Our photos, ourselves.
When Oxford University Press, publishers of the respected Oxford English Dictionary, announced that "selfie" was the Word of the Year for the year just concluded, pundits predictably bemoaned the news as yet another sign of the Decline of Western Civilization. On the bright side, at least the choice wasn't "twerk."
Am I doing this wrong?
I keep getting pictures of what’s in the mirror!
A "selfie," in case you've been living under a bridge for the past couple of years, is a photo taken of oneself, typically by a smartphone camera. Gone are the days, apparently, of posing for a trained professional portrait photographer, all dolled up in your finest Sunday clothes. In a selfie, the world is simply grateful if the subject is wearing clothes (see future, as yet unscheduled rant about "sexting"). Since they don't require the skills, or even the assistance, of a second party, selfies can be endlessly updated, posted and reposted in the vast echo chamber of Facebook, Twitter and blogs.
We'll get to what this means for the Decline of Civilization in a moment (far be it from me to miss a chance to jump on a meme with both feet and bang out a column). But first let us consider an important technical issue:
Taking a good "selfie" is hard.
Not that I've tried very many times (other than as research for this column), and when I have it's been with good, ego-less reason. Need a current photo of me to promote a talk? No problem — click. Hmmm. OK, here's this one from 2003. (From the vantage point of future historians looking back at our era from the 51st century, 2003 will look plenty "current" for circa 2014. Heck, Western Civilization will have Declined so much by then, nobody will be educated enough to tell the difference, or to have historians.)
But, anyway, when I have held out my smartphone camera and attempted a selfie, the results have not been pretty. (We'll pause here so you can all get out of your systems those cracks about blaming the messenger and how I'm just lucky the camera didn't break and that's what Photoshop was invented for. There. Are you quite done? Onward.)
Posing for a camera is difficult for non-models in any case, with that forced awkwardness of faking a smile. If you have pre-fluoridation teeth, forget the toothy grin. And you never look in photos as you appear to yourself in the mirror — maybe if you went into Photoshop and flipped the whole thing, mirror-wise?
Posing for yourself proves to be even tougher and weirder. (I suppose the youthful narcissists who earned "selfie" the Word of the Year distinction got over this after the thousandth or so self-portrait snapshot.) Something about the arm's length nature of a selfie makes it difficult to find the proper framing, too, and there's a fisheye-lens effect I find it almost impossible to fix. (A true selfie is taken with the smartphone camera held in one's hand, I'm given to understand. The notion of setting up a camera and using a self-timer apparently went out with Polaroid film and the Bronze Age.) I can't help getting an awful lot of chin and a view up the nose — I look like William F. Buckley, curdling with disdain at some liberal guest on his old "Firing Line" show.
Then you have to look at your photo and go, "Eeew, who is that guy?" How do these youngsters (and, let's face it, no end of frankly pathetic oldsters) manage to look so good in a format designed to make one look so bad? If I'd spent all the previous night drinking, fallen out of bed with my hair sticking out at all angles, and somehow dragged my hungover self to a portrait photographer, I would still look better than in my best day of selfie-snapping.
Leaving aside for the moment the question of how one can be narcissistic over photos so preordained to make one look bad, let us turn to how the rise of the "selfie" clearly presages the decline of all that is right and proper in the Western world. If the twist dance craze and nose rings didn't push Western civilization over the edge, selfies oughta do it.
It's undeniable that a certain amount of self-absorption goes into the taking of a selfie. Hence the name. Otherwise they'd be called "otheries" or "somebody-elsies." You're showing the world, well, you — preferably in a favorable light or some situation that sets you above and apart: Here's me dining at La Cirque. Here's me at the Justin Beiber concert ("above and apart" being in the eye of the selfie-taker). Here's me with my new nose ring.
The Twitterverse and Facebookland, too, tend to contribute to this world of mirrors sense that it's all about you. Who, after all, really cares that you just ate at Dunkin' Doughnuts and believe that this establishment has the best coffee (in 140 characters or less)? Amazingly, someone out there does! Someone out there will "follow" you — and not in a creepy, stalker way (well, not entirely). What does it matter that you "like" Bob's Practical Plumbing Supply on Facebook? Well, for some reason it matters to Bob (or to his teenaged daughter, who manages what he calls his "Facetweet" account), and that makes you important!
Time to celebrate by taking a selfie of yourself holding that flange you bought at Bob's, perhaps in front of Dunkin' Doughnuts. Post it, and maybe Bob's teenaged daughter will "like" you back!
This mirrorworld phenomenon extends to things large as well as small. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote, "To monitor Facebook or Twitter right after Nelson Mandela's death last week was to be struck by how many people weren't so much passing along the news as laying claim to it: Here's what I thought of him. Here's when I intersected with him. Here's the personal reverberation."
Here's a selfie of me mourning Nelson Mandela! See the tears?
But selfies probably don't portend the Decline of Western Civilization any more than ducktail haircuts and poodle skirts did. (The jury is still out on rap music, though.) Are we truly more self-centered today than in our forebears' time? Probably we just have more free time and technology to exercise our natural egocentricity. If the Greatest Generation hadn't been all caught up fighting World War II and saving the world from unspeakable evil, they might have spent more time on their shortwave radios talking about themselves.
Keep in mind, for example, that exercise in vanity known as nylon stockings. Though DuPont had developed nylon in the 1930s, nylon stockings weren't widely available until May 15, 1940, designated as "N-day." Desperate women (or their beleaguered husbands, instructed not to return home without the prize) thronged stores in a "battle of nylons." One newspaper headlined the havoc, "Girl Collapses, Woman Loses Girdle at Nylon Sale." Some 780,000 pairs of stockings were sold in a single day. After World War II made nylons scarce, stocking-less women made do by drawing a line up the backs of their legs with eyeliner to simulate the look of wearing hosiery.
Faddish? Vain? Self-centered, even? Yet these were the same women who rolled up their sleeves and became Rosie the Riveter.
We rise or fall to the occasion. After 9/11, remember, Americans rallied round the flag and were prepared to do whatever it took to make things right. Then President George W. Bush told us all to go shopping instead, and the rest is history.
Who's to say that, given the right historic moment, the current generation wouldn't drop its cellphone cameras, leave its Facebook pages fallow and sign off Twitter to meet the challenge? "These are the times that try men's souls," wrote Tom Paine in the darkest days of the American Revolution. If George Washington had been able to stay at Mount Vernon perfecting his wooden-tooth smile for a selfie, do you really believe he would have?
One can only hope that our best selves are better than any selfie can reveal.
When not editing Desert Exposure, David A. Fryxell keeps trying to take a better picture for his editor's page.