When I discovered that the expert lexicographers of the Oxford Dictionary had chosen “selfie” as the word of 2013, as the best possible distillation of all the accomplishments by the six billion inhabitants of planet Earth, as the sum total of all of the staggering scientific discoveries and provocative, ingenious artworks, of all the dizzying glory of capitalism and touching altruism of the charitable; when I learned that all of this splendour could apparently best be represented by hastily-taken, poorly-composed, crassly narcissistic photos of ourselves, I wanted to punch myself repeatedly in the face.
And then take a photo of it for Instagram, because I too live in 2013.
If a picture speaks a thousand words, then a selfie offers a detailed denunciation of our technology-saturated, narcissistic society. My general revulsion with selfies approximates my increasing doubts about the value of social media, even as I progress beyond the 20,000 tweet mark and continue to collect and engage with Facebook friends.
It’s not the sociability that makes me cringe – in fact, I find that comforting. Technology tends to alienate its users from human contact with one another, and there’s no putting that e-genie back in its web-based bottle, so we might as well take advantage of technology’s ability to keep us connected. And I find the endless stream of other people’s photos of babies and food and babies eating food bizarrely soothing as it washes over me like the gentle waves in those holiday photos everyone posts of the one day it didn’t rain during their holiday in Bali.
The problem I have with social media is how much we value it. Literally, in the case of the recent valuation of Twitter. 99.9% of all tweets are utterly banal, surely – I know mine are – so when you package them up together you have a gigantic mound of banality, the greatest ever produced by humanity. And somehow the sheer scale of this gargantuan, wobbling mound of banality is worth something due to its sheer size and comprehensiveness.
It’s though you packaged together the entire contents of the world’s refuse in the one giant landfill and somehow convinced the stock market that its sheer scale somehow rendered it valuable.
It wouldn’t surprise me if all the tweets and Facebook status updates generated in any average day would exceed 1000 times more words than were contained in the contents of the Great Library of Alexandria, and be 100,000 more times more deserving of disappearing in a huge inferno.
But while tweets have some worth as an aggregate proxy for what the world is thinking about, even if that is Justin Bieber a perplexing proportion of the time, the sum total of the selfies of the world offer very little. Perhaps it might offer future generations an insight into the fashions of our day – certainly it will offer an insight into our endless, facile fascination with ourselves. But mostly it will offer endless examples of the gormless grin and definitive proof that for millions of people, Derek Zoolander’s “blue steel” wasn’t so much a work of satire as an instructional manual.
What will happen to all of our terabytes and terabytes of storage? Will anybody bother to preserve them once we’re dead? The average smartphone-equipped person will take tens of thousands of photos during their lifetime, and while their offspring might select a handful as mementos, surely most of them will never be seen again.
Whereas I can hardly glean any information about my forebears from the few severe, posed portraits that I’ve seen of them, we are at risk, for the first time, of generating far too much information about ourselves. Whereas our ancestors are tantalisingly mysterious figures, if anything we risk boring our descendants witless. (Apologies in advance to any foolhardy offspring of mine who decides someday to read these columns.)
So if the selfie represents us – and I fear it does – then surely there is very little that can be said in our defence. While this particular set of selfies tells a compelling story about the 2013 election campaign, it also tells us how little Kevin Rudd’s acknowledged mastery of social media mattered. His huge number of Twitter followers as opposed to Tony Abbott’s, it turned out, was not a proxy for votes.
There’s nothing especially wrong with selfies, of course – in moderation. Sometimes they can be a fun record of a moment. But they’ll never be exhibited in a portrait gallery, or indeed looked at ever again more than a few days after their creation, when they’ve dropped off everybody’s feed. The problem comes when we treat things that are inherently disposable and valueless as though theymeant anything. Selfies are like the Police Academy movies – there’s a great many of them out there, but they amount to precious little.
Which is why they’re the perfect proxy for social media and the perfect proxy for this age, in which the value of articles like this one is established by the number of page views, “Likes” and tweets, not by whether they’re objectively any good.
By all means photograph yourself and share it online. But let’s not kid ourselves that our candid snaps mean much except to us, in the instant of their creation. I like the tweets I’ve written over the years, but I am well aware that they’re of next to no value next to the lengthy pieces of writing that I’ve put considerable time into. Depth, not abundance, and consideration, not haste, is what generally creates enduring value.
And if you think I’m lecturing you, I took a selfie of myself lecturing you, because I want to value-add to this article and make it a transmedia property. Because that’s the stuff that matters most in 2013. Even if I’m far from convinced that it should be.
Dom admits to taking several selfies lately, but only to chart the progress of his Movember moustache. You can donate here.