Another day, another dribble of selfie “news” for the Internet to drool over. Yes indeed, the vice president of the United States possesses a cell phone, and — just like you! — he can hold his cellphone away from his face, select that little front-facing camera icon, and … take a photograph.
At some point, I figure, we have to tire of this selfie fad. But recent happenings would suggest that day is many months away yet.
First there was the Mandela memorial selfie. Then the Ellen DeGeneres Oscars selfie. Then the post-stabbing hospital selfie. The phenomenon has become so widespread that Poynter penned an entire article on it, frighteningly titled “Will stories about selfies save the news business?”
And initially there was some legitimate news value there, right? Back in ye olden days, when self-portraiture represented some sort of novel trend, or when selfies were being deployed in novel, never-before-seen ways that seemed to indicate some larger direction in culture or politics. Back then — and when I say then, I mean like, 2007 — early debates still raged about the narcissism of youth, “selfies” were still called “mirror pictures,” and middle-aged parents would never dream of turning their camera phones on themselves. Scratch that: middle-aged parents didn’t even have camera phones.
Let’s see if we can beat the Oscar re-tweets! pic.twitter.com/hke2BbcUJb— Terry Shipman (@terry_shipman) March 4, 2014
But in the seven or so years since then, “selfie” has undeniably become a part of the cultural mainstream and vernacular — an official dictionary entry, one of Instagram’s most popular hashtags, and a pastime of tourists, celebrities, and heads of state alike. Selfies are, inarguably, no longer “new.” In fact, as my colleague Chris Cilizza wrote — wisely! — just two days ago, they aren’t particularly cool, either, having grown so overexposed as to almost “collapse under [their] own weight.”
But more problematically, given all the media coverage, is the fact that they no longer feel particularly meaningful, either. That isn’t to say selfies, as a mass cultural phenomenon, aren’t interesting — in fact, there’s some fascinating academic research on What It All Means, ethically and anthropologically and historically and pedagogically. But these individual selfies, even when taken by prominent selves, rarely differ in any substantive way from any other type of portrait.
Consider Ellen DeGeneres’ recent, record-breaking selfie at the Academy Awards. (We are not considering the Biden photo, on principle.) It was interesting as a spectacle and a matter of celebrity — a dozen actors and actresses squeezed into the frame. It wasn’t interesting because Bradley Cooper held the camera instead of, say, asking someone else to do it from the same angle. It would be the same picture either way!
Likewise the recent photo snapped by Pittsburgh high school stabbing victim Nate Scimio, showing his bandaged arm in the hospital. It makes no difference, in terms of the photograph or the intentions of the photographer, whether he holds the camera himself or plops it on a tripod. The distinction between the two is totally arbitrary. And yet we keep making it, perhaps because we’re not quite at the point of oversaturation yet — or perhaps because we’re grasping at shallow hints of universality (the president takes selfies! he’s just like us!) or alternately rejecting the same (kids these days and their selfies!)
Whatever it is we’re doing, it needs to end. I propose a new standard for determining whether or not a selfie is newsworthy: it should not only, you know, depict its photographer, but also be some combination of consequential, novel, or telling.
If you’re thinking, “oh hey, that’s the same standard we apply to other types of photos!” — then you get my issue, exactly.