What We're All Secretly Trying to Say When We Take a Selfie

The word noble comes to us from the Latin word, nobilis, which roughly translates to well-known. In Ancient Rome, patricians (the nobility) competed amongst themselves to enlarge their dignitas and auctoritas through tales of their military exploits and heroism as well as building massive public works adorned with their names so voters would remember them during elections. To be well known was to be noble.

The proliferation of selfies goes beyond the gratification of one's physical attributes and instead is about our desire to control our personal brand as the big brother society, evidenced by the revelations of massive, covert government surveillance programs monitoring much of the country, emerges. The selfie as a social tool provides everyone a chance to control their identity even as businesses and governments continue break us into "tribes" based on our race, religion, voting records, and more recently our consumption behavior.

Self-identity is a vital part of the human experience. According to Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, "Humans have long demonstrated an interest in self-exploration. From early Greeks to present day, people have used self-study and self-observation to explore identity and sense of self." No one would describe Van Gogh, Picasso, or Toulouse-Lautrec as narcissists for their self-portraits and instead would most likely comment on how aware the painters are of their place in society based on their "selfies." Selfies is a language that facilitates self-exploration via society and codifies a narrative about our lives that we can control even as the big brother state emerges.

Selfies "now account for 30% of pictures taken by those aged 18-24, with men taking more photos of themselves than women," according to a British survey recently reported by the Telegraph. The study also found "an average of 1.9 billion photographs captured each month in Britain and 328 million of these shared online." The ability to carry a small camera and computer — that’s occasionally used as a phone — with you 24/7 has democratized the "nobility" allowing personal brands to flourish. "It can be empowering," psychiatrist Dr. Josie Howard recently stated in an interview with Stylist.com. "Some women use it [selfies] as a way to control how their image is portrayed in social media."

A recent Tumblr blog presents an interesting case on control and selfies. The blog "Life of a Stranger who Stole My Phone" is dedicated to an iPhone thief, Hafid, who unknowingly-sent selfies to the victim through the automatic upload features on the iPhone's Dropbox app. While the victim controls the Tumblr site and can interpret the selfies as they please, Hafid still unknowingly controls the content of the site and his image.

As the old saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words." Selfies give us a voice and reaffirm control over ourselves. A single image has the possibility to explain our passions, reinvent our brands, and shift our place in society. Possessing the ability to stage, edit, and filter selfies empowers us to alter our relationship with society by altering ourselves.

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Jonathan Smith

Resides in New York City. Works for Viacom International.

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