For the better part of a year, I’ve been agitated about selfies, trying to articulate what feels so Orwellian about pictures replacing words. I know too many adults who have given themselves over to the selfie revolution. A growing, navel-gazing army of teens is at the front lines of this surge. You know the posture – one arm outstretched so the self-directed cyclopean eye of a cell phone tastes an experience in order to broadcast it.
It’s hard to be in the world these days without witnessing a selfie in the making.
At our house most technology is considered poor company for sitting down to eat, engaging in conversations, reading, doing homework. Cell phones, computers and tablets are not invited to join us at these times, and this rule is largely true when the kids have friends over. We’re mean parents and expect our kids and their friends to actually hang out together, use real words from their mouths, and also maybe some eye contact. Our kids are pretty accomplished at live conversation.
Still, I know when they leave the house the story is different. Owen’s received a few alarming selfies of girls scantily clad. One poor girl repeatedly photographed and texted “I Love You” spelled out with a variety of objects — chocolates, candy canes, Goldfish crackers. I know about these photos because I check. A lot of parents don’t. I’m heartsick that for these girls, no one seems to be discussing self-respect and appropriate use of technology, and probably all sorts of other things too.
More to the point, though, too many teens are free to use their devices without boundaries or guidance. The result, it seems to me, is the crafting of a whole culture of self-consumed, image-obsessed, instant-gratification-seeking citizens. Immediacy of everything is king. Waiting of any kind is bad. I worry about the fate of the good, hard work of face-to-face social interaction and conversation. What about companionable silence? What about the art of doing one thing at one time? What will happen to these important skills?
It’s hard to say.
Now is the time of year for retrospection. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word selfie has been so important to us culturally it’s 2013’s word of the year. This sort of thing makes me feel I was born in the wrong time, and also feeds my sometimes unease that perhaps I’m just not seeing the world clearly. I mean, if everybody’s doing it, maybe it has some merit. Maybe if I did IT, I would like IT. Growth and change mean moving out of one’s comfort zone, after all.
Back in October, I decided I’d do a whole day of selfies, dawn-to-dusk. First, I had to figure out my platform. I wasn’t willing to have an Instagram or Snapchat account just for the sake of research, which probably means this wasn’t a valid experiment from the start. But I was willing to text, so I enlisted my friend Heather. We agreed to text each other all day to see if we could crack the code of what made selfing so attractive.
The next morning, my alarm rang at o’dark-thirty. I used my phone alarm, so I could take a picture of myself still in bed, in the dark. I picked it up and realized two things: I had no idea how to use the camera directed the wrong way –where was that button anyway?– and also that I’d never taken a picture of myself. Ever. I HATE having my picture taken, which is plainly obvious in any picture with me in it.
John rolled over and pushed me to get out of his sleeping space. “I know what you’re doing,” he said. “It’s stupid. Just don’t involve me.”
“But don’t you think it’ll be an interesting sociological experiment? It might help us understand Owen better.”
“Get out of bed now, please.”
In the pre-dawn light, it occurred to me John was right. What I’d signed us up to do was, frankly, kind of lame. While I fumbled with the phone, thinking about calling it off, Heather texted a picture of herself waking up, so I went to the bathroom and took a bunch of pictures of brushing teeth.
Because we couldn’t help ourselves, we also used lots of words, mostly about how foolish it felt to snap pictures of things like our ablutions. Well, not all of them, just the ones involving teeth.
So the day began.
Heather’s two hours ahead of me. One photo of brushing teeth is plenty. Here’s one of her feeding the birds. Look how excited she was to be involved in this research. We were crushing it.
There was get-the-paper selfie. Drink-some-coffee selfie. Start-some-laundry selfie. Take-the-kids-to-school selfie.
Another trawl through the interwebs informed the heap of options I’d already decided against taking pictures of: my hair (a helfie), my backside (a belfie), my workout (a welfie, also called a gym selfie), my drunken stupor (a drelfie), and a funeral (a felfie?).
I opted for a kiss-a-beer selfie (my carrot later in the evening for doing this stupid experiment).
Running-with-the-dog selfie. Maybe this qualifies as a welfie, except with no abs or mirrors –the rules about this one seem shifty.
The dog-swimming-with-my-face-in-one-corner selfie.
Each time I snapped a photo, I texted it right away. Waiting for any kind of reply was excruciating. Sometimes Heather took a whole twenty minutes to respond. What the hell was she doing anyway, that she couldn’t make a quicker response? Our experiment was serious business, social science. Part of the deal was immediacy, because waiting is stupid. I worried whether she’d aborted the mission, whether her heart was in it, whether she was offended by my zeal or thought my pictures were stupid. Later, in our debrief of the experiment, we discovered we’d been doing the same thing — snapping many pictures but not sending them all, worried that the barrage of photos would be annoying, anxious that we were overdoing it, ill at ease with completely embracing the selfie way of shouting PLEASE RESPOND TO ME. I guess we’re not very good scientists.
By eleven that morning, I was running out of ideas. I tried a duckface-gangster selfie, except mostly I looked deranged. I mean, what grown woman pretends to be a gangster?
I sat down to get some work done and took some pictures of that. (Don’t zoom in and read the words; I had to murder those darlings.)
Then I tried to concentrate, but it was hard work because right next to me, the phone was silent. What was she doing anyway? An hour later I took another picture of myself working, texted it again, and tried to concentrate some more.
Heather sent a picture of herself doing the same thing, and also, because she was running out of ideas, some words about why teenagers do stupid things in photos. It seemed clear that when you’ve got your finger on the trigger all the time, OF COURSE you run out of material.
On a break from work, I googled selfie again and found an article by Alexandra Siferlin in TIME, “Why Selfies Matter.” Siferlin suggests parents who are gripped about selfies need to unhinge themselves. (Oh dear). Selfies are just part of growing up in the digital age (shit). What counts is to teach kids what KINDS of selfies are acceptable. And then the article tacks south and basically says that selfies can be dangerous because:
A: Kids don’t understand what’s an acceptable thing to take pictures of, even when you tell them (but hello, neither do plenty of adults. I’m talking about you, Anthony Weiner).
B: Selfies often make kids feel jealous and lonely when they see their friends doing what LOOKS like fun, and they are not. This leads to risk-taking, potentially of the naughty kind.
And so, the jury’s out, maybe, still, on how all this digital stuff is shaping the next generations.
Back to the experiment, more hours passed. All my pictures of working looked the same, so I stopped taking them until I left the house and had an experience worth documenting.
Later that day there were more driving-in-the-car selfies while I picked kids up from school. A man in the car next to us at the stoplight caught us being idiots. He shook his head and scowled. When the light turned green, he sped up and cut me off.
Heather sent a driving-in-the-car selfie also.
Back at home, Riley and I perfected the blowfish selfie.
Then we did some yoga and took pictures of ourselves doing downward dog. I can’t show those photos here because, in addition to our faces, the photo captures everything down the front of my gaping shirt. Sharing them would violate our household acceptable use policy about privacy. Our drumbeat of advice for the kids goes something like this: Remember that there’s no privacy anymore. Your technological presence is a PERMANENT DIGITAL RECORD. Let us be the voices in your head when you’re out in the world. Also, while we’re on the subject of out in the world, remember that GENITAL HERPES can ruin your lives. Please keep your pants on.
But. I digress.
Like so many I see around me, I went through my whole day without letting the phone out of my sight. Just in case there was a message responding to my message. By dinnertime, I was weary of the mission, sick of myself and horrified by how much getting an instant response from one person had come to mean over the course of twelve hours. What would happen if I expanded my recipient list? Would I begin to move through my days, starting every sentence with I and forgetting to ask people questions about themselves? If I practiced this kind of relentless self-focus, would my frontal lobe leave my body, pinging around like a pleasure-seeking UFO that couldn’t find the mothership?
While dinner cooked, I flipped through a smutty magazine and enjoyed that carrot beer. John came home and caught me snapping pictures of myself engaged in these two activities.
“Jesus. You’re not really doing that are you?”
“What? It’s research. Come over by the fire and we’ll selfie together. Although maybe if we’re both in it, we would dualie…”
“Oh great. Now it’s a verb.”
Once John was home, I couldn’t experiment with the same verve. It felt dirty somehow. We ate dinner, and I left the phone in the other room, though I confess I did flirt with hiding it under the table in my lap. Afterward, when I checked my texts, Heather had sent along a half-asleep-on-the-couch-and-goodnight selfie.
I took a last picture and sent it, quickly, while John announced from the kitchen that he was turning his phone OFF for the night and suggested I do the same.
Honestly, I needed someone to be the heavy and make some rules. I was exhausted.