Selfie – snapping a picture of yourself, largely for egotistical purposes – is the Word of the Year for Oxford Dictionaries editors. The frequency of its usage has increased by 17,000 per cent over the past 12 months.
Frankly, I’m not wholly trusting in Oxford Dictionaries’ scientific methodology as they also shortlisted “schmeat”. You know? Schmeat? The slang term for man-made, in vitro meat? No, of course you don’t. Schmeat isn’t “a thing” this year, but “selfies” definitely are. In fact, historians will look back at 2013 and note that in the UK, during a time of financial woe, youth unemployment and mass disenchantment, the buzzword of the year described the cheap, pocket-friendly pastime of staging a picture to look like a fantasy version of oneself. Cheeks sucked inwards. Zoolander pout. Biceps flexed. Boobs spilling from frock. Tits and teeth. Maybe with one arm round a minor celeb whom you just accosted and who couldn’t swat you away #goodfriends #soblessed.
In 1993, if you went to Woolworths three times a week to sit in the Foto-Me booth snapping pictures of yourself pulling “The Fonz is Cool” poses, your ego would have been the stuff of local legend. Now, a selfie-a-day is unremarkable. I sat in a bar recently while one friend took a dozen separate pictures of themselves in the toilet as “it was such amazing light”. We take selfies without irony, sans shame, posting the results online as bait in the great murky cyber-sea. We fish never-endingly for compliments, comments… indeed any feedback at all. Maybe just a Facebook like? A little Instagram regram and a new surge of followers. Anything – please God, anything – which indicates we were bathing, remotely, momentarily in another human being’s gaze.
We’re living through an age where a crucial aspect of public socialising is a little private party with oneself – staring at one’s phone – editing, colour-filtering, posting. Also, interestingly, we’re living through an age where people see harvesting celebrity-selfies as some sort of human right.
Because how dare anyone refuse such a request? I watched Cher walk through a room recently and she had to wrestle-off determined fans – frothy-mouthed, enveloped in red-mist – to have their “Look at me with Cher” selfie. I’m sure X Factor’s Rylan in Superdrug would have the same effect. “Let me gather all these people in my famous-person-selfie stamp collection!” we pant, groping the stars and making them grin.
Nowadays the selfie-with-starring-role – not just celebs, but anyone deemed good for social climbing – is an optimum tool for repositioning one’s brand on Planet Earth. Many perfectly mediocre people elevate their careers via a campaign of hustled selfies masquerading as #myclosefriends. Of course, the opposite of the social ladder selfie is the antagonistic selfie, aimed not to impress but to infuriate. “Yes, I am out with your rival!” it says, “And look! We’re cheek to cheek in selfiepose and we’re laughing like larks! How many fucks do you think I give about how you’re feeling? That’s right! #nofucks.”
By and large, though, the snapping and posting of selfies is a way to avoid our own thoughts. One reason that we sit with smartphones glued to our hands is so that, each time a difficult thought enters our brains, the distraction is literally at our fingertips. Thoughts like, “I need to load the dishwasher” or “How will I feel when my mother dies?” or “Why am I alone at Christmas?” or “Can I afford to replace the grubby stair carpet”. With a new selfie to post, and feedback to monitor, the pain is averted. Selfies are a mindless act available every time we need to be mindful.
Being mindful of difficult emotions, sitting with them, letting them torment you for a bit, and then working out solutions, used to be how human beings got stuff done. In the 21st century, organisations like Headspace, or David Lynch and his transcendental meditation chums, work hard to convince us that 10 minutes a day of just thinking, eyes shut, without laptop, without phone, is doable. Just a short time without thinking: “Guys! How do I look? Do I look better today than yesterday? When you notice me what do you think? I’ll take any feedback, stay tuned for another selfie.”
In 2023, I can’t help thinking, the happiest people will live several days a week away from their phones. And they won’t need selfies to prove that they are happy.