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'Selfies' choice: Word of the Year or sign of the Apocalypse?

November 19, 2013|By Jon Healey
  • In this photo from Sept. 21, 2012, Kim Kardashian is surrounded by fans attempting to take photos of themselves with her as she leaves a radio station in Melbourne, Australia. England's Oxford University press declared "selfie" the word of the year for 2013 on Tuesday.
In this photo from Sept. 21, 2012, Kim Kardashian is surrounded by fans attempting… (Mal Fairclough / Associated…)

It's hard to predict which new technologies will catch on with the public and how people will ultimately use them. Such was the case with the forward-facing camera that manufacturers added to cellphones, presumably to support video calling. And some people, I'm sure, do use it for that. But for most people, the camera's main purpose is for self-portraiture.

That is, "selfies."

The practice has become so widespread, the venerable language arbiter behind the Oxford English Dictionary named "selfie" the 2013 Word of the Year, beating out "twerk," "binge-watching" and "showrooming," among other signposts of the Apocalypse. An assortment of best-selfie lists popped up, celebrating the work of such selfiends as Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and Lady Gaga.

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In a way, the selfie is just a more convenient way to do something people have been doing for as long as they've had cameras. Instead of asking a stranger to snap a photo of them and their face-painted pals at the Insane Clown Posse concert, they can just turn the phone on themselves.

But for many, that convenience unleashed an inner Narcissus. For others, it provided a way to document their life to an unprecedented extent -- a record of what they did, where they were and whom they were with, creating a stop-action motion picture of their lives.

And so selfies proliferated, and new technologies came along to tap the mirror-gazers' enthusiasm. Snapchat, which lets you give someone a peek at a photo before it's destroyed (unless, of course, that person finds a hack that preserves it). Instagram, which can bathe your selfied visage in warm hues. Vine, for selfie videos. (I know, I know, all of these apps have other uses too.)

I wouldn't argue that the arrival of these technologies has made us more self-centered or superficial than the generations that came before us. If our parents all carried devices with front-facing cameras, they'd probably be just as selfie-obsessed as we seem to be. The difference is that folks of today's generation don't print pictures and toss them in an album (or a shoebox); they post them on Tumblr pages and blogs and Facebook and Twitter, so the pictures will be seen and shared.

And then the pictures get collected and reposted to establish a meme, such as selfies at funerals, selfies at serious places and selfie fails.

Perhaps that's proof of the selfie generation's unbridled exhibitionism/voyeurism. There's no small amount of that among the real and wanna-be celebrities waging continual PR campaigns with selfies. But for the average self-memorializer, the Internet isn't a way to show oneself to the world, it's just a way to share a moment with your friends -- even if, in retrospect, it would have been better not to.


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