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Self vs. Selfie

There’s a lot more to life than what a camera can capture, no matter how good the pixel quality

The philosopher Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” So what does that make the millions of people who reflexively fire off dozens of selfies to social media sites every day? The world has certainly gained more knowledge since the time of that eloquent philosopher, but the abundance of data all around us might quietly be having an adverse effect on our collective wisdom.

Just as a person is much more than a corporal body, the self is far greater than a simple image. But just as billions of people can freely operate their bodies without understanding the intricacies of the human psyche, there are many people across the world who enthusiastically admire themselves without possessing any understanding about who they really are. But perhaps their attempts to fit such a lofty concept into the space of a hastily snapped image and present it on the unrestricted forums of the Internet is an attempt to find themselves or even create a new personality. Snapchat filters might not be the most conventional way to change yourself for the better, but conventions in our age seem to be more like suggestions than rules, anyway.

There’s no denying that the selfie culture is an important part of the modern mindset. Initially it was a mere buzzword used by older generations to criticise the narcissism of their successors, but it has now pervaded every aspect of our lives. An estimated 93 million selfies are posted online every day — a staggering number that clearly proves just how widespread the ritual has become.

Staple of life

No longer a simple craze that stems from a creative inversion of a camera’s operating principles, the selfie has become a staple of many people’s lives, carried out as an instinctive action that commemorates almost every occasion. Is your cab stuck in traffic? Take a picture of yourself in the middle of the chaos, with extra points for a lazy caption that condemns society. Does the scenery atop a building look good? Swing around and flash a wide grin as you lean against the edge and preserve the memory, prioritising the width of your smile over the security of your life. Are you feeling particularly bored at any point in the day? Try uploading a picture of yourself online and reading the comments, happy in the knowledge that you’re providing a bit of entertainment for both yourself and an online audience.

Public transport, college lessons, rainy days, sunny days, midnight, daybreak, mountain ranges, tattoo parlors, birthdays parties, grim funerals, national summits, bathroom breaks, random conversations — there’s a selfie for almost every event. Things have come to the point where the taking of a selfie is an event in itself, carried out with great seriousness. Positions are taken, expressions carefully affixed, the camera raised carefully to solidify the moment, and then a thumb descends on a button to add yet another selfie to the infinite virtual archives of this world. From there, it may be modified, uploaded, saved or deleted.

Seeking reactions

To some, the mere act is sufficient. To others, the reaction is more precious than any jewel. The thought process behind rampant selfie-creation might not be too sophisticated, but the process itself is far more advanced than it seems. The selfie in today’s world is far more than a simple picture. It holds a deeper meaning, even if the people involved don’t actively realise it. It conveys information, condenses identities into snapshots, gives off a sense of familiarity and at the same time enables a person to create a portrait of themselves that’s completely different from the real thing. Is it any wonder that they’re so popular today?

Why do we take selfies? A person in another era might’ve wondered the same thing as they witnessed hundreds of people preening themselves before mirrors. The eyes of a human being can process a great deal of information, but looking inward is one thing they can never do. From the day of your birth to the hour of your death, there isn’t a single occasion when you can witness yourself without relying on a reflection or technological device of some kind. It presents a strange sense of irony: the person you’re the most familiar with in this world is undoubtedly yourself, and yet you lack the capability to form the most basic of visual connections. The bodies that people inhabit and regularly use have always been something of a mystery to them, and so mankind has attempted throughout the ages to concretize the concept of a ‘self’.

We form mental portraits of ourselves and experience a multitude of feelings, adjusting our features and sometimes even our ways of life in radical ways, all on the basis of a reflection that we’ve never even had the chance to truly see. Although we ought to be the ones who know ourselves the best, we obsess over other people’s opinions, as if their ability to see our faces allows them to understand us better than ourselves, as if the shallow opinions they offer can somehow supersede our thoughts and beliefs.

Defeated by vanity

The dumb, lifeless images in our mirrors and phone screens somehow seem greater than us, and so we frantically struggle to alter ourselves in a bid to exert some measure of dominance over that elusive, mocking mirage. And thus we find ourselves defeated by shallow vanity, feeling pained by the image in a pane of glass and taking great efforts to turn the illusion into something pleasing. But people often forget that a mirror doesn’t really display what you are — it merely reflects a picture of your appearance. And while they might seem similar, there’s a world of difference between those two concepts.

Although it might seem that selfies help document our lives, the truth is that we’re so obsessed with the process of preserving our experiences that we forget to enjoy them. Emotional investment gives way to force of habit, and the value of genuine human relationships decays even as we’re exposed to a barrage of portraits from an ever-expanding circle of ‘friends’. Numbly scrolling through an infinite feed, pulling at the refresh button like scratching an itch to pass the time, robotically typing out a slew of comments to fulfil some bored sense of obligation and using those carefully curated images to form pictures of other people’s lives in case anything happens to capture our attention for more than a half-second, even as we try to present ourselves as far happier and more interesting people than we really are — such is the icy heart of our synthetic reality.

The frame as prison

Just because everyone does it, just because someone offered you an online compliment, just because it gives you something to talk about, to think about, to constantly do in order to fill up your time. Even as the memories of those commemorative images fade to nothing in a storm of repetition, even when you feel sick of it all, even when you know you ought to stop caring, there’s that one post or that one event that convinces you to dive back in. Obsessed with the image on your phone screen, you’ve turned the frame into a special kind of prison.

This is the end result of an overindulgence in the selfie culture — thirsty for validation in an ocean of snapshots, you give in to the exhibitionistic narcissism that ironically depends completely on what people think of you. You let those comments and posts define the entirety of your world, immersing yourself in a deceptive world that waits for nobody. Striving to adjust your image to match that of self-styled icons, fixating on shallow exteriors, measuring your worth as a human being by the number of times your compatriots stab their fingers down at a ‘like’ button.

People do bizarre things to gain attention, resorting to everything from intentionally offensive statements to self-mutilation, all in a bid to get someone to care. Some kill themselves if they don’t get enough approval, while others spiral into irrational depression after their lives fail to meet unrealistic standards. Your personality is forced through filters to seem more appealing, just like a real-life version of the apps you’re glued to. Your sense of self is certainly different from what you display in a selfie, but if your entire world starts to revolve around an endless stream of images, then can you really claim to have anything deeper left?

Some positives

It would be foolish and barbaric to condemn all selfies as being evil. Some help promote positive body images and values, while others genuinely facilitate communication. Selfie activism is a commendable practice that’s becoming increasingly popular as people convey their personal experiences and feelings in ways that help the society. Some perfect the process of taking selfies into fascinating and stimulating works of art that work as the polar opposites of the low-effort snapshot, and selfies certainly make it much easier to preserve precious memories for decades to come.

There’s really nothing wrong with admiring yourself and taking the effort to improve your appearance: humans have been attempting this for centuries before the camera was ever invented. The benefits of any technology will always outweigh its drawbacks, just as long as it’s used and implemented in rational ways. It’s only when a person’s reliance on a certain device turns into an all-consuming habit that issues arise, but in this age of convenience and opportunity, the threat of excess always looms high.

The practice of taking selfies is not inherently flawed, but people who live only for the next selfie might find themselves unhappy and unfulfilled in the long run. They must realise the importance of looking forward instead of inward, of creating new memories instead of forcibly recording them, of adjusting their attitudes instead of their accounts and of setting their own standards instead of seeking self-affirmation from others.

There’s a lot more to life than what a camera can capture, no matter how good the pixel quality may be. Don’t insult yourself by acting like your entire existence can be defined by a simple snapshot. Move past the boundaries of that two-dimensional cage and transcend your limitations, because the joy that comes from truly believing in yourself brings a greater happiness than any like counter on a social media site ever will. And if you happen to succeed, then there’ll be no need to depend on selfies anymore, because the people of this world will gladly pay attention to you.

xavieromenezes@gmail.com

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 6:50:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/self-vs-selfie/article24780830.ece

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