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Selfies: The overly digitised narcissist norm in modern communication

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From Banjul to New York, people’s love affair with selfies keeps on growing as they use self-portraits on social media to express feelings of happiness, sorrow and disappointment. The word itself is new and assumed its place in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. Its timing highlights in the most dramatic matter, people’s increased dependence on self-portrait photographs to communicate. The technology space has also been struck by its ubiquity as smartphone owners all over the world go about snapping pictures of themselves in parties, places of worship and of work to express themselves. It soon became a romantic realm which researchers now suggest is doubtless an integral part of communication in our modern societies. The advances in technology have been seen as both a cause and consequence of it. And not surprising, the use of self-portraits does not only ease communication but has also stoked to a new height, the self-esteem of many young people who have had communication issues. 

Self-portraits may be far from a modern invention but many people who have been positively affected by technology are growing increasingly comfortable taking, sharing and posting selfies on social media. But the use of selfies in communication remains largely unexplored particularly in the developing world where the good promise of technology has still not fully delivered. In the midst of this self-portrait craze, experts say an important aim of it all is to give meaning to a person’s actual feelings thereby substantiating his or her credibility. This argument perhaps continues to convince millions of internet users on social networking sites to take as many pictures or self-portraits as possible. Even when they are not necessary? Yes! Millions of internet-savvy people now see it as a fanciful way of communication in order to send the cue ball rolling in expressing themselves. 

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Clearly, this norm is opposed to the conservative ways of communication using just words. Today, even modern-day Shakespeares may not squander their eloquence in words because the technology space has been harmonised to include self-portraits. One can now express one’s view or feeling using only a selfie without necessarily using words. It further adds that it has echoed the mood of optimism in information and communications technology relations. Today’s internet users are now suitably suggestible in every human expression and nuance. The subtle scene-change of expressing one’s personal experiences and feelings through the panorama of photographs has notched up other points of interest regarding the daily lives of people. According to experts, many young people in the developed world are now known for taking self-portraits – the selfie 16 to 20 times a day. Alone or with friends, they would smile or make a goofy face and share most of them on photo-messaging apps such as Instagram. Even if selfies are as ancient as technology itself, it has to be said that snapshots are surging across social media platforms. On Instagram, millions of photos tagged #selfie, or millions tagged #me can be seen everywhere. There are countless others without the identifying hashtags. 

There is no unknowing of the fact that all of these underscore the new directions that communication has taken and in a fast moving technology-driven world. In many parts of the world, the appreciation of these new communication ethos including the use of self-portraits has for good measure matched the global optimism that surrounds technology and its positives. At best, even the intangibles of life such as love, joy and happiness that are the really good but really elusive ingredients of life have gained prominence with the use of selfies. Others include bitter, disappointment and gloom. 

Also, on Snapchat, it has been estimated that users exchange more than 200 million photos and videos a day. These are particularly popular among teens and tweens, and image-obsessed celebrities like Justin Bieber and Rihanna now do it for a living. Regardless of whom you ask, selfies are either the latest form of self-expression or portraits of narcissism. But every now and then, people acknowledge the total absurdity of selfies. One self-proclaimed fan of selfies whom I met at a local club simply put it in this way: “Selfies are so stupid, but then I’m sitting here taking as many as I can.” And yet the growing popularity of selfies has suggested something beyond frivolous self-aggrandising. It has hinted at a rapidly growing preference for online conversations that prioritise images over words. In stark terms, there is now a new bond between smartphones, social media and selfies. 

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“Our smartphones have front-facing cameras for a reason. It’s to take pictures of ourselves,” said Ramatoulie Gaye, an avid selfie snapper. “People want to share pictures of themselves and what they’re doing.”


Influencing technology

Apple, one of the heavyweight technology companies in the world introduced the front-facing camera with the iPhone 4 in 2010. This was the same year the photo-sharing social network Instagram was born. Then, in 2012 came Snapchat, which exploded in popularity in the developed world and some parts of the developing world as users traded photos that then vanish. Also, video-sharing app Vine was launched in early 2013 without the ability to record through the smartphone’s front-facing camera, only to add that feature in a later update. All these technological advances have greatly democratised communication. Simply put, when snapping a picture or video is so easy, and there are so many social networks on which to share them, why not? “They’re funny and they make me smile and I can remember the moment later,” said Ramatoulie. “It’s definitely a way of expressing yourself and putting yourself in a light that you can control.” Yet that focus on image online, especially among young teens, has some worried about a self-absorbed society. This may be because there are a lot of mixed messages about selfies. After all, research from Harvard University showed that social media users get a bigger neurochemical buzz from sharing information about themselves than sharing information about others. Some of the researchers at the very centre of this explanation do not see any harm in selfies. They think that people have always liked to see themselves in photographs and sought approval from others but understand why some people recoil at the sight of so many self-portraits.


A picture says a thousand words

While there are plenty of pictures posted with the goal of getting “likes” for a cute outfit or new hairdo, experts say the onslaught of selfies is changing the way we communicate. Some would pose the question why text “I’m happy” when you could post a picture of your smiling face? “An image is a much more powerful means of communication,” Ramatoulie said. “We’re becoming more fluid with text and images supporting one another.” Snapchat, in particular, is one among the many social media that pushes communication through images. The photo is front-and-center, and users can choose to add a short caption or doodle on the image before sending it. Fewer words, more pictures. Because the photos disappear (for the most part) in 10 seconds or less, it’s less about looking good and more about conveying an authentic moment. “It’s a fun way to talk,” said Lamin Camara, 26, of Ebo Town, a regular snapchat user. “It’s just kind of cooler because you get what they’re saying more.” Selfie optimists say the snapshots are a quicker, often more effective way of sharing information. Such selfie taking, it seems, is contagious. And as the world advances far down the technology road, information, even personal, without a ‘Selfie’ would be just like a newspaper report without pictures which may undermine its credibility. It is equally compelling to state that these modern ways of communication will continue to evolve and people’s attachment to or detachment from them will be clearly manifested in profound regards. 


Lamin Njie is a sub-editor at The Standard newspaper.


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