In 2002, an Australian man went to his friend’s 21st birthday party. He got drunk, tripped on some steps and cut his lip. He took a picture of his injuries and shared it with his friends on an online forum.
“And sorry about the focus,” he wrote, “it was a selfie.”
That was the first recorded use of the word “selfie”, according to linguistic experts at Oxford Dictionaries.
On Nov 19, Oxford Dictionaries declared “selfie” Word of the Year for 2013, in honor of the term having taken over the world thanks to millions of smartphone self-portraits and the resulting shares on social media.
Research by Oxford Dictionaries’ editors found that the frequency of “selfie” in the English language has increased by 17,000 percent since this time last year.
“The word gained momentum throughout the English-speaking world in 2013 as it evolved from a social media buzzword to mainstream shorthand for a self-portrait photograph,” Oxford Dictionaries explained in a news release. “Its linguistic productivity is already evident in the creation of numerous related spin-off terms showcasing particular parts of the body like helfie (a picture of one’s hair); a particular activity — welfie (workout selfie) and drelfie (drunken selfie), and even items of furniture — shelfie.”
So what does the choice of the word say about our culture? Mary Elizabeth Williams, writing in Salon magazine, says the word reminds us that contemporary culture is defined by our narcissism.
Selfies are narcissistic, but so what? An article in The Atlantic Wire points out that the very sort of narcissism that feeds selfies was thriving well before the Internet. Think about painted self-portraits by Van Gogh and other masters. Bookstores, too, have an entire section for narcissism — the autobiography, or “literary selfie”, as it should be renamed for young readers.
Like great works of art, selfies aren’t meant to be looked at solely by the subject, writes Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. However superficial a selfie may look, its purpose is to be transmitted by social media. This is the selfie’s redeeming feature. They may be focused on the self, but they also express a timeless human need to connect with others.
Selfies invite judgment based on appearance alone. What kind of cultural influence does this have on women? Erin Gloria Ryan on Jezebel says selfies teach young woman to obsess over their appearance and judge themselves on the basis of beauty rather than accomplishments. “They’re a reflection of the warped way we teach girls to see themselves as decorative,” said Ryan.
In Slate magazine, Rachel Simmons has the opposite view. She argues that selfies are an example of young women promoting themselves and taking control of their own self-presentation. Think of each one, she says, as “a tiny pulse of girl pride — a shout-out to the self”.