behaviour, should be excluded from the public sphere altogether and have their resources (e.g. bandwidth) directed elsewhere.
Perpetuating the sense that there can be ‘too many’ selfies, and that this constitutes a problem, Pamela Rutledge considers the possible signs of selfie addiction.4 Such symptoms might include an uncontrollable urge to take selfies, taking them as a distraction and a means to feel more important – something that may have a negative impact on the subject’s ‘relationships, job or studies’. To avoid the dependency on ‘short-term gratification’ embodied by the selfie and instead concentrate on ‘more important goals’, Rutledge recommends that subjects follow her guidelines. This, she promises, will ‘keep selfies fun and keep you real’. Notions of what constitutes ‘important goals’ and ‘realness’ aside, this degree of intervention into the lives of others, based on a photographic practice, perpetuates the sense in which both selfies and selfie-takers embody unrestrained excess and are inferior to others.
Advice issued by Rutledge includes reminding her readers that they are a ‘package’ and ‘not a single picture’. This statement wrongly assumes that taking selfies is a subjectivity-destroying practice and presupposes that such activities can override the embodied experience of self. Perhaps advice of this kind should instead be directed at the critical viewer as the simplistic association between subject and image can be far more harmful when it is used as a legitimation for insult and abuse. Rutledge also cautions against oversharing, as this practice supposedly creates ‘interpersonal distance’ and is either ‘boring… or annoying’. The degree to which sharing becomes oversharing is heavily subjective, as some critics feel that even one selfie is too many, just on the basis of what it is.
These guidelines, whilst appearing to offer friendly advice, are instead imposing a set of standards relating to what women should aspire to be, and how they should represent themselves in the public sphere. The selfie, as a moment of temporary gratification, is viewed here as a threat to achieving long-term goals and in opposition to the contemporary norm for subjects to be self-regulating. But this notion whereby selfie-taking negates the attainment of status serves as a regulatory practice. It can be contested by a more positive view, in which such images form part of a process of testing and acquiring a respected social identity.
Devalued Cultural Practice
Discussions of selfies that focus on their volume frame the conversation in terms of (at best) a mass cultural practice or (at worst) an epidemic. Certainly, selfies are widely shared: as of October 2013, 140 million images on Instagram alone are tagged #me. But by foregrounding the number of selfies, the individual images and the subjects who take them are homogenised, with any differences between them elided for the sake of a coherent dismissal. This sense of perceived uniformity, in which every selfie is tacitly equated with certain a set of qualities, is necessary for the normative discourse as a tool for social definition and organisation to be successfully enacted. Such generalisations characterise the selfie as a quintessentially ‘common’ photograph, accessible and replicable by anyone with a simple camera phone, yet vigorously scorned and devalued for its ubiquity.
We live in an age now where photography rains down on us like sewage from above.5
The popularity of this media form is for many its key failing, with the sheer number of such images accessible online described as overwhelming. The sense in which there can be ‘too many’ selfies is often discussed with a confidence that others will acknowledge and agree with the connection made between high volume and low worth:
In their scarcity, photographs can age like wine, with grace and importance. In their abundance, photos can sometimes curdle, spoil, and rot.6
The photograph went from a rare prized possession to common keepsake to a nuisance that clutters our visual memories.7
For Ben Agger, there is ‘simply too much information [online], much of it misleading, and precious little real knowledge’ (2012: 25). Here, knowledge, including the photographic realm, is seen as a zero-sum game, in which a plethora of ‘bad’ material displaces the ‘good’. Equally, behaviours of sharing and looking are pitted against each other and seen as mutually exclusive. Angela Mollard summarises this viewpoint by asking: ‘if everyone is posting, who is looking?’.8 Her binary opposition forms a hierarchy in which looking (and discernment) is positioned above posting (and the lack of quality control or interest in others, which the practice of posting conveys).
The volume of selfies, their most salient feature, is consistently read as being evidence of their creative poverty.9 Also, the use of the quotidian to mark subjects as problematic is particularly effective as it attains a sort of logic based on mass-participation, in which the more people do something, the less valued this activity is held to be, resulting in a devaluation of the photographic economy:
Having an Instagram account is like having an abundance of money in a dead currency.10
In addition, the dismissal of the selfie bears similarities to the devalued attitude taken towards many other forms of popular youth culture, in which a disapproval of or disconnection from younger generations is expressed in relation to their tastes and habits.11
But the enormous popularity of this media form suggests that it is serving an important function for its users, and that, rather than being a trivial fad, the selfie has emerged to become a valued means of self-representation. Furthermore, the volume of selfies is what gives them meaning as an aggregate of individual and collective photographic behaviours. As a personal expression which depends on its visibility for meaning, the selfie transcends the binary between the individual and society, complicating Mollard’s anxious divisions to outline a practice which is explicitly both ‘them and us’, viewer and viewed.
Beneath Mollard and Agger’s expressions of concern lies a desire to promote certain online practices – and the people who perform them – and to limit others. I argue that such divisions constitute a form of oppression, in that they perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices while enabling the formation of cultural and social hierarchies. This drive towards social organisation and exclusion is evident in Agger’s conception of the Internet as both ‘great’ and ‘troubling’. The Internet is said to enable everyone to ‘join the conversation’, yet Agger concludes by asking: ‘does everyone have a right to an opinion?’ (2012: 22/23). If selfie-taking is both an internet practice and an expression of opinion, Agger might therefore be questioning whether everyone has a ‘right’ to take and share selfies. Or is the ‘right’ to photography, and to representation within the public sphere more generally, only accorded to those who practice it in a certain way? Therefore, ideas relating to the creative poverty of selfies clearly demonstrate the degree to which discussions about everyday habits of self-expression are underpinned by principles that serve to legitimise the exclusion and silencing of certain social groups.
5 Grayson Perry, Beating the Bounds, BBC Reith Lectures, Radio 4, 22nd October 2013
Agger, B. (2012) Oversharing: Presentations of Self in the Internet Age. New York: Routledge.
Anne Burns is a PhD candidate at the Loughborough University School of Art. Her thesis examines how women’s photographic self-representations on social media are used to enact practices of gender discipline. Whether defining the ‘authentic’ self, proscribing the ‘duckface’ expression or deriding the use of selfies, popular discourses in relation to women’s photographs can be seen to embody the normalisation of regulation, presented as a participatory form of entertainment. Prior to commencing her PhD, Burns was a photography demonstrator at the University of Salford and worked as a photographer at a high-street portrait studio.