Selfies and the Numbers Game

This post looks at how discussions about selfies seem to focus specifically on the numbers of selfies taken, and how this feeds into a notion of devalued practice. As an aside, 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 or songs or blog posts – why about selfies? The answer, I feel, lies in what all this discussion expresses, namely an anxiety about the surge in visibility of certain groups, mostly young people and women. The volume of selfies is problematic because of who it represents, and how it embodies an apparently frightening new agency and ability to enter the public domain.

Rules of Sharing Selfies

As I’ve discussed before, selfies are subject to a particularly high degree of regulation, in terms of what should be shown, and where selfies should be taken. 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.[i]

Selfies only once a week: for the hoi polloi, this is helpful for encouraging self-restraint. [ii]

The prevalence of selfies is a key feature in 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 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 this comment, the perception of ‘too many selfies’ becomes a justification for strict condemnation, the issuing of warnings, 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. [iii]

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 described for their “extreme vanity”, their prevalence and their overconsumption, this critic describes a wish for a physical hierarchy, by suggesting that selfie users should be denied access to the public sphere altogether. 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.

Selfie Addiction?

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[iv]. Such symptoms might be uncontrollable urges to take selfies, their use as a distraction and a means to feel more important, and which have a negative impact on the subject’s “relationships, job or studies”. To avoid the dependency on “short-term gratification” embodied within the selfie, and instead concentrate on “more important goals”, Rutledge recommends that subjects follow her guidelines that 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 somehow inferior to others.

Such advice includes reminding her readers that they are “package” and “not a single picture”. This wrongly assumes that taking selfies is somehow a subjectivity destroying practice, and supposes that such activities can override the embodied experience of self. Perhaps this advice 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 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 as a threat to achieving long-term goals and in opposition to the contemporary norm for subjects to be self-regulating. But this notion, in which selfie-taking negates the attainment of status, serves as a regulatory practice, and can be contested by a more positive view in which such images are part of a process of testing and acquiring a respected social identity.

Devalued Cultural Practice

Discussions of selfies that focus on the volume in which they are taken frame the conversation in terms of (at best) a mass cultural practice or (at worst) an epidemic. Certainly, selfies are widely shared; 140 million images on Instagram alone are tagged #me, as of October 2013. But by foregrounding the number of selfies, the individual works and the subjects who take them are homogenised, with their differences elided. This sense of perceived uniformity, in which every selfie is tacitly equated with certain a set of qualities, is necessary for the discourse’s power as a tool for social definition and organisation. Such generalisations characterise the selfie as the 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.[v]

The popularity of the form is for many its key failing, with people’s frequent taking of selfies being seen as problematic, and the sheer number of such images accessible online described as overwhelming. The sense in which there can be ‘too many’ selfies is 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.[vi]

The photograph went from a rare prized possession to common keepsake to a nuisance that clutters our visual memories.[vii]

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, where one is presumed to prevent the other. Angela Mollard summarises this by asking “if everyone is posting, who is looking?”[viii]. 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 this conveys).

The volume of selfies, their most salient feature, is consistently read as being evidence of their creative poverty[ix]. Also, the use of the quotidian to mark subjects as being 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 it 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[x]

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[xi].

But the enormous popularity of the 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 in order to conceive of 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, prejudices and enable the formation of hierarchies. This drive towards social organisation and exclusion is evident in Agger’s conception of the Internet as both “great” and “troubling” in that it enables everyone to “join the conversation”, which he concludes by asking “does everyone have a right to an opinion?” (2012: 22/23). As an internet practice, and an expression of opinion, he might therefore question 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 selfies’ creative poverty 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 groups.

Agger, B. (2012) Oversharing: Presentations of Self in the Internet Age. New York: Routledge.

[v] Grayson Perry, Beating the Bounds, BBC Reith Lectures, Radio 4, 22nd October 2013


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