It’s generally our attitude here at the Intersect that “selfies” are overhyped, over-discussed and kind of just over, overall. As such, we try our best to avoid talking about them. But every time we believe other people have joined us on the post-selfie train, some politician, celebrity or other notable goes ahead and posts a group picture or a picture someone else took under the selfie moniker. And the crowd goes wild!
@TheStalwart wait are we really king to let ″selfie” be any picture of a person by themselves? I politely decline.— Ben Dreyfuss (@bendreyfuss) June 17, 2014
@TheStalwart Must be an intern on duty, right? RIGHT?!— Kelly Kuhn-Wallace (@KKDUB) June 17, 2014
Can a selfie be called a “selfie” if it contains people besides oneself? Must the “self” in question take the selfie? What is a selfie? What is a self? Why are we all here anyway?!
… you get the idea.
In an attempt to settle this contentious debate once and for all — and thus to avoid further discussion of selfies, for the indeterminable future — we put together a poll on the subject and invited Internet-savvy humans (particularly social media editors, marketers and other Internet professionals) to fill it out. Our goal was this: to come away from the whole experiment with a concise, definitive definition of the “selfie” — who it includes, what it signals, which photos do and do not qualify.
Alas, the issues are not that simple! To paraphrase the more philosophical of our 45 respondents, the word “selfie” is a linguistic catch-all: a convenient word that’s rolled out to describe a range of portraits, from duck-faced photos teens take of themselves to unusually intimate snaps of politicians and celebrities. Its etymology — and that essential root, “self” — would suggest it should only apply to self-portraits of single individuals. But then there’s the matter of agency. Of intent. Of composition, even.
After all, aren’t the outstretched arm and the self-conscious smiles the most salient selfie signals, in modern, day-to-day use? Don’t the tone and intent and faint whiff of narcissism still hold, even if you have a bystander to take your photo? And not to get too abstract here, but can’t a group of people, all intentionally posing for an outstretched iPhone, be said to take a selfie of their collective self?
“Does it really matter?” Rejoined Mary Miles. (In the grand scheme of the universe, no, probably not.) “But in all seriousness … a group photo still depicts ‘selfs.’ ”
Or here’s New York University professor/oft-quoted media theorist Clay Shirky: “Selfie is a reaction to agency, not merely to appearing in a picture.” In other words, the definition varies a bit based on whether the secondary people in the photo are also subjects, or more like props — think of a tween selfie-ing herself with One Direction in the background. Further in that agency vein, many respondents argued that it matters less who takes the photo, and more who broadcasts it. No one could agree, for instance, if the photo at top was Bradley Cooper’s “selfie,” since he held the phone, or Ellen’s, because she tweeted it.
Then again, maybe we’re overthinking it. (Scratch that — we’re definitely overthinking it.) When all the votes were tallied, there was indeed a consensus: Regardless of who’s in the photo, the majority ruled, only the person physically holding the camera(phone) gets to call it a “selfie.”
Tab-savant Rusty Foster summed up the prevailing sentiment up this way: “I mean, ‘SELFie.’ There has to be a ‘self’ involved, right?”
As for what we should call other self-portraits/group-portraits that do not meet this narrow definition, the crowd agrees that “photo” would suffice. (“If we don’t draw the line somewhere, it’s only a matter of time until we start referring to portraits as ‘otheries,’ ” wrote the Verge’s Adi Robertson, “and everything will have to be set on fire.” Amen.)
Although I also like Davin Kolderup’s suggestion of “gruppenfoto.”
“German is usually better,” he points out. From your mouth to Merriam-Webster’s ears, Davin. We’ll be using that terminology on this blog from now on.