Tuesday, October 22, 2013

News Analysis: My Selfie, Myself

It reminded me of another self-portrait of sorts, one I’ve been watching evolve online of the mysterious Benny Winfield Jr.

I don’t know Mr. Winfield personally, but I’ve seen his face most days for the past few months, in dozens of photographs he shares on the social networking application Instagram. He calls himself the “leader of the selfie movement” and each image is hypnotically the same — his grinning face fills the frame, and is usually accompanied by a bit of inspirational text.

The self-portraits are worlds — and decades — apart. But they are threaded together by a timeless delight in our ability to document our lives and leave behind a trace for others to discover.

“There is a primal human urge to stand outside of ourselves and look at ourselves,” said Clive Thompson, a technology writer and the author of the new book “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.”

Selfies have become the catchall term for digital self-portraits abetted by the explosion of cellphone cameras and photo-editing and sharing services. Every major social media site is overflowing with millions of them. Everyone from the pope to the Obama girls has been spotted in one. In late August, Oxford Dictionaries Online added the term to its lexicon. One of the advertisements for the new Grand Theft Auto V video game features a woman in a bikini taking a photograph of herself with an iPhone. In a recent episode of Showtime’s “Homeland,” one of the main characters snaps and sends a topless selfie to her boyfriend. Snapchat, a photo-based messaging service, is processing 350 million photos each day, while a recent project on Kickstarter raised $90,000 to develop and sell a small Bluetooth shutter release for smartphones and tablets to help people take photographs of themselves more easily.

It is the perfect preoccupation for our Internet-saturated time, a ready-made platform to record and post our lives where others can see and experience them in tandem with us. And in a way, it signals a new frontier in the evolution in social media.

“People are wrestling with how they appear to the rest of the world,” Mr. Thompson said. “Taking a photograph is a way of trying to understand how people see you, who you are and what you look like, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

At times, it feels largely performative, another way to polish public-facing images of who we are, or who we’d like to appear to be. Selfies often veer into scandalous or shameless territory — think of Miley Cyrus or Geraldo Rivera — and at their most egregious raise all sorts of questions about vanity, narcissism and our obsession with beauty and body image.

But it’s far too simplistic to write off the selfie phenomenon. We are swiftly becoming accustomed to — and perhaps even starting to prefer — online conversations and interactions that revolve around images and photos. They are often more effective at conveying a feeling or reaction than text. Plus, we’ve become more comfortable seeing our faces on-screen, thanks to services like Snapchat, Skype, Google Hangout and FaceTime, and the exhilarating feeling of connectedness that comes from even the briefest video conversation. Receiving a photo of the face of the person you’re talking to brings back the human element of the interaction, which is easily misplaced if the interaction is primarily text-based.

“The idea of the selfie is much more like your face is the caption and you’re trying to explain a moment or tell a story,” said Frédéric della Faille, the founder and designer of Frontback, a popular new photo-sharing application that lets users take photographs using both front- and rear-facing cameras. “It’s much more of a moment and a story than a photo.” And more often than not, he added, “It’s not about being beautiful.”

Jenna Wortham is a technology reporter for The New York Times.

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