Alicia Eler’s new book is called The Selfie Generation, but it could just as well be called The Selfie Moment. It captures the ambiguous promise of this particular point in history, when selfies are the coin of the online realm. Where is all that virtual currency piling up?
Just as important as what the book is, is what it’s not. It’s not a jeremiad against supposedly solipsistic millennials. In fact, it’s in large part an answer to that narrative, a critique of the knee-jerk assumption that selfies are for the self-absorbed. On the other hand, Eler isn’t a digital utopian; she’s deeply concerned about the risks inherent in putting our personal photos in the hands of tech giants and whoever else might come upon them in the vast online realm.
It’s also not a visual guide to the selfie, although Eler is an art critic and has been referred to as a “selfie semiotician.” In nine thematic chapters, Eler explores different aspects of our online lives in the era of the front-facing camera, an era that just began in earnest several years ago. The word “selfie,” we learn, was only coined in 2002 — meaning we were spared any controversy over 9/11 selfies.
There have, since, been furors over funeral selfies and Auschwitz selfies. The former are more defensible than the latter, but in challenging the notion that selfies are just for fun, Eler complicates the conversation around when and where it’s appropriate to snap a self-portrait. In a chapter on selfies and the news, Eler mentions the “last goodbye” videos from Aleppo, shot by people whose lives were in imminent danger. Suddenly, selfies are at the heart of so much that’s meaningful, for so many reasons.
Of course, there are still plenty of selfies that are ill-advised, either for aesthetic or more fundamental reasons. A “killfie” is a selfie that gets you literally killed, generally because you took it in a dangerous place (train tracks, skyscraper, waterfall). Supposed killfies with sharks seeming to be in mid-bite have been hoaxes, but there are plenty of perfectly safe “sealfies” (selfies with seals). Have you ever taken a “belfie”? That’s a selfie of your butt.
A pre-breakup belfie can become revenge porn, one of the most timely and sensitive topics Eler discusses. At least with Instagram and Snapchat there are explicit terms of service, even if you don’t read them. An intimate shot sent to a lover is part of a much more informal agreement, and only now are laws starting to catch up to the need to impose penalties on those who disseminate nudes without the consent of the subject.
The fact that many of these explicit shots are selfies has opened a maddeningly obtuse thread of responses to revenge porn and photo hacks. Yes, Jennifer Lawrence took those nude photos of herself — but no, that doesn’t mean she shares responsibility for having them stolen from her iCloud and posted on the internet. When it crops up in that context, selfie-shaming feels like the latest iteration of victim-blaming.
In that respect and others, selfies are part of a much broader cultural conversation. They’re also part of a much wider world of online expression; Eler quotes Ruth Peyser (mother of writer and dryly ironic selfie-slinger Eve Peyser) calling a tweet “a verbal selfie.” The point is that whether or not you’re actually sharing a photo of your face (or your butt), when you create online you’re volunteering information about yourself as part of a complicated and evolving transaction with your viewers/readers and with the third-party services that get their hands on your content along the way.
While the potential perils are obvious, so is the potential promise. Eler discusses selfie-snappers who have used their image as a point of pride (perhaps finding much-needed validation where it’s not forthcoming from family members), who have turned selfies into political acts (with or without actual ballots included), and have generally used their front-facing cameras to assert their investment in the people, places, and causes that matter.
At the top of this post, that’s my selfie with The Selfie Generation — and yes, that’s an endorsement. It may or may not mean as much as a 700-word review, but it’s more likely to get your attention. Hi!