Every year, the Oxford Dictionary editorial board decides on a word of the year. To do this, they employ sophisticated software that sifts through web content and analyzes roughly 150 million English words that are currently in use around the world. The word or expression that garners the most popularity over the course of a year is declared the winner and is believed to reflect “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the particular year.” In 2013, the word “selfie” was awarded this honor.
The online version of the Oxford Dictionary offers the following definition of selfie:
Selfie: noun, informal
(also selfy; plural selfies)
A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.
Readers of this blog who frequent social media websites are probably familiar with the abundance of smartphone self-portraits categorized as #selfies.* If you are like me, you have probably been guilty at one point of extending your arm, turning your smartphone camera towards your face, and snapping a selfie that you shared online. It is fun, easy, and increasingly common to make the photographer the subject of the photograph when smartphones are equipped with cameras that face back towards the user. Consequently, 2013 was a year saturated with #selfies.
A #selfie Centered Society
In a recent study, 2,000 individuals living in the UK were interviewed about their social media habits. Over 51 percent admitted to taking a selfie. This study also found that while individuals of all ages did admit to taking selfies, the photos seem to be a generational phenomenon with 75 percent being created by those 18 to 24 years of age. One commentator joked that of the 16 billion photos shared on Instagram in 2013, roughly 15, 999, 999, 999 were selfies. The actual number is somewhere in the ballpark of 90 million.
Apparently, selfies are appropriate at any time and in any place. This is clear in Time Magazine’s compilation of the 11 Most Memorable Selfies of 2013. In one instance there is the selfie of a student in class with his teacher. The teacher however, is not complicit in the selfie because she is too busy going into labor.
This failure to respect time and place is not limited to secondary students. On December 10, 2013, President Barack Obama took a selfie that included British Prime Minister David Cameron and Denmark Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt. This #selfie may not have made international news, except for the fact that it was taken when all three of these world leaders were in Johannesburg attending the funeral for the former South African president, Nelson Mandela. (Clearly the First Lady was not interested).
Sherry Turkle of MIT, argues that the #selfie is a natural extension of digital habits which typically “interrupt experience” in order to “mark the moment.” In many ways, Turkle continues, our desire to capture images of ourselves in any scenario is no different than texting friends at dinner, church, and even funerals. The problem she points to is one that has been central to this blog:
Technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are. The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us “on pause” in order to document our lives.
When asked to explain the reasons for taking a selfie, participants in the UK study said it allowed them to remember a funny moment, to capture a nice dress or a good hair day, or to feel confident. Interestingly, when asked how they would describe other people’s selfies, responses varied from “fun-loving and confident, to attention-seeking, vain, self-absorbed, egotistical, and insecure.”
If the editorial board of Oxford Dictionary is correct, the selfie reflects the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of our moment in time. Does this mean we are vain or confident? Are we fun-loving or attention seeking? How do we move forward in a selfie saturated society, when the selfie is no longer a passing fad, but a way of life for many individuals? I would argue that the way forward begins with two steps.
Step One: Know thy #Selfie.
Step Two: Forget thy #Selfie.
1: Know Thy #selfie
Peggy Drexler, writing for Pyschology Today wonders what selfies say about the vast majority of young women who take them. She admits that “On the surface, the trend is sort of affirming, if undeniable self-absorbed” because “women … increasingly have a healthy image of themselves. However, when as Drexler begins to unpack the selfie as a manifestation of societies values, she concludes:
[Selfies] are also a manifestation of society’s obsession with looks and its ever-narcissistic embrace. There’s a sense that selfie subjects feel as though they’re starring in their own reality shows, with an inflated sense of self that allows them to believe their friends or followers are interested in seeing them lying in bed, lips pursed, in a real world headshot. It’s like looking in the mirror all day long, and letting others see you do it. And that can have real and serious implications.
Drexler touches on a key point if we are going to “know our #selfies.” Posting selfies on social media is rarely for the benefit of others. It is primarily for the “selfie-esteem” of the individual who waits for the comments and compliments from others. Herein lies a problem with selfie-culture: it reinforces the lie that self-worth, or self-esteem, or your own identity is something attained and sustained by the “likes” of others. This “manifestation” of our cultural “obsession with looks…and an inflated sense of self,” is predicated on a lie that contradicts the truth of the gospel. This is a truth which offers us freedom in the form of self-forgetfulness.
2: Forget Thy #selfie
In a sermon entitled “Blessed Self-Forgetfulness,” Timothy Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, discussed what a heart changed by the gospel looks like by expounding on I Corinthians 4:3-5. These verses read:
“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.”
Throughout the sermon, Keller walks through a historical account of cultural views of the “self,” arguing that it was common in pre-twentieth century cultures to stress that a “too high view of ourselves was the root cause of evil.” Clearly, he argues, this belief has been turned on its head in the 20th (and 21st) century, where high self-esteem, or a high view of our self, is believed to be the root of success in life.
According to Keller, when Paul talks to the Corinthians, he indicates a third option: self-forgetfulness. Keller argues that Paul, in telling the Corinthians, “I don’t care what you think and I don’t even care what I think. I only care about what God thinks,” reassured them that it is only the Lord who judges. Therefore, they (and we) are not to worry about thinking highly or lowly of ourselves. Rather, we are free to humbly forget ourselves and think only on the Lord. Keller summarizes the blessings of this gospel-humility:
“A truly Gospel-humble person is not a self-hating person or a self-loving person, but a Gospel-loving person. The truly Gospel-humble person is a self-forgetful person whose ego is just like his or her toes. It does not draw attention to itself. The toes just work; the ego just works. Neither draws attention to itself. The true Gospel humility is blessed self-forgetfulness – not thinking more of myself as in modern cultures, or less of myself as in traditional cultures but simply thinking about myself less and focusing on being a blessing to others. A heart that is open to Christ will be open to those He loves. [emphasis mine].
What would it look like if our social media habits were shaped by self-forgetfulness?
Moving into 2014, I want to challenge you as well as myself to put the principles of the gospel into practice in daily digital life. This might just mean forgetting our #selfies and, as Keller reminds us, focus on being a blessing to others instead.