In Defense of Selfies

Snapchat’s resident sociologist talks selfies, screen time, and our obsession with authenticity

Photo: Steve Gale/Unsplash

DDissecting the exploits of social media photographers has become a new national pastime. Just this week, Vox reported on influencers chartering a tour to a beautiful Arizona canyon on an Instagrammable rite of passage, and the New York Times chronicled models flocking to a Siberian chemical waste dump for the perfect lakefront shot.

This comes just a few weeks after Twitter lit up with a misleading, now-deleted tweet shaming people who snapped selfies at the Chernobyl disaster site. That post triggered a viral pile-on from celebrities and journalists and rabid fans of then-one-month-old HBO miniseries Chernobyl. And years before that, the public dogpiled on a group of girls who posed for selfies at a baseball game. Somewhat predictably, outlets regularly publish takedowns every time a new made-for-selfie locale pops up. (Of this I am also guilty.) All the hissing and fussing signals a common dynamic: If you’ve got a selfie stick, beware — the internet’s a got a pitchfork.

Look at these morons, I remember thinking.

The hostility with which readers treat these selfie-takers is vicious, but also relatable. During a recent hike, I came across a glossy selfie shoot, plum in the middle of a remote wilderness. Look at these morons, I remember thinking.

My self-righteousness is echoed in op-eds warning us about our social media use and an increasingly inward gaze. Selfie culture represents a generation abandoning real life, pundits say, and selfies are commonly associated with inauthenticity and narcissism. Pop sociology books shoot up Amazon’s rankings by promising to point us back home, offline, “in the moment.” It is there, the story goes — away from the shared photos and performative updates — where we finally return to our true selves.

“What a ridiculous state of affairs this is,” writes Nathan Jurgenson in his recent book The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media. “The idea that the selfie has corrupted our authenticity,” Jurgenson argues, “is part of a larger misunderstanding that takes anything digital to be distinct from real life.”

As a sociologist at Snapchat and Editor in Chief of Real Life, a magazine about living with technology, Jurgenson aims to disabuse us of the notion that “real life” and “online” are discrete realms, of which the former is inherently more authentic. He spoke with me about that false distinction and the general hysteria around selfies and smartphones. Our conversation, conducted over email, has been condensed for length and clarity.

OneZero: Recently we saw people on social media get dragged for taking selfies at Chernobyl. What is behind the impulse to shame people who take a lot of selfies, or who take selfies at places where we think it inappropriate?

Nathan Jurgenson: One of the things that dominate popular discussions about photography today is the impulse to shame. To start with the obvious: Camera phones are fairly recent and incredibly ubiquitous additions to our social landscape. They rearrange our environments and behaviors, and our norms and etiquette are trying to catch up. People can be annoying or rude or harmful with anything, so, yes, rude people are rude with their phones. But we should also ask, what behaviors are the social platforms incentivizing? So much social media is designed to operate like a game to maximize scores.

The Chernobyl-selfie thing seems overhyped, but we can think of other examples of behavior people get upset about: treating yourself as a “brand,” treating other people and the world as mere fodder for growing that brand, forcing the rest of us to see such obvious marketing within spaces that could otherwise be used differently (talking to friends and family, for example). Metricized platforms encourage seeing your self, your experiences, and your world not in and of themselves but to be put to work, to be made productive. But I would hesitate to lump taking selfies in with these antisocial behaviors.

“I think the breathless cries of ‘narcissism’ around selfies says more about those commentators than the selfie-takers.”

Perhaps we like to think that identity just happens, that our selves are “authentic,” and so seeing someone pose and perform for the screen makes us a bit insecure about our own social performances. In any case, I think the breathless cries of “narcissism” around selfies says more about those commentators than the selfie-takers.

Do social photos take us “out of the moment” and reduce places to commodities?

It depends on the context, the device, the platform, the specific use, and intention. If I am using a platform that is centered on metrics and numbers and I travel just to get photos that help me “win,” then the camera and platform are being used against the goal of experience for its own sake. But I do not think that documentation is inherently at odds with experience. If I am exploring a new city and see something that reminds me of a friend, and I snap it to them and we talk about it, that might be a removal from my moment in a geographic sense, but a deeper engagement of that moment in a social sense.

One of the ways social photos are different from traditional photos is the degree to which they are not just about documenting and recording an experience, but about sharing an experience. This can bring more people into a moment, which isn’t a degradation.

Did the technology and ubiquity of social media create the impulse to constantly share? Or did our impulse to share precede it, precipitating the technology to come about?

The simplest answer is that the impulse to share is deeply related to the audience you’re given. Social media greatly changed the potential audience for just about anything. I think that’s the biggest variable for why people take so many photos today.

I also think that the rise of ephemerality and small-group sharing has changed why and how much we share. As I argue in my book, photography has moved from documentation to something that more closely resembles talking.

For example, there’s a cup of coffee next to me right now. It would make for a boring photo by traditional photographic standards. But it would make for a perfectly acceptable social photo, and there are many ways I would snap it: to indicate that I’m at a specific cafe right now in case others want to join, to let someone know that I am still working and writing, or to simply be a canvas on which to play with various filters or augmented reality objects.

The cup of coffee isn’t just something I am documenting and sharing, but something I can speak with. This understanding of the world as something to speak with greatly changes what, when, and why people might “share.”

What do you make of the trending idea that says disconnecting or dieting from screens and social media is beneficial to our health?

I’m skeptical of treating all screens the same, the content on them the same, or simply using “the screen” as the analytical object to create diets or morality around. These questions should revolve around what is happening on the screen, where the quality matters as much or more than the mere quantity.

But I get it. If I need to write or edit something longer than these answers here, I usually get away from any Wi-Fi. I love camping, and hiking, and isolated cabins, and road trips away from screens as much as anyone, but I also love having a million tabs and chats open, bouncing between lots of screens and information at the same time. I’m not always looking to be “mindful” and self-obsessive about how much to look and not look at a phone, because that, ironically, can make the phone even more present in its regimented absence.

I’m not along for this “digital health” trend, not because their worries about tech are wrong (they are very well-placed), but because I don’t think we should look at what we do with screens like how a doctor observes a body.

But what do we do with [screens]? They are how we present our identities, talk with family and friends, are part of romantic relationships, or how we learn and talk about the news. I don’t think there is an objectively healthy or correct way to do any of this. And I don’t trust anyone, no matter how much “big data” they have, to be the neutral doctor-like arbiters to diagnose ways of talking and knowing and being as “sick,” and to prescribe some sort of change to make us “normal” again. I think this movement is often well-intentioned but has begun in an unhelpful, perhaps even dystopian and scary, way.

From op-eds to surveys, it has been said that if you’re looking at a screen, you’re missing out on “real life.” But you propose that this way of thinking is misguided. Why?

I coined the phrase “digital dualism” to describe the idea that there’s a “real life” separate from a “virtual world,” one being material while the other is digital. When I first started studying the internet, this is the assumption I saw everyone making.

But everything that happens on the screen is composed of real people, with real bodies, politics, insecurities, and vulnerabilities. People also sell the fiction that if you just turn off the phone, “authentic” reality is waiting for you, but that life is still mediated by non-digital forms of information and technology. Even if you log off, the ways the internet has shaped you, others, and the world still lingers. There is nothing that is purely natural and untouched. I think that “real life” is what happens both on and off the screen.

Hal is a writer and editor living in Chicago.

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