Comment // Culture & Media

A Picture Sells A Thousand Words

The first known official recording of a selfie is thought to have been taken by an Australian drunk, with the term first being used on an ABC forum, posted in 2002. Whilst, technically, selfless have been created by artists for hundreds of years, the term and practice has grown so popular over the last year that even Oxford Dictionary is considering its inclusion to the english language.

But the selfie has not achieved its sudden burst of popularity all on its own, it has had a lending hand from a whole raft of newspaper articles, celebrities and prominent political figures who have all served to make the phenomenon more fashionable. The Daily Mail is the biggest proponent, publishing at least one article every day online.

Mainstream journalists suggest that the selfie is simply a symptom of an ever increasing narcissistic society. Whilst an element of this is certainly true, it is a very narrow minded way of looking at this phenomenon: it does not consider that media is driving this narcissism, and does not take into account the vast amount of information that is being transferred via this means; but then, perhaps that's the point.  

Trends and fashions rarely happen organically these days and so we must first ask ourselves who benefits from this? To find out who could benefit most from this new trend we only have to follow the money. Marketing and advertising companies have certainly been very successful in monetising the information we post on social media sites, but in this case the real currency is information itself. Whilst by no means should we judge a book by its cover, there is no doubt that the way we present ourselves says a lot about us as a person. Everything about us says something about who we are, from the way we dress and keep our hair to the accessories we keep on our person and in our bags; we are effectively wearing our personalities. A photo can show if we are male or female, young or old or even whether we are likely to be conservative or liberal, tidy or untidy, happy or unhappy; the list is almost endless. A series of pictures, say a self portrait uploaded, fecebooked or even tweeted, can tell us even more about people's behaviours because it allows researchers to note trends and behaviours, giving a more in depth look into someones life than, say, one photo.

If we follow the gravy train of information it eventually ends up in the hands of intelligence services, who are ultimately controlled by government, as has been highlighted a number of times by the Snowdens and Assanges of the world. If we take ourselves back to the 40's and 50's of the twentieth century we will find an American Government fascinated by a post-war traumatised society. With their most vulnerable thoughts and emotions brought to the surface, soldiers returning from the second world war were analysed by psychologists in order that the American Government, so they claimed, may understand why people in Germany committed such atrocities and whether it could possibly happen in America. Whether we believe this motive or not is beside the point, the point is the American Government were able to analyse thousands of people who were exhibiting raw human emotion, enabling them to further understand what makes Mankind tick. What they discovered was that thru the trauma of war the subjects had regressed to their most base instincts, emotions, desires and fears that they had experienced in their childhood. The results from this experiment seemed to echo the work of Sigmund Freud who suggested that Mankind was driven by subconscious, and often irrational, primordial desires.

Enter Edward Bernays, the man that invented modern Public Relations and nephew of Sigmund Freud. A weaver of information, this little spider was able to concoct a web using the strands of information he would obviously have gleaned from his Uncle, together with the information being made public from the aforementioned U.S experiment, to market products in such a way that they seemed irresistible to the unsuspecting American people. Bernays suggested that corporations should not be targeting people's rationality --- as to whether a product suited them or not --- but instead they should appeal to people's base desires and emotions: acceptance, happiness, pride, guilt etc. The most infamous of his successes was the campaign to encourage women to smoke in public. To overcome this taboo, Bernays appealed to the rising numbers of libertarians calling for women's liberation. Bernays was able to create the impression that smoking in public was not only acceptable but that it was necessary, if women were to expel the taboos in society which were oppressing them. Smoking went from a fashion statement to a political statement and therefore appealed to a more raw emotion, the desire for liberty. He even coined the phrase 'liberty sticks' instead of cigarettes, and tobacco companies doubled their market in a very short space of time.

But what has this to do with the selfie? The selfie is a further tool to mine and harvest those irrational thoughts and feelings that companies and governments use to manipulate people into buying a product or service or even a political ideology. A quick scan of the average Facebook page will evidence a whole host of irrational thoughts that tell organisations what people are thinking and feeling; the selfie is another layer of that information gathering network. This kind of raw information just hasn't been so readily available before, and now, with the selfie, organisations can literarily see into our lives via a kaleidoscopic picture book of information that demonstrates our behaviours, relations, likes and dislikes. From the way we take the photo, to the types of poses we use, as well as the clothes and environments we photograph ourselves in, selfies can provide a wealth of information for anyone looking in; if one picture can say a thousand words, how much does a series say about us?

Media groups, social or otherwise, are using our basic desire to be accepted by our friends and the greater social world to gather even more information about us. Some may argue that we are taking the picture for ourselves for our own record, and that maybe true if the picture never sees the light of day, but, in truth, we are uploading our personal images to the world wide web so that people may view us and accept us; as is testified by the obsession of gathering thousands of friends on social media sites that many people have, of which there can be little in the way of meaningful relationships. Not everyone craves the same levels of acceptance, and most of us experience it in a healthy way, but every time we are uploading our lives to the social web, looking for that connection with our friends, families and wider world, we are feeding the little spider in the middle of the web who is studying us quietly, for now.

The draw back to a society becoming more obsessed with the pursuit of acceptance is that it will become more self-conscious. Self conscious people spend a large amount of time wanting to conform to an accepted norm and are less likely to dress, look or behave differently from the 'crowd' or to speak out against a status quo, as the Stanley Milgram and Solomon Asch experiments demonstrated in the 60's. The selfie is a very important information tool and should not be underestimated. The selfish, self loathing, self conscious me me me culture is incredibly easy to manipulate and control and will ultimately police itself.

The selfie is preparing us for the brave new 1984 that is coming over the horizon. It prepares us for a world of facial recognition, where we will be monitored by a camera at all times, and for a future where we will be expected to upload information to a group of people we know nothing about in order to update them on what we are doing, where we are doing it, and with whom we are doing it with. The selfie, for all its bad taste and tackiness, is in fact a very well refined tool and a stroke of ingenuity, demonstrating that Man's downfall will indeed be the fascination he has with his own reflection.