I was in the middle of my physical therapy exercises this morning when I realized the significance of the selfie. Most people think the selfie is silly, and so did I, until I realized how important a form of communication they were. The selfie has reach the stage of pop-culture success that it’s now the subject of parodies. It’s quite easy to dismiss the selfie as a narcissistic fad, but a flash of insight tells me that the selfie represents a breakthrough in language.
If you typed a text to a friend that said “I am at the beach” it conveys a certain amount of information. But if you sent them a selfie of yourself with a beach and ocean in the background you’re sending them many magnitudes more information. That old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words in quite true, and maybe even an understatement. But the selfie goes beyond beating a few words with massive amounts of data.
Language is a code. It’s symbolic. Pictures are also symbolic. They give the illusion of reality, but they aren’t. But they are far closer to modeling reality than words. And the most important aspect of the selfie is modeling the self – the I. We all struggle throughout life to express ourselves, and we always fail. We neither know ourselves, nor can we describe ourselves. A photo does a pretty good stand-in, much better than words, especially if it also expresses action and place.
If a photo captures an image of our self doing something in the moment it’s very close to expressing where we’re at. Sure it’s not as deep as Proust, but it’s far better than the words the average person can express. Not only does a selfie capture us in the moment, it becomes a much better memory than we can store by chemicals etching our neural pathways.
A selfie of yourself at the beach is proof that you were indeed at the beach, now, to your friends, and to yourself, in the future.
And I think the selfie portends more than that. The history of the human race is really a history of language and information. We didn’t become the crown of creation until we acquired language, but no matter how significant that accomplishment was, language has huge limitations as a form of communication. Think of this way. Let’s say you were at the beach and wanted to tell your grandmother about the experience. You could send her a text, write a long email, call her on the phone, send her pictures or send her a videos of several events of your time at the beach. Which mode of communication gives your granny the best sense of your time at the beach?
What smartphones are doing is allowing us to communicate in two new languages – images and videos.
Sadly, I’m not a smartphone person, or a selfie taker. I live in the old world of words, and I realize I’m being passed by young people who speak in new languages that I have few skills at using. Of course there are limits to every language. Selfies show the outside of things, and even if they can infer a lot about our inner states, they can’t compete with words at expressing our thoughts. I can’t help but wonder for those people who talk in selfies aren’t outer-world oriented. One criticism I’ve read of the selfie is young people feel if they don’t have a picture of an experience it didn’t happen, that a selfie is a kind of proof they really did do something.
This is really a weird concept to explore. It suggests that television and movies have influenced our sense of reality, so that if we aren’t in the picture or the video we’re not there. It suggests our sense of self is shifting from inside our heads to the pages of Facebook, and that’s quite fascinating.
Some people have already begun to think of the selfie as an art form, but I’m thinking the selfie is a kind of language, one that communicates a sense of self, and says a lot about self image. I don’t like my physical image, so I use an ugly dog as a stand in. I see myself in words instead.
JWH – 8/17/14