The Curious Case of the Selfie

I spent the last couple of weekends on the shore of Lake Superior, taking advantage of dropping off and picking up the kid at camp to get mini-vacations in. We’re not having a vacation this year – too many medical appointments and catastrophes keeping us busy at home. So we take a night here or there, even splurging on a hotel room with a balcony view of the lake. It didn’t go as planned – these moments never do. The trick, I’ve discovered, is to find those moments in between all the disrupted plans.

canstockphoto1492996As usual, I popped awake at 4 a.m. I made my coffee, grabbed a blanket, and went out onto the balcony. Orion was hanging low in the sky over Lake Superior and a full celestial buffet of stars stretched out beyond the harbor lights. On the ground, two floors below, there were rabbits. At one point, I counted about a dozen of them. It was an odd thing. The grass along the lake walk trail was stubbly and mowed short. But the rabbits seemed quite content to hop between patches of grass. A few even explored the rocks on the shore. Seeing an eastern cottontail standing on a large rock near the lake was sort of funny. I wonder what it thought of the expanse of water.

The night before, I sat, like a creepy spectator, watching people traverse the shore. Humanity observed. A gaggle of teenage girls gathered under a light and took turns taking pictures of each other. Boys clambered atop rocks while their friends took pictures and egged them on. Earlier in the day, a group of young women were snapping selfies at the end of the canal pier, leaning up and considering climbing up on the concrete wall to get a good shot. I hustled my family away, muttering I’m not diving in if one of these dumbasses falls off the pier.

I try to resist the old lady in me that simply can’t comprehend the picture-taking craze. From an anthropological standpoint, I suppose it’s the modern “Kilroy was here” – trying to establish our presence, our significance in a universe where we’re proportionally as important as specks of dust. People say it’s all about likes and views, but what are those, except attempts to feel like we matter in a world that is largely ignorant of our existence?

30008950I’ve been reading Emily Esfahani Smith’s The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. The nihilist in me scoffs – well, no matter what we do, it doesn’t really matter, does it? But I’ve taken the author’s point that if we’re here, our lives only have the meaning with which we imbue them. This is the whole purpose of religion, social media, and storytelling – to have rudders in this tumultuous pond we call life. But if the stories we create about our lives, be it through words or pictures, take on more weight than curiosity about life beyond our personal selves, then we are living a life based on finding bandages for our insecurities.

As a person who sees the world in words and tends not to find meaning in visual representations, it’s hard not to judge someone who pops out their phone camera at the drop of a hat. But my curiosity demands that I work through my judgments, that I try to figure out why someone does something. There are times when the selfie-taking is disruptive (concerts) or dangerous (on the wall at the end of pier) or disrespectful (Auschwitz). Mostly though, it is uninteresting, poorly framed human distraction. An imitation of life.

But then, I’m a writer. What is writing but an imitation of life? What is it but a desire to feel relevant, find meaning, craft my own story? What is the difference between this essay and a selfie? Not much, except in this essay, I’m much younger and thinner.

30 Comments on “The Curious Case of the Selfie

  1. Chances are I’ll make myself look immature and foolish with this impulsive comment but in no way do I think writing is an imitation of life. I’m almost offended at the notion.

    I’m not going to say what I think writing is but I will say I thoroughly look forward to the end of selfie-taking culture.

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    • I think there is correlation between the two things, and shorthanded the writing definition to that end. It would be easy to write off this particular aspect of our culture without understanding it. But not everyone is a writer. Because selfie-taking is so prevalent, there must be a driving force, some need that it fulfills, some purpose it serves for people. It won’t do for me or perhaps for you, but it does something for others and I’m trying not to be dismissive, because curiosity serves me better than condemnation – as a writer and as a human.

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  2. I once saw a comic panel of an entire neighborhood’s dogs barking in the back yards at night. The thought balloon above each of the dogs’ heads said, “Huh?” Pretty much sums up selfies’ import, too, maybe: It’s a way to say, “I’m here.”

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    • I think it is a way to claim space, recognition, yell into the void. It’s the method of getting there that’s so damned annoying to everyone else – no public moment goes unrecorded, even in the most sacred of spaces.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lol, it’s the main reason I deleted my Facebook account entirely.. I set myself up by Liking this or that selfie, then I had to Like ALL of them, AND their relatives’, and THEN came the “From 5 (7) years ago” photos/selfies’… 🙄

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  3. You write so much younger and thinner! 🙂 Your kicker made me grin, and I enjoyed your entire post, as usual. Also fun to follow you to Lake Superior as northern Minnesota and that big water have a soft spot in my heart.

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    • I love it up there. I suppose I really love any large body of water. We also hit the Bayfront Blues Festival while we were there and headed out to the canal whenever a big ship was scheduled to arrive or depart. I’m just fascinated by them! My favorite visit was a couple of Februarys ago when winter was being mild. No one around – just us on the shore. Chilly, but delightfully alone.

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  4. I, too, have a really hard time understanding the selfee craze but I don’t see much similarity between writing and posting a selfee. When people do well-crafted writing they are doing so much more than publishing a selfee. When we write we attempt to portray the common human experience and connect to others. It requires an ability to understand self and others while making some sort of connection to the larger body of human expressions. A selfee seems to just say “here I am”.

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    • I had just finished reading a chapter on galaxies and star systems in the book I referenced. It puts all the things we think are so important into perspective – even the hallowed writing. It serves as an equalizer for all the things we rate as serious and important with that which we deem as silly or profane. In other words, eventually this planet will die and likely with it, all our writing and photos and fashion and sports and all the other cultural things we obsess over.
      But a selfie, like writing, is a form of communication – it’s the story people want to tell about themselves, how they want to present themselves to the world and unlike the “arts”, it’s a highly accessible and user-friendly form of expression.
      I have to laugh a little – I feel like I’m defending an activity that I’m not particularly fond of in the first place. I’m the first person to make a snarky comment when all the cameras around me are out. And perhaps it is because of that, that I’m interested in deconstructing things a bit.

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  5. Chuckle. Loved your last line. Curiously this cheers me up – my writing/photography/blogging occupation gives my life meaning in a situation (Life itself) the really has no meaning at all except that it is. That’s about the only thing that can’t be denied – the fact of existence. All the rest is just noise, and what we make of it. Fun isn’t it?
    I continue to be impressed with your wonderful self awareness – writing as selfie! I hate selfies. I think Don and I have taken a total of 3 or 4 selfies in the last forever. But yes, I can own that my writing, photography, and most importantly blogging (the sharing of it all) is my own form of selfie.
    Alison

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    • I think the need to imbue our lives with meaning is such an interesting idea, because it gives us so much power over how we view ourselves and the world around us. I get so completely turned off by positive psychology ideas, but meaning is something I can get on board with, because it suggests depth and thoughtfulness.
      I’m really enjoying reading The Power of Meaning and have found it useful in framing some sort of purpose for myself. This is something that I ruminate over frequently these days.
      As for selfies, I have never enjoyed seeing photos of myself and in fact, would find my presence a blight on any scene I was trying to capture!

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  6. I hate having my picture taken when a professional is behind the camera, never mind obsessively taking selfies. Although selfies like yours, that make one younger and thinner have some appeal.

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    • Where’s the filter for that, right? I can maybe count 2 or 3 photographs of myself, over a lifetime, that I liked. It was always with a professional photographer. My phone photographs are usually pretty terrible. I’m less interested in taking the shot than in taking in where I’m at and being there.

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      • Being in advertising, I’ve been around a lot of professional photographers. Some of them have taken some decent shots of me when I wasn’t paying attention. It’s posing for a photo that doesn’t work for me, I tense up.

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        • It also relaxes the muscles of your face. A former model turned portrait photographer told me that it’s tense facial muscles that make us look weird in photos. She does about an hour of relaxing exercises and psycho babble with you before she takes your photo. It actually works.

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  7. I’m here via Honie. I agree with you regarding the topic of selfies, but I wouldn’t lump them in with picture-taking and visual representations as a whole. Sharing a beautiful sunset or scenery from your weekend hike isn’t nearly as self-aggrandizing as taking a photo of yourself.

    Don’t even get me started on duck lips!

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    • I don’t understand the duck lip thing. Nobody looks good that way, so why do they keep doing it? Because I tend not to be visually-oriented (I automatically translate things to words), I am not a good arbiter of what matters or is significant, but I am curious about motivation and what need selfies fulfill.

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  8. I had to chuckle a little when you wrote you try to resist the old lady in you that doesn’t like selfies. That’s me too. And I find myself trying to deconstruct things I don’t understand, but find that often it just makes me feel exhausted and helpless. I wish I could just let things be and not have this obsessive need to “understand” things. Especially these days.

    Oh shoot, there’s the old lady talking again. LOL. Sounds like you have some breathing space back in your lives. I’m glad to see it Michelle.

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    • Thanks for your perspective, Ilona. It is exhausting trying to understand everything, but I’ve come to accept that is how I function in this world and just try to fit in lots of naps! I think, too, there is a huge difference between understanding things and accepting or condoning them.

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      • Yeah, it won’t change for me either and I have come to accept it also. I still manage to see the humorous and ironic around me and I recognize that I have so much to be grateful for which helps me get through the day.

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  9. Somehow, Michelle, your acute observations on selfies remind me of a TS Eliot line – ‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’. Maybe the huge number of pictures around these days, many associated with selling, devalue the plain shot in some way unless it’s got the shooter in it. I’m also not visual and distrust pictures unless I know their provenance or else something creative is being done with them. Is it possible we’re all stopping at the image and going no deeper?

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    • I really like that line from T.S. Eliot! It’s very apt when talking about trying to capture a moment in what is a fairly flattening medium (although professional photographers could argue otherwise). When I have a strong reaction to something, I’m always curious why. Staring at Lake Superior while many people walked, took a photo, and did nothing else to absorb the moment really bothered me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, almost like storing experience away so you can look at it in a neatly captured form. Having said that, I do like looking at things hard to find the most aesthetically pleasing photograph angle and composition!

        Liked by 1 person

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