Scholars' Association News
Issue 37
February 2016

05/07


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Selfies or, in other words the self-obsessed
BY BETTINA DAVOU

In her speech at the opening symposium of the newly-established section of Media Psychology organised by the Hellenic Psychological Society in May 2015, the coordinator of the respective section at the American Psychological Association was eagerly trying to “de-demonise” selfies arguing that they are a form of self-exploration and social experimentation, whose take-up rates are so high because they make us feel safe, boost our self-esteem and help us be in control of the image we create about ourselves especially during adolescence or youth. She stated that selfies sometimes represent a more genuine representation of the person depicted in them than a usual photograph taken by someone else.

In the same vein, as a response to the criticism that selfies echo a narcissistic disposition of the individual who ‘sets the stage’ to attract and impress an imaginary audience, other psychologists claim that selfies focus on the photographer’s -who just so happens to be the model as well- strong need for personal satisfaction and belongingness, thus making them a vital social instrument and a method for connecting to others. Seen from this perspective, selfies therefore expand the scope of social cohesiveness and increase our ability to experiment with our image.

Gazes and greetings from other people always function as signs of recognition that we exist, extremely significant for positioning ourselves among other members of a community, for defining ourselves and understanding who we are, especially until the end of adolescence, a period during which internal questioning and experimentation with our identity are at a peak. These processes subside at some point but they never cease completely since, particularly in liquid times of uncertainty, questions such as “Who am I?” and “What do I want out of life?” remain torturously unanswered to the very end. So we always need someone else’s gaze to feed back to us fragments of the answer. Signs of acknowledgement, or social “strokes” as Berne1 named them, are the fundamental unit of social interaction and are considered psychologically as essential as food is biologically.

Or, at least, that is how things were before the advent of digital space, in times when communication occurred within a finite sensory context of co-presence, where the communicating parties existed in toto, with all their senses, unstaged or at least minimally staged according to basic norms of self-presentation and behaviour, but unable to mask the various unsolicited signs of their thoughts and emotions -how could one control a blush of embarrassment? However, in a space mediated by the screen , where time can be controlled because it can be “frozen” in carefully staged moments, the points raised above take on another dimension. It is in this space that our ‘self’, equipped with new possibilities, can imagine a world beyond its direct locality, “a world of risks and opportunities, by means of which a new life can be created through constant simulations of what is real and through vicarious experience”2.

Disconnected from the inevitable gaze of others, the individual can now choose among many new perspectives of self and imagine that self as “enriched” and expanded as a result of all these perspectives. The only difference is that the acknowledgement of existence that stems from these perspectives is as intangible as is the digital space and our ephemeral presence in it. When we sign out, our enriched self is emptied and fades away.

All the different aspects of the self3 and our identity acquire different dimensions in digital space-time:

The ecological aspect of the self, which is directly perceived by the individual in relation to his/her immediate natural environment, receives some dozens of gazes daily, signs that acknowledge his/her existence; something which in the digital universe can rocket to hundreds of “likes”.

The interpersonal self, directly perceivable through our relationships with other people and through signs of mutual trust, of emotions, intersubjectivity and communication, is expanded in the digital space into countless real and quasi “friends”, and the acknowledgement of our existence is over-multiplied.

The third aspect of self, the expanded self, based on memory of the past, experience of the present and anticipation of the future, freezes. The individual becomes its selfie of the moment.

The private aspect of the self that emerges while we discover that our personal experiences are exclusively our own acquires new potential because now it can be made public.

Finally, the conceptual self, in other words self-concept, drawing its meaning from a network of established social assumptions and theories regarding human nature in general and our self in particular, expands in the digital space. So many “likes” for a selfie can offer immeasurable self-admiration, albeit fragile and intangible. Outside of the network, though, this self fades away, and the next selfie becomes a compulsive imperative.

This reshuffling of the natural boundaries of our self creates an experience that is very close to what Baudrillard called the “maximisation of existence”: through the multiplication of contacts and relations, which leaves little room for depth, essence and duration since they are fragmentary and ephemeral, the shaping of the self turns from a quest for personal meaning into some sort of “generalised curiosity” which is diffused throughout the self and infuses it with an obsession, a “fun morality” or the imperative to amuse oneself, to exploit to the full one’s potential for thrills, pleasure or gratification4. But this maximisation of existence ultimately leads to the shrinking of a composed and solid sense of self, since the coherence and the duration of the awareness of “who we are” is not drawn from “inside” the person, that is from the processing of their life and experiences, but instead from “outside”, from the countless and ephemeral ‘likes’, which vanish in out-of-network life.

Due to the spread of the media, global events have lost their coherence and now take the form of fragmented narratives, of stories and facts that share no common ground besides being timely and inferential, since they are cited in parallel to a fictitious narration from which the concept of space has vanished and which lacks in-depth knowledge of the event. The same applies to the self, where what Giddens5 calls the “collage effect” replaces a coherent narrative of the self with a collection of selfies.

Just as the media have allowed the intrusion of far-away places and events into everyday conscience (places and events which we know about even though we don’t experience them, but which create a sense of “reverse reality”6 should we ever happen to experience them -on a far-away exotic journey, for example- leaving us with a feeling that what we observed was more real and tangible than what we actually lived), so too the selfie makes our moment palpable. It affirms and expands what we wished to have experienced when we took it.

This adds a spurious gloss to human existence and activity, where life “is better perceived as a hypothesis of recurrent awareness of the fictitious”7. According to Lasch8, this multiplication of images in the context of contemporary social and cultural transformations alters the standards of socialisation and favours the transition from introversion to narcissism, causing decisive changes in the organisation of personality. Our self loses its coherence in time and space, and turns into many immaterial, ephemeral and extremely fragile selfies, which cease to exist once the screen they are displayed on is turned off.

(Betting Davou is Professor of Psychology at the National Kapodistrian University of Athens.)

NOTES

1. Ε. Berne, Games People Play (New York: Ballantine Books, 1964). 2. J. B. Thompson, The Media and Modernity (Stanford University Press, 1995). 3. U. Neisser, “Five Kinds of Self-Knowledge”, Philosophical Psychology, 1, 1988, p. 35–59. 4. Ζ. J. Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, translated into Greek by V. Tomanas (Athens: Nisides, 2000). 5. Α. Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Cornwall: Polity Press: 1990). 6. op. cit. 7. Α. Giddens, Modernity and Self Identity (Cornwall: Polity Press, 1991). 8. C. Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (W. W. Norton, 1979).


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