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Is it time to rethink the way we view selfies?

A graphic of two women taking a selfie. (Pixaby: Jayr_Jayr)

Narcissistic, vain and self-indulgent, or a tool to document time and culture?

Selfies have copped a lot of flak in the past few decades, but their staying power is such that a permanent selfie museum is about to open in Canberra.

So is it time to put to bed the idea that selfies are a tool for self promotion, and finally accept that they have a lot more to offer?

Popularised by celebrities and amplified by access to technology, the humble selfie has come a long way since the term first appeared on the internet some 20 years ago.

And the way selfies are used and shared has changed over this time, too.

Selfies can be used to document places and events, and to share experiences, says Dr Eagar. (AAP: Mick Tsikas)

Dr Toni Eagar from the Australian National University's Research School of Management has spent a lot of time studying the selfie, at one time analysing 5,000 of them over 10 days.

She says the images have indeed moved past their narcissistic label, to become just another way of communicating.

"People can use selfies to show [themselves] in the best light possible, which is why you get these debates around narcissism and external validation, versus it being a form of documenting people's lives," Dr Eagar says.

"Social media is a communication tool. And we don't necessarily put things on social media just for upvotes and likes or whatever rating tool the platform is using.

Dr Toni Eagar, an expert in consumer behaviour at the ANU. (ABC News: Jordan Hayne)

Dr Eagar says selfies "tend to be lumped in with a bunch of research on social media itself, around the dangers of people relying on external validation for their own self esteem".

"Whereas, because I come from a much more sociological background, [I look at] what narrative purposes selfies have in our social media usage," she says.

Some of the latest research on selfies from the Unites States found that more than half of adults surveyed, aged between 18 and 29, had shared a selfie on social media, with the report's author saying selfies were "a mechanism to facilitate self-exploration".

"People tend to take selfies frequently, and lots of different people take them. Some have suggested that people who take selfies might be more narcissistic, but our research suggests that's not necessarily the whole story," Eric Koterba told PsyPost.

Actor Chris Hemsworth obliges fans for a selfie as he walks the red carpet during the Thor: Ragnarok Australian premiere. (AAP: Regi Varghese)
Thanks to modern technology, taking a good selfie is easier than ever before. (Flickr: Koelnblogging)
Taking selfies to be seen by people you know is part of sharing experiences. (Getty: William West)

In other words, putting selfies into a narcissistic box and throwing away the key is just too simple.

"All consumption tends to serve dual purposes," Dr Eagar says. 

"Trying to say that it's just one thing or the other tends to be like a false dichotomy."

A way of documenting life

Not to brag in a story about narcissism, but the use of the term "selfie" was first detected in 2002 in a post on an ABC Online Science forum.

In 2013, selfie was named Oxford Dictionary's word of the year, and nowadays, there are now over 465 million public #selfie posts on Instagram alone.

Despite their proclivity, Associate Professor of Social Science from the University of Canberra Dr Michael Walsh says that part of the reason people feel uncomfortable with selfies is because they blur the boundaries between public and private lives.

But for those who simply do not know life without the internet or smartphones, selfies are an easy way to share their lives with those around them.

Selfies even exist in space: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide took this selfie during a six-hour, 28-minute spacewalk in 2012. (NASA)

"Younger people [are] much more familiar and comfortable with taking images, sharing with your friends, showing them, capturing them for later on, whereas I think people from an older generation might be less inclined to partake in that elevation of the visual," Dr Walsh says. 

"I think some people look down on selfies, there does seem to be some judgement attached to the genre, but I think that's a bit of a hot take, which doesn't really actually allow us to understand their significance.

While most selfies do end up on social media, they're not necessarily being uploaded for strangers to view.

More often than not, any pictures we take, including selfies, are shared with people we already know, whose lives we are already part of.

"You can think of things like Snapchat and other kinds of social media applications … it's more about an intimate sharing with people that you know, rather than just chucking something up on Twitter, where anyone is sharing," Dr Walsh says.

"You are just sharing with your Whatsapp group — I did this today, and here's a photo of it."

Shannon Thompson takes a selfie at the coast. (Supplied)

That notion rings true for Shannon Thompson — in fact, selfies are the only way he documents his life.

"I pretty compulsively take selfies," he says.

Shannon Thompson in one of his many selfies. (Supplied)

"I have my phone in my pocket all the time, so if I'm wearing a silly hat or something, or hanging out with friends, I'll use it.

"I've been taking selfies ever since I first got an iPhone, which is getting on to 15 years now. 

Shannon Thompson selfie. (Supplied: Shannon Thompson)

"I don't really think about it that much, I just take selfies kind of whenever and wherever.

"I think I do it more for myself. I think it's hilarious. I like looking through my feed."

Shannon says many of his selfies are of the "mundane" — him sitting in his car, or waiting for friends at a cafe.

"It's usually just when I'm by myself, chilling on my roof or going for a walk," he said.

"Occasionally I'll take selfies with other people and post them, but it's usually just me. 

Despite having an Instagram account dedicated to his selfies, Shannon doesn't share all the pictures he takes, he doesn't create captions, and he doesn't pay attention to the likes.

"This year I cried a lot, so I have a lot of crying selfies. I haven't posted any of those," he says.

"I use it as a way to remember what I'm doing — I don't trust my memory all the time."

Shannon in a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Supplied)

All about that face

Shannon is onto something — the idea that the face can communicate what a person is thinking or feeling has existed for centuries, with origins rooted in art.

"Selfies are no different to other forms of communication that people have used through history," Dr Eagar says.

"The Dutch masters did portraiture and it was all about rich people who would get paintings done of themselves, obviously making themselves more beautiful than they actually were, but also displaying certain key objects that they owned, that represented their wealth and status.

"The key difference [is that] you can't just upload portraiture from the 15th century to Facebook."

Model Miranda Kerr takes a selfie at the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, on photo sharing app Snapchat's Wall Street debut. (AP: Mark Lennihan)
Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is thought to be a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo. (AFP)

In his 2016 paper on the topic, Dr Walsh calls the selfie "a contemporary form of self-portraiture".

"Despite the increasing popularity of the selfie, the practice of 'taking a selfie', in terms of self-photography and self-portraiture, has a long history," he writes.

"The ubiquity of digital technologies – smartphones, digital cameras and so on – has had an inexorable impact on the proliferation of this mode of digital self-portraiture."

But while technology might have modernised the self portrait, the focus on the face has remained — and for good reason.

Close up of a face (Pixaby)

"It is through the face we know the world and read other peoples' intentions," Dr Walsh says.

"The human face is the greatest instrument of communication that individuals use throughout everyday life, revealing thought, feeling and emotion.

"[Today] the face is the same thing that's being recorded. And it's still a portrait, so it is quite interesting in that respect."

What's going on around a person's face can provide important social commentary, too.

Selfies can reflect everything from fashion trends (like the return of the middle part) to travelling habits (solo holidays are growing in popularity) to political affiliations (from both politicians and voters alike).

One only has to look at the vaccine selfies of 2021 as evidence of the social commentary a selfie can provide — suddenly, people who had never taken a selfie before in their lives were posting on social media feeds with their sticker, lollipop and hashtags, and seeking to mobilise others.

"I think [selfies] reflect the feelings and thoughts of society, like any type of visual media does.

"But I also I think they can represent a kind of statement about how people feel about the world that they live in. And this where the parallels obviously come quite strongly with art."

Naomi Watts posted her vaccine selfie in April, commenting "So glad to have finally got my jab … In this together!!" (Instagram: Naomi Watts)
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took a selfie with the nurse who gave him his COVID-19 vaccine and posted it on Facebook. (Facebook)
Vaccine selfies were taken up by people across the world. (Twitter: Antoinette Radford)

'It's always been valuable to have nice photos'

And so, we find ourselves in 2022, with a permanent Selfie Museum opening its doors for the first time in Canberra, alongside institutions like the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery.

As far as creator Chris Krajacic is concerned, the museum has been "a long time coming" — so much of our lives are spent online, and selfies are an extension of that.

"Simple visual images say a lot more and are a lot quicker to digest."

Chris believes selfies have now become less about looking perfect, and more about shared experiences — and his museum is designed to be enjoyed and explored by groups.

"The example I normally use is the places we used to go to where you could dress up and try to replicate those sort of like 1920s and 1930s photos," he says.

"So this isn't really that different from that. The concept has been around for a very long time."

Remember these? Cameras have come a long way since Kodak's 2004 digital camera offering. (AAP: Robert Cianflone, file photo)

What is new, though, is our ability to take a really good photo.

"Not even that long ago, a proper professional camera easily cost $3,000. But now, everyone has a close to professional camera in their pocket," Chris says.

"So it's just much more accessible and everyone can take these high-quality photos with their phones.

An installation at the Canberra Selfie Museum. (Supplied: Canberra Selfie Museum)

Selfie Museum is also about art — 35 installations have been designed by local Canberra artists, specifically to be great backdrops for a picture.

"This has been a big creative project [and] just something fun where you can build lots of different little sets," Chris says.

A wall of butterflies t the Canberra Selfie Museum (Supplied: Canberra Selfie Museum)

"A lot of the installations do have a very strong basis in an art installation that you'd see in a museum or contemporary art space, and then sort of mixes that with 'let's have fun and pose in these awesome backgrounds'.

"We've got an English phone booth with a flower walls, we've got a bath with a ball pit inside it, we've got 630 ducks stuck to the wall.

An installation at the Canberra Selfie Museum. (Supplied: Canberra Selfie Museum)

"This is a space for people to just come and have some fun.

"It crosses the boundaries between art installation and interactive experience."

Dr Walsh says he understands the appeal of a selfie museum, especially considering it is tailored towards people who have never known life, or art, without a camera phone.

Dr Michael Walsh from the University of Canberra (Supplied)

"It's part of why the selfie makes a lot of sense in that context. I can see why people would like to do that," says Dr Walsh.

"Commissioning artists and other craftspeople to produce these backdrops I think will entice people to come along have a look, and share the [selfies] too. I think it's positive in a lot of ways."

Pics or it didn't happen

The sheer volume of photos generated from something like a selfie museum, also shouldn't come as surprise to us.

Because photos generally are so easy to capture in contemporary culture, Dr Walsh says the currency of photos has changed.

Ralph Kenke and Elmar Trefz's "Selfie Factory" won the National Portrait Gallery's Digital Portraiture Award in 2017; Trefz said "the discourse on how the virtual social media world impacts physical real society is highly relevant and barely understood". (Supplied: National Portrait Gallery)

"Rather than having that one image that is the one that represented me when I got married, or when I bought my house, it's less about the keepsake [now] and more about communicating more generally what's happening in my life," he says.

"It's kind of like a slightly paradoxical thing because we take lots of photos, and it's just a way of documenting life.

With the sharing of selfies so ingrained in our lives, it makes sense, then, why being unable to share them can actually spoil an experience, rather than enhance it.

"It's that old saying, pics or it didn't happen," says Chris.

In a 2019 study into sharing on social media conducted by Dr Walsh, 12 participants were sent to the Jamala Wildlife Lodge in Canberra and divided into two groups.

One group was not allowed to post their experiences on social media, and the other group had no restrictions on sharing photos.

The study found that when images — selfies and otherwise — are not shared in real time on social media, it negatively affects the way people feel about the experience.

"I sort of feel like if we don't share the photos it's like a tree fell down in the forest and no one heard it. We've had this amazing experience and if I don't share them, then no one’s going to know that we had this experience, you know, apart from us," one participant, Michelle, said.

"For me personally not being able to post was a negative experience, because I wanted to show people what we're doing, when we're doing it."

Being able to share your holiday experience is part of the selfie's appeal (Supplied: The Margaret River Discovery Co.)

That desire to share a selfie from an experience isn't bad in and of itself. Whether the selfie is shared in the moment with a "Look what I'm doing!" sentiment, or more carefully in a #photodump at a later date, the ability to share is appealing.

Of more concern, according to both Dr Eagar and Dr Walsh, is making sure you're taking the picture at an appropriate time and place, and that you're respecting other people's privacy while doing so.

If the desire for likes becomes an obsession, it might be time to rethink your social media use. (Pixaby: HaticeEROL)

But if you do find yourself down a rabbit hole counting the 'like' tallies and carefully curating your pictures, Dr Walsh says a perspective check is key.

"It comes back to that question of the extent to which one seeks out affirmation purely through these means and only through these means," Dr Walsh says.

"But I don't subscribe to the notion that, by definition, [selfies] are problematic. It's an easy gripe about the role of photography in the digital age." 

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