The Selfie vs. The Self
Content originally published for The Merit Club
While social media has been accumulating its 700 million monthly users, a sticking point with Instagram has always been the “selfie”. How can that one word “selfie” make you involuntarily cringe? And yet why can't we resist a sneaky one in the mirror or refrain from capturing Uncle Tom Cobley and all in a “selfie” on a night out? It's a love-hate relationship.
There's only a fine distinction between the “selfie” as self-expression and self-obsession. On the one extreme, people say selfies scream vanity and a shameless need for gratification from others - self-promotion and self-love. Yet selfies can also be a spontaneous way of capturing a moment in time that you have authority over, embodying confidence and control that is empowering.
What I want to consider is just how connected we are to our photographs, our selfies, and our social media personas? It’s interesting to assess the divide between our true selves in reality and how we perceive our personas, and how we want them to be perceived. How and why do we elevate, tweak and separate our living selves from our projected personas on social media, and how much good or damage is this going to cause? These ideas allude to some of Laura Mulvey’s perceptive thoughts and theories behind the sense of self that emerge far before our exposure to social media. For example, she makes reference to Jacques Lacan and a moment he perceives as crucial for the constitution of our egos - when a child first recognises its own image in the mirror. Mulvey suggests that this recognition is in fact mis-recognition. The child perceives the image of themselves in the mirror “as superior”, and the child then proceeds to project “this body outside itself as an ideal ego, the alienated subject”. (read more from her here) The idea of creating “an ideal ego” for yourself as a child seems a disturbing reflection of our constant desire for something greater, for perfection. When we then think of ourselves and our “social media” personas in this light later on in life, it’s easy to see how the lines between ourselves and the reflected image of ourselves on social media’s alienating mirror can become so blurred and confused.
We can’t get caught up in thinking social media and its revelations are new. It seems we have all had an obsession with ourselves, unconsciously or consciously, that far predates the ties of social media. This attitude towards self-obsession and self-expression has prevailed way before social media, far before even the invention of the camera. Just take a look at the portraits King Henry VIII commissioned Hans Holbein to paint of his regal self nearly 500 years ago. With self-assurance and grandeur in abundance, his paintings became an aggressive form of self-propaganda. It may have been reserved for the few and wealthy centuries ago, rather than being easily accessible to 700 million eagerly tapping consumers today, but the fundamental desire for curating a specific personal profile remains.
Moving away from paintings, we can explore the similar workings of distrust in photography as a medium. Just how honest are they? As artist and writer Victor Burgin suggests, “we must lose any illusion about the neutrality of objects before the camera”. We only have to visualise what Burgin describes as the “photographic opportunist” waiting finger on the button for “those moments of truth”, to be reminded that a photograph may be entirely, painstakingly, staged. Now photography has become so accessible on our smartphones, we can all be photographic opportunists at any given moment. We can take 100s of photos to capture the ideal “moment of truth” that we will then pick out and choose to post (more a moment of untruth!)
It seems scare-mongering to say we are complete “image-junkies”, but there is a raw truth in writer, philosopher and activist Susan Sontag's warning that our way of prioritising this “image-world that bids to outlast us all” will have its consequences. There's a balance to be struck between living in the moment, and capturing memories. We invest so much time and effort into capturing the moments of our lives and events - no wonder it’s unnerving when the honesty of these moments are thrown into question. Self obsession vs. Self expression. Perhaps the key lies in just how alienated we allow ourselves to become between our everyday selves and our “ideal ego” mirrored on our social media accounts. I would be embarrassed to admit how many times I've checked my Instagram feed while writing this. But why? Why should we be ashamed of our personal profiling and sharing images on our social media if it enhances our lives in some way and can express our views, ideas and a snapshot of who we are. Maybe, we need to question just how “social” this “social media” can in fact be. If we can find a balance between the self, the selfie, the social, the truth and our egos, we might just be a bit more truthful to ourselves and find a truer social happiness.