Selfie Culture: Vanity or Power

Student uses a selfie stick to take her own picture.

By Sara Jones
Snagging a photo of the Mona Lisa sans iPhone obstruction is a difficult feat these days. Maneuvering through the halls of the Louvre can be hard as it is, and with the array of portable technology, people aren’t the only thing you have to squeeze by.

Howard Ehrenfeld, professional photographer and professor at Maryland Institute College of Art and The Johns Hopkins University, has experienced this environment when he traveled to France. “First off, the Mona Lisa is in a very long, long, cavernous room. There’s a crowd around it and everyone’s holding up their iPhones. It’s almost like nobody’s really even looking at it except on their screen,” he said. Some people took regular pictures of the Mona Lisa, but of course many others wanted a selfie.

Tourists swarm the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Photo courtesy of Howard Ehrenfeld.
Tourists swarm the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Photo courtesy of Howard Ehrenfeld.

As a professor of photography he has observed the rise in popularity of selfies amongst his millennial students. And as a professional photographer, he has mastered the art of selfie-taking in a way that has given him an insight to the cultural phenomenon.

Ehrenfeld and his teaching colleagues first noticed the increase in selfie-taking in amongst photography students at multiple universities between 2011 and 2012. He has always assigned “selfies” to his students. In the past, however, before the term “selfie” was coined, he called them self-portraits. These portraits could be literal or figurative. For example, he described, “You don’t have to appear in the picture, actually, if you can justify that it’s a self-portrait. So if you can take your bed, and spread out all of your things, but first, you get up in the morning, and here’s the impression of your body in the bed, you know, and the covers are crumpled around you. And then you line your possessions around that, this would sort of represent yourself without being seen in it.”

The human tendency to want to record one’s existence goes back to the beginning of time. Even before the existence of cameras, people who could afford a portrait had one made to pass along to their ancestors. But because these portraits were so expensive to commission, they served not only as a record, but also often as a symbol of power and wealth. Today, with the rise in popularity and affordability of the camera, some culture critics say there seems to be less importance given to what we are taking pictures of.

The first self portrait on record, taken by Robert Cornelius in 1839.
The first self portrait on record, taken by Robert Cornelius in 1839.

Selfie history in photography has been traced all the way back to a man named Robert Cornelius. He is the earliest known self-portrait photographer and reportedly took the first “selfie” in 1839, 12 years after photography was invented. Cornelius took the photo using a technique called daguerreotype, which required an impractically long exposure time of 3-15 minutes. Although no reason for this particular self-portrait is known, archivists at the Library of Congress have dubbed Cornelius a pioneer of this method and of the portrait photography field.

Fast forward over a century and the first ever phone with a front-facing camera was put on the market. The Sony Ericsson Z1010 was released in 2003, a flip-phone that, while revolutionary, was not enough to spur the selfie culture that exists today, according to But when the highly popular iPhone 4, was released in 2010 with a front-facing camera, the selfie really took off.

Writers at Digital Information World have tracked the history of the selfie through various online platforms. The hashtag #selfie was first used in 2004 on the social media platform Flickr. Between 2012 and 2014, the use of the word selfie in vocabulary increased by 17,000 percent globally. Tech Info Graphics estimates that 1 million selfies were taken each day of 2014, and, according to a study by Samsung, 30 percent of photos taken by people ages 18-24 are selfies.

In Ehrenfeld’s professional opinion, there are four key steps to take good selfie. Step one: “Look at the millions of selfies posted to the web and think about what you like and what you hate. This is a great place to start.”

After you’ve figured out what you like, he recommends thinking about the conceptual content. “Have an idea of what you want from the selfie. Here I am in front of this grand thing? Here I am traveling? Here I am? Knowing this should help you create what you want,” he said.

The next step involves finding the best position for good lighting.

But it’s the fourth step that’s most crucial: “This part gets subjective. Try to make it as natural as you can. Don’t give an artificial smile. The best selfies I’ve seen come from people who are looking at the space and lighting they want to capture and thinking about how they fit into and take advantage of the angles, the shadows, how they merge or contrast with the other objects in the space. This doesn’t have to take long. Just look at the bigger picture.”

But still the question arises – why do people take selfies? Are we taking selfies to represent ourselves or for different reasons? And why has the action become so embedded in our culture that we feel the need to document the most commonplace events in our lives? According to Ehrenfeld, “It’s just probably the addition of a certain amount of banality, and then the ability to be able to really do it fast. So I think that’s what’s changed, not the, you know, intention. We’re always taking pictures of ‘here I am,’ but I think the thing that’s changed is the idea that everything is important.”

The discussion about this culture shift is not limited to the worlds of art and technology. In other corners of the country, philosophers have been weighing in on how selfie culture might relate to issues of identity. Philosopher Jana Mohr Lone, PhD at the University of Washington and president of PLATO, Philisophy Learning and Teaching Organization, is an expert on adolescent self-expression. She spoke recently about the controversial rise of selfie culture, stating, “I don’t know if it’s contributing to a narcissistic society or [if it] is a manifestation of it.”

Mohr Lone thinks that there are troubling aspects to the focus on self-promotion that selfie culture creates among adolescents. As adolescents craft these images, they may develop a fear of displaying their authentic self. These issues, in Mohr Lone’s opinion, are present in such a widespread way because of the culture that has developed around selfies.

She also stressed that selfie culture is not so new. Mohr Lone explained, “It’s a new way of it being manifested through the access to technology. But teenagers in particular have been looking for external confirmation of their identities, their ways of seeing themselves, for decades.” In the past, she noted, adolescents sought this kind of confirmation by asking one another how they look. Now, to a certain extent, they have replaced that kind of interaction by reaching for their cell phones.

According to Mohr Lone, selfie culture makes the need for external confirmation of one’s identity more pronounced. Adolescents, and in particular teenage girls, become immersed in a culture that is constantly giving them feedback – and not always kind feedback. She says this shift to focusing on superficial, self-promoting representations, rather than on what we truly do in the world, troubles her.

Not all views on selfies are critical, however. In fact, selfies are being used in the teaching profession as a tool for metacognition, or the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. Cynthia Merrill, a literacy consultant doing research with teachers in the Washington D.C. area, talked about her investigation of selfies and the power she believes they hold. Merrill facilitates the professional development of teachers and school districts administrators across the country. Her goal is to strengthen their literacy practices. She is also the founder of Selfie Center, a program dedicated to integrating technology into the literacy and content areas of education.

She has discovered that selfie culture is pervasive even in the classroom, and that kids understand what a selfie is as early as elementary school. As a researcher, Merrill has been considering selfies as a method for monitoring oneself: “You specifically want to put that selfie out there to get the most likes. So, the teachers I work with and I began to toy with the idea of what it would look like if we began having kids talk about what they’re thinking at the Selfie Center.” Her students use iPads and are instructed to record themselves talking about their reading and writing.

Merrill and her colleagues have seen the kids monitor themselves in a much deeper way through the use of iPads and self-recording. “At first, you know, some of the kids were going over making faces and being silly, and then suddenly it just turned into them saying really profound things. Some of them even became confessional,” said Merrill. Using selfies as a method of self-reflection, her students began approaching their schoolwork in a deeper and more excited way. Seeing this kind of response, she and the other teachers began taking stills of the videos and using them as prompts for the kids and their thinking. “It’s really powerful work, and it’s been really well-received,” Merrill said.

In response to the idea of selfies creating an environment of narcissism, Merrill stressed, “I think the thing to be aware of is that selfies are a representation of yourself… it’s the way we want people to understand us. And so, in my mind, that stretches way beyond being narcissistic, because it’s inviting in an audience. In my mind, it puts you in a position of power.” Merrill sees selfies as an important way of both considering and controling how one is perceived by others.

Still, despite these positives, selfie culture continues to be the focus of controversy. In recent months, major public institutions have made headlines by announcing bans on selfie sticks, one of the most popular selfie-enhancing devices on the market today. The Smithsonian, which recent banned the sticks, released a statement stating it was “a preventive measure to protect visitors and objects.” Whether the issue with selfie sticks is purely a safety concern is unclear.

Music festivals Coachella and Lollapalooza, have also banned the devices – though Coachella’s ban was markedly pointed. The festival recently released a list of prohibited items for its 2015 show that included “No Selfie Sticks/Narsisstics” – clearly a statement on the controversy surrounding selfies and narcissism. Experts have pointed out that in Coachella’s case, the selfie stick ban is likely less of a safety concern and more of a courtesy to the attendees who are actually at the festival to enjoy the music.

In early 2015, it was rumored that Walt Disney World also banned the sticks, but it turned out to be a false alarm for stick enthusiasts when the devices were only banned from rides.

Still, the selfie stick industry does not yet seem to be affected by the increasing bans on the product. Mark Leonard of ProMaster Selfie Sticks responded to the ban, stating that the company is not concerned with the ban and will continue to sell the devices for as long as there is a demand, which he says currently remains strong.

Despite differing opinions on the selfie culture, the reactions to selfie stick bans by philosopher Mohr Lone and Selfie Center founder Merrill are quite similar. Mohr Lone, a critic of selfies, responded to the ban, stressing that it is important to consider what one seeks at events where selfie sticks are used, such as concerts and museums. “You know, why do we go to museums? Why do we go to concerts? Certainly it seems to me that a venue has every right to say, ‘we don’t want photographs,’ for example. So it seems reasonable for a concert venue to say, ‘no, we don’t want this at our shows.’ I think at this point it’s a challenging thing to do, because it’s come pretty far,” she elaborates.

Merrill, an obvious selfie proponent, commented as well, stating, “I think for places like the Smithsonian… it’s more about being present. You know, that when somebody has a selfie stick, clearly it’s a safety issue, but the other part of it is being present with the people that you’re with, and that you experience the moment that you’re having. So, in my mind, we can ban all of these selfie stacks and we can say, ‘please don’t take selfies,’ but the reality is that it’s about presence.”

Merrill said that she does not think that using a selfie stick is a bad thing, however, comparing the critics of selfie sticks to those critics 75 years ago that said we shouldn’t be watching TV. Because this is pathway of the evolution of our digital society, she believes that instead of banning devices like these, we have to understand how people are experiencing things in very different ways now – and one of those ways is through all of our technology.

“We can embrace that and recognize that we’re going to have all of these lenses that we can look through – and those lenses offer us this opportunity toward understanding – or we can say, ‘oh I hate that,’ ‘don’t do that,’ ‘let me be the first person to take the photo.’ That’s more narcissistic. But the message is, those [lenses] invite multiple viewpoints, and that’s what the selfie does in my mind. You’re putting something out there, and you’re basically asking people to have an opinion on it, and I think that’s pretty powerful.”