The self-portrait or ‘selfie’ has established itself as a modern form of self-expression for everyone. But is it also a sign of self-obsession?

It starts with a certain angle: a smartphone tilted at 45 degrees just above your eyeline is generally deemed the most forgiving. Then a light source: the flattering beam of a backlit window or a bursting supernova of flash reflected in a bathroom mirror.

Snap! Afterwards, a flattering filter is applied. Outlines are blurred, colours are softened, and a sepia tint soaks through.

All of this is the work of an instant. Then, with a single tap, you are ready to upload: to Twitter, to Facebook, to Instagram.

Your image is retweeted and tagged and shared. You are “liked” several times over. It’s addictive. Soon, you repeat the whole process. This, then, is the selfie: the self-portrait of the digital age.

How did it start?

It was not until the invention of the compact digital camera that the selfie boomed in popularity. On a digital camera, the image could be easily deleted if we didn’t like the results. But it was the introduction of smartphones — most crucially the iPhone 4, which came along in 2010 with a front-facing camera — that made the selfie go viral.

Obsessed with ourselves?

To some, the selfie has become the ultimate symbol of the narcissistic age. Its instantaneous nature encourages superficiality — or so the argument goes. One of the possible side-effects has been that we care more than ever before about how we appear and less about the work we do or the way we behave off-camera.

Indeed, although many people who post pictures of themselves on the internet do so in the belief that it will only ever be seen by their group of friends on any given social network, the truth is that the images can be viewed and used by other agencies.

Rebecca Brown, a 23-year-old from Birmingham, believes her penchant for selfies is neither degrading nor narcissistic. “That’s like saying if you write a diary or an autobiography, you’re self-obsessed. Not necessarily. A selfie is a platform to share who you are.”

Nothing new

Human beings are social animals and have long been driven by the need for approval — albeit on a smaller scale. The desire for a pictorial representation of the self goes all the way back to early handprint paintings on cave walls more than 4,000 years ago. In a fast-paced world, it could be argued that the selfie is simply a natural evolution of those hands dipped in paint.

Maybe even a good thing!

A selfie can, in some respects, be a more authentic representation of beauty than other media images. In an article, psychologist Sarah J Gervais wrote that: “Social media offers a quiet resistance to the barrage of perfect images that we face each day.

Rather than being bombarded with those creations... we can look through our Instagram feed and see images of real people — with beautiful diversity.”

You can use digital technology to manipulate your own image as much as you like. But the truth about selfies is that once they are online, you can never control how other people see you.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013


  • 2005 The term “selfie” is first used by Richard Krause in “how to” photography guide.

  • 2007, February A user of the photo-sharing site Flickr creates a group called “selfie shots”, defining selfie as: “a photograph of oneself in an arm extended posture. not to be confused with a photo of oneself in a mirror or other reflected surface.”

  • 2010, June Apple release the iPhone 4 which features a very basic front facing camera.

  • 2010, October. Instagram is launched, reaching over 100m active users by April 2012. Since it’s launch more than 23m photos have been uploaded to the app with the #selfie hashtag

  • 2012, June Selfie joins the Oxford English Dictionary’s watchlist of words for possible inclusion.

  • Ask yourSELF!

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