Living in a selfie-centred world

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By Khaled Diab

The selfie fad has reached epidemic proportions, but we don’t live in more narcissistic times. Selfie-absorption is as old as civilisation itself.

Has modern technology made us more selfie-obsessed or have we always lived in a selfie-centred world?

Do we live in a more selfie-centred world than before?

Monday 23 March 2015

It was a miracle of selfie-preservation. A 14-year-old British schoolboy on a skiing holiday in Austria improbably survived, with only a few bruises and scratches, a 500-metre drop after slipping while shooting a selfie.

And if his phone survived the fall too, the teenager may just have snapped himself the kind of digital self-portrait that will make him the awe of his Facebook friends, and could even go viral.

But it is not just young people who are doing it. During a recent holiday in Thailand, I was overwhelmed by the profusion of selfie sticks. While giant representations of Buddha meditated peaceably in the background in a state of selfless Nirvana, the tourists in the foreground gave full expression to their selfie-ish impulses.

Egypt's President Sisi smiles as volunteers take a "selfie" with him during the closing session of Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) in Sharm el-SheikhBeyond the clicker-happy tourist, a cursory glance shows that selfies have become one of the greatest fads around, with celebrities and even politicians embracing them, including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who recently found it an opportunity for national selfie-actualisation.

A group selfie at last year’s Oscar ceremony became the most re-tweeted image of all time – a picture that apparently spoke a billion dollars. And with the fuss about selfies at this year’s ceremony, it won’t be too long before we start hearing about a “best selfie” category being introduced at the Academy Awards.

The selfie tsunami has also swept Arab and Muslim countries. The young and savvy Indonesian Muslim convert-turned-popular-guru Felix Siauw caused widespread offence when he declared selfies to be haram because, echoing some of the seven cardinal sins, he maintained that they were expressions of pride and ostentation. This led outraged Indonesian social media users to post selfies of themselves under the hashtag #Selfie4Siauw.

Even Islam’s holiest sanctuaries have not been immune, which has set off alarm bells in conservative quarters. Selfie fever reached such a pitch among pilgrims to Mecca and Medina that it provoked the ire of some Saudi religious scholars.

Cat jihad selfieRadical, ultra-conservative Muslims go even further and liken the idle pursuit of selfies to idol-worship. For example, during their reign of terror in Afghanistan, the Taliban banned television, video and photography, which prompted one journalist to describe it as a “country without faces”.

As a sign of the changing times (or perhaps the end-times for millennialists), today’s crop of foreign jihadists does not seem to have got this memo, or perhaps they believe that the “greater jihad” is the jihad of the selfie.

Many combatants have posted selfies of themselves on social media bearing arms, training, swimming, as well as surreally endorsing consumer products, including Nutella, not to mention a sideline in images of “mewjahideen” kittens.

The jihadist selfie is helping to transform the Spartan and puritanical image of holy war circa 1980s mujahideen in Afghanistan to make it resemble a mix between a lads’ teen movie and an 18+ shoot’em-up video game.

Some observers believe there is a deliberate strategy behind these selfies, which are seen as being part of a drive to recruit more young foreign fighters by showing how “normal” and “cool” being an extremist jihadist is, by injecting a bit of Rambo-like glamour.

With even normally camera-shy Islamic extremists indulging in this photographic fad, it is little wonder that many view this trend as a sign of the narcissistic nature of 21st-century society.

But do we really live in a more selfie-centred world than our ancestors? I happen to think not. It is no coincidence that the modern psychological term for vanity and egotism is derived from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water (nature’s own selfie). 

I believe that this moralising is largely a manifestation of the romanticisation of bygone days when people were supposedly kinder, nobler and more selfie-less. For example, space pioneer Buzz Aldrin claimed he took “the best selfie ever” during a 1966 spacewalk.

This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius could be the world's first photographic selfie.

This self-portrait of Robert Cornelius could be the world’s first photographic selfie.

Though the word is new, the concept of the selfie is as old as photography itself. The first photographic portrait ever taken, in 1839, was a “selfie” – and required considerably more time and effort than today’s instantaneous results – while the selfie stick may be almost a century old.

Prior to the invention of photography, the world was still awash with selfies, in the form of self-portraits. Though the boom in artists painting themselves began during the Renaissance, self-portraits have an ancient pedigree. One of the oldest surviving self-portraits is a sculpture of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten’s chief sculptor Bak, standing beside his wife.

The traditional Islamic aversion to depicting human forms meant that self-portraits were rare, but there have been some examples. Perhaps the most ambitious was the Akbarnama (The Life of Akbar), which chronicles, with exquisite miniature paintings, the biography of the third Mughal emperor Akbar. Though Akbar did not paint these portraits himself, the book was the emperor’s idea and he commissioned the work.

Could this statue of Bak and his wife be the world's oldest existing selfie?

Could this statue of Bak and his wife be the world’s oldest existing selfie?

Arabs traditionally preferred word-based selfies, in the form of self-aggrandizing poetry. For example, in addition to his talent for writing panegyrics glorifying princes and kings, the legendary al-Mutanabi had a penchant for glorifying himself. In a poem chiding an ungrateful patron for not supporting him, the poet boasts that the blind and deaf appreciate his writing, and that his fame extends to the “steed, the night and the desert”, as well as “the sword, the spear, the paper and the pen”.

What this reveals is that modern technology has not made us more self-centred but has democratised our ability to express the more selfie-ish side of our nature, and on an unprecedented scale. What the ramifications of this are for the individual and for humanity has yet to be revealed, but once it is, be sure that someone will somehow make a selfie out of it.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 March 2015.

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Facebook: consider yourself de-friended

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By Christian Nielsen

Facebook, Sellaband, Twitter… social networking is like the classics with the clap. And a bloody waste of time to boot.

22 December 2009

I’ve just read an article in a Flemish newspaper about this year’s candidates for word of the year in Dutch. Two of the top ten proposals – ontvrienden and Twitterazzo – come straight out of the social networking (SN) annals, the part of the internet dedicated to wasting loads of time keeping in touch with friends, relatives and basically anyone who shares your interest in wasting time.

I think my favourite is ontvrienden or the act of de-friending someone from Facebook or other online social networks. The subject came up recently at work  – purely on a linguistic level – when a colleague asked if ‘un-friending’ sounded like a reasonable expression for removing people from your social databases.

Discussion followed and the final conclusion was that, if a new word had to be created, then de-friend is better because it has a stronger sense of performing an action – leaving un-friend as the passive result of de-friending. You are an un-friend once de-friended, sort of thing.

Acquiring virtual friends is a tragic social inflation – your online credibility measured by the number of ‘friends’ you can be linked to via these web-based platforms. It’s like a twisted class of asset or Madoff scheme, and it spikes when you friend up with an A-class social networker or better still a real-world celebrity.

[A mate of mine has Jaimie Oliver as a Facebook friend which is pure SN gold.]

It’s become obvious to me that, like the trade floor, investing in the social networking business is not for dabblers. To get good dividends, you have to put in the time, do the numbers and agree to every new app and service pushed down your throat. If you don’t play the game, you get left behind – you become that little known Flemish painter, Ascot Nofriends.

This is where the virtual social world tends to mimic the real social world. If you play at networking too eagerly, you get shunned. If you were always a social leper in the school canteen and think this virtual world will be your chance to finally sit at the in-crowd table, you could be in for more rejection – 20 years later.

The problem with rejection this time is you now realise you’ve thrown good money at post-adolescent therapy. And all the confidence you’ve gained, the respect you’ve earned as a dentist, the proud family parked next to the new Audi… it’s all undermined by a stupid technology whim. A whim that is desperate to prove it is not a whim by dreaming up a never-ending stream of trinkets and whistles to mesmerise the home-dead.

That’s where this de-friending and un-friending business raises some thorny questions. A colleague commented recently that he didn’t know how to de-friend someone who he used to go to school with and who kept badgering to join his Facebook. When I say badger, I probably mean stalk.

“I just gave in and agreed to friend this guy, but now I want to de-friend him,” he said.

It’s straight out of the classics. The rejected lover, the scorned friend, the seat of power and the unquenched ambition of the underling. Shakespeare no doubt already covered this.

[Google check].

I knew I’d find a match: the comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost. Wikipedia says the title comes from a poem written by the Greek Theognis: “To do good to one’s enemies is love’s labours lost.”  It’s got the schoolmaster (all proper on the surface but cyber-grooming by night), the clown (the office joker who secretly covets virtual world credibility), kings, princes and ladies (the in-crowd swearing oaths to each other but all secretly cyber bullies), the wench (the emo-chick making alt-porn)… okay so it’s getting weird. I’ll move on.

No time to waste

As social creatures, we crave the contact and yet we spend more and more time behind a computer or digiting a smart phone. We Tweet our every waking thought and keep forensic-quality data on our movements, from the banal to the carnal. We photo caption our lives and our loves like an episode of another B-grade reality TV show.

Our families – the ones who live within close enough proximity to actually physically visit – are missing the real us. Our bosses who haven’t already blocked the Web 2.0 (the social internet) functions and sites are losing money in lost efficiencies.

So, here we are with this so-called social tool, which is supposed to connect us with the world, but just seems to disconnect us from those who should matter the most. We are drawn to the cyber-friends, the friends of cyber-friends, friends long gone, and friends longed for but never real.

It’s a bloody shame. So, as I de-friend Facebook, sell off my Sellaband credits, and ignore yet another Linkedin invitation, I’ll be drawing a virtual circle round one of the stranger chapters in social evolution. Friends are not junk bonds, not a tradable asset, and definitely not worthy of a cold, uncaring new piece of argot.

Published with the author’s permission. © Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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