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Selfies and the spectrum of human expression

“Human motivations change little, but opportunity can change a lot.”

-Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

After I read Cognitive Surplus, I kept returning to this quote again and again. While writing my book, a friend of mine introduced me to Clay Shirky. He and I talked about how that quote applies to the selfie phenomenon. Here’s what he said:

“I can’t stand it when people talk about selfies like it’s some terrible, narcissistic thing that’s unique to Millennials. Given the opportunity, every generation would have done the same thing. The technology is giving us a new opportunity to express something that’s always been there.”

Selfies are driven by the same internal motivations that have driven humans since our ancestors began to portray the world around them through primitive artistic expression. What are handprints on cave walls but selfies? Digital selfies are modern self-portraits with a radically low barrier to entry. The average selfie requires far less skill, time and resources to create than, say, a painted self portrait. The abundance of selfies–call it an “explosion” if you prefer–should surprise nobody.

The selfie is now a photographic category. As with every other popular photo category, each photo can be placed along the entirely subjective spectrums of quality and taste. Great selfies are great. Crappy selfies are crappy. The same can be said about any other form of expression.

Every created thing contains clues about its creator. But those clues are found in the thing itself, not the category it belongs to. The reasons we take selfies are likely as diverse as the array of human motivations that spur creation in any other medium. A selfie can express love, or any other “positive” feeling just as capably as it can express narcissism or any of the “negative” traits that are sometimes associated with the category.

Not convinced? Here are some selfies that just might change your mind.

This powerful photo is part of the My Stealthy Freedom campaign, which is “dedicated to Iranian women inside the country who want to share their ‘stealthily’ taken photos without the veil.” Women risk harassment and even arrest by the state religious police for daring to go without the garb, and this campaign advocates for the freedom to choose.

My Stealthy Freedom

Astronaut Mike Hopkins took a beautiful selfie during a spacewalk late last year, but amazingly, his was not the first! Buzz Aldrin took the first “space selfie” in 1966.

Buzz Aldrin's space selfie

Here’s one from Helene Meldahl, whose “digital art has been recognized internationally, and featured in media over the world.”


Not every selfie has to capture its creator doing something epic, or be set against an amazing backdrop. Some of the best selfies are simple, like this one from Sarah Van Quickelberge (CC BY 2.0). 

Sarah Van Quickelberge