Thesis of The Month: Is Everything We Do a Selfie?

Welcome to our monthly thesis! A series where Leandra and Amelia attempt to unleash their inner Socrates.


On Tue, Aug 25, 2015 at 1:24 PM, Leandra Medine wrote:

After our conversation on illustrators as the new bloggers, I started thinking about the last question we touched upon but didn’t really answer: Is everything that we do essentially a selfie? That is, are selfies just hyper-literalized versions of a much deeper flame of narcissism that burns within all of us? Are we wired to act in favor of our best interest? Does that make us selfish? Is selfishness actually a bad thing or have the societal layers of judgement reframed the term to reflect a negative definition for a word that applies to all of us, might even be innate and that we shouldn’t have to apologize for? There’s a difference between selfish and destructive, right?

On Tue, Aug 25, 2015 at 2:52 PM, Amelia Diamond wrote:

I want to respond with: Yes. Yes. Yes (Darwinism). Depends. Depends. Yes. But I’ll start with your main question. I do think that technically, if we do something (anything) to self-express (whether it’s writing, singing, dressing), it’s a selfie. But that doesn’t necessarily make it selfish.

Selfishness implies an inconsideration of others where there should be consideration. If I knowingly made a group decision that inconvenienced everyone but made my life easier (and didn’t care), that would be selfish.

But me posting a photo of my face on Instagram isn’t selfish. Me posting a photo of my face on my Instagram with the caption, “Happy birthday to my best friend!” (with no image of said friend) isn’t selfish either, it’s self-indulgent.

Self-indulgence = no need for apologies (although be prepared for eye rolls). Selfish = you might owe someone an “I fucked up” later on…

On Tue, Aug 25, 2015 at 8:37 PM, Leandra Medine wrote:

I consulted the handy dictionary (as in, not the dick-shun-ary) and according to it, you’re right, selfishness is, in fact, defined by a lack of consideration for other peeps. Yet for some reason, I feel like taking back the term. Making it RIGHT and dedicating the new definition of selfish to Kim Kardashian’s book. Or not.

Maybe you’re right and self-indulgence is the term, but according to the rules of the same dictionary, that precise indulgence connotes a sense of general disproval. Which, I think again opens up the floor to a couple of my initial questions: Have the societal layers of judgement reframed the way we think about behaving amongst others and with ourselves? That is, are we paying too much attention to what the dictionary says and not enough to what Gandhi told us to do: be the change we wish to see in the world? Does the definition of selfish need to feel so negative? Are we bad people for thinking about ourselves first and foremost? (Trick question because I think realistically speaking, we all do it to some extent; why do you give to those who need? Yes, because it helps them, and that’s tremendous, but you can’t deny a sense of self-satisfaction in making the selfless, “grown-up” decision.)

On Wed, Aug 26, 2015 at 2:25 PM, Amelia Diamond wrote:

I like your idea of taking back “Selfish,” especially when talking about millennials because I don’t want to be seen as selfish but also I don’t think we are selfish. I think we’re a generation that is focused on (and perhaps more aware of) the benefits of taking care of ourselves mentally/emotionally/physically (versus our grandparents who were of the “suck it up and walk in the snow” generation.)

I also don’t think it’s all so black and white. There are some people who are plain selfish and do nothing for the greater good. That doesn’t make them “bad people” (unless their selfish intents are violent and that’s a different convo), but it doesn’t really make them great humans, either.

A good human who can actually put forth what G$ asks (be the change) needs to be able to take care of herself first. A burnt out, pissed off, upset and hungry Amelia is probably not going to do anything to help anyone, or at least not do it well.

You know how you watch those safety videos on airplanes, and they tell you to help yourself first, then help the kid sitting next to you? The point, of course, is that if the adults don’t help themselves first, they are of zero use to the rest of the plane full of with kids in danger. (Though as a kid I was like, Dad, I swear to god, if you put that mask on your face before mine I will never forgive you.)

But let’s steer this back to the world of selfies. A musician writes a song because he’s upset that his girlfriend broke up with him. He does this to help himself feel better. (Maybe to piss off his ex-girlfriend, too.) That’s a selfie by our definition, right? A selfish-selfie, even.

But it’s a good song. A catchy song. It’s a Blink 182 song called “Dammit.” It’s the year 1997 and it’s a hit, and Blink fans everywhere turn it into their broken heart teen angst ANTHEM, and it gets them all hopped up and excited and empowered and like, “FUCK YEA I AM GOING TO BE OK!” And they go to concerts and feel like they aren’t alone.

So it’s not selfish anymore.

On Wed, Aug 26, 2015 at 2:56 PM, Leandra Medine wrote:

The impetus in the case of the Blink 182 song is the only thing that’s important. Just because the thing (in your example: the song) transpires to define a cultural moment that helps people through shit (like they are the minors and the band is the adult in your oxygen mask analogy) doesn’t change what its initial purpose was — healing the musician in question’s broken heart.

By the rules of your theory, Kim Kardashian’s book, Selfish, is not a nod to narcissism/selfishness either. Doesn’t it now make the rest of our selfie-taking brethren feel understood?

Just me? Ok.

On your note about being a generation that is focused on personal maintenance, you’re right — I think all of the points that you make are valid, but also that they accommodate my initial hypothesis, which was that everything we do is, to some extent, a selfie. It’s just that in our own lives, we’re not criticized nearly as much for the actions we take and decisions we make because they’re not literal reflections of our vanity on display for mass consumption, or as a means to garner mass consumption. So maybe my narrative is changing and my ultimate point is that we should stop criticizing those who marvel in selfies because –surprise! — we all, whether unwittingly or not, do it. All the time.

As in, through every breath.

Except in the case of Berlin, when our breath is taken away.

On Wed, Aug 26, 2015 at 4:26 PM, Amelia Diamond wrote:

Did Kim Kardashian’s book actually make you feel understood as a selfie-taker, or was it such a dramatic display of self indulgence and vanity that it made you feel like no matter how many selfies you take and post for the rest of your life they will never feel as obnoxious as hers?

I totally agree wichu, though. We should stop throwing stones in this glass house because otherwise all of our screens will crack.

But it’s still so easy to get annoyed at such blatant displays of me, me, me. I think when it’s masked with something for the greater good (a song, a painting, a book, although Kim’s book, for me, does not count), it’s easier to swallow.

Is that then kind of deceitful? Masking it? The Devil’s Advocate might argue that at least Kim is transparent and real: this selfie is here for no reason other than to show you that my skin looks super good. Is using art (music, photography, writing, painting, fashion) as a selfie the same thing as writing a self-deprecating caption under a selfie to level-out narcissism? Is it a cop-out, or does it do something to help everyone else swallow your pill?

On Wed, Aug 26, 2015 at 5:15 PM, Leandra Medine wrote:

Well, if you ask Donald Trump, I am sure he will agree that transparency is the best policy. But I think this conversation is getting too literal, too wrapped up in the actual mechanics of a selfie. My initial post was that the selfie is a metaphor for all of our actions, right? It is the extremely literal manifestation of everything that we say and do and think — because all of those things are motivated by a baseline necessity to survive. To look out for ourselves. So I’m really more curious about whether you agree that humanity is motivated by innocuous vanity?

On Wed, Aug 26, 2015 at 5:34 PM, Amelia Diamond wrote:

If you want to get really heady about it, which you do, then yeah, humanity is motivated by vanity. Procreation is vain. It’s an animalistic survival instinct — keep our species alive through the creation of extensions of ourselves. (Those bugs that die immediately after insemination are arguably the least selfish of this category.)

This also means that kids are selfies.

But humanity is also motivated by love and art and beauty, which I keep coming back to. Music, meaningful relationships, food, paintings, literature — these are things to live for. They are forms of vanity if we stick to your thesis that “everything we produce is a selfie,” but not if you believe that vanity is negated when the product supports and fulfills the greater good.

The only example I can think of that motivates humanity (not all, but historically, a huge portion) that isn’t connected to vanity is religion.

Do you think we’re motivated by vanity? Maybe we need the word exclusively in here. Humanity is motivated by vanity, yes, but not exclusively.

On Wed, Aug 26, 2015 at 5:46 PM, Leandra Medine wrote:

You’re so much more romantic and hopeful about us (the People)! I appreciate your point of view. But even your citing all that arguably hedonistic creative and emotional stuff, which create value and make life worth living, theoretically supports the hypothesis. We want to live, we want to survive, and can only do that if we satisfy ourselves with these things that makes us feel good. (Our partners are selfies, we choose them; the artists we connect with are selfies because they stimulate us subjectively — there is no objectivity in art, and personally speaking, I eat food not to sustain myself but to let my tastebuds feel alive.)

But your point makes sense. Vanity may very well be counterbalanced by the very thing I’m talking about here: our motivation (the act of taking a selfie) to feel good (the product of the selfie). And when we feel good, we project much better versions and visions of ourselves, like you said earlier, and when we’re doing that, we’re more inclined/prone/willing/hungry to treat the rest of the world well. WHICH! I THINK! comes back to my first point that there’s nothing wrong with our vanity if at the end of the day, we’re a bunch of fucking daffodils picking up each other’s coffee tabs just because.

And on religion, I often come back to this thing David Foster Wallace once said: “Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. ”

On Wed, Aug 26, 2015 at 5:50 PM, Amelia Diamond wrote:

Not trying to follow DFW.

I will leave with a song, then open up the floor.


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  • Alarive

    Whenever the topic of selfies comes up, I think back to my childhood growing up in Japan. This was in the 90s, and Purikura were *everywhere*. (Purikura are the little photo booths where you’d take your picture and it came out as a 16-copy sticker sheet. Google has good pics, and I think they’re more common in the States now.) I recently found my agenda book from back then and I collected more than 40 pages of purikura that friends and I would exchange, like they were baseball cards.
    Thing is, for a lot of people it was a hobby. Like, they would go to the arcade centers after-school and take pictures -some with friends, but others just took pictures alone-, and then pass them around to their friends, like baseball cards. No greater narcissism, really, but it was normal. I tended more toward photo booths, mostly because the quality was better, but even there: alone, holding a pose as the voice counted down from five.
    Japanese people are individualistic but also seriously conformist. As in, five of us would take photos and all pose with the peace sign, because that’s what you did. I tend to be more interesting in understanding why we’ve just now decided that selfies are a thing, when really it’s been done in a million diff ways throughout the decades. What does it say about us that we’ve finally given it a name and made it a real thing, how much do we need self-definition in this decade/generation/youth?

    • Amelia Diamond

      i really love this comment.

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    • true, everything exists before…but sometimes technology enables a social habit to reach critical mass …to become a social phenomena…

      there used to be painted self portraits, photo booths, digital cameras, photo booth on your MacBooks, cellphones, yes.

      But then there was the iPhone + Reverse camera function+ Social Media (Instagram). A perfect storm. Everyone can take pictures of themselves, thousands of pictures of themselves, anytime, anywhere, and publish them immediately.

  • Laura911
    • Sara

      never. apologize. for. selfies!

    • BK

      I can never take this guy seriously

  • Laura911
    • Leandra Medine


    • The ultimate selfie

  • BK

    YES Amelia – when you conceal narcissism, or maybe mix it in with something else, it does become easier for others to swallow. On the rare occasion that I manage to both take and post a selfie (shut up, I struggle a lot with the reversed camera situation), I feel I just *have* to water it down with something else, usually humour. Eg I posted a selfie involving my face with its exceedingly great skin (get a clarisonic, everyone) last month and captioned it “not pictured: I haven’t shaved my legs in three weeks”. I don’t really know why I’m compelled to do that. I have friends who happily post a million selfies a day with no other context except just them looking pretty and the earth hasn’t yet opened up and swallowed them whole.

    Kim K pisses me off because, continuing the plane air mask/Help Yourself So You Can Help The Rest analogy, in the realm of the selfie, our beloved Kim Kardashian has already put her mask on/Helped Herself around 50 million times via selfie and is doing literally nothing else. She doesn’t complete the process of then putting someone else’s mask on. What does her relatively narcissistic book and broader lifestyle do that empowers her to help others? She doesn’t know and probably doesn’t even care. Doesn’t stop me wanting a selfie stick though, although I’ll probably need lessons to operate it.

  • Bella

    I don’t think that selfies are necessarily selfish nor even narcissistic. As someone, I forget who, posted on Instagram this week, a selfie (posted by a normal person, not a Kardashian) says “I’m feeling good about myself right now, and I want to share that with you.) That is a positive message, especially since we are now seeing the whole spectrum of humanity posted across social media and not only those whom the media or the reigning beauty aesthetic has deemed fit to be seen.
    Selfies are selfish when they say or mean: “Look at at stunning I am!!! I am the!!! You really should want to look like me, and therefore you should verrry quickly click my affiliate link and purchase everything with which I am adorned!!!” Or something like that.

  • I agree with Amelia.

    This: Kids are Selfies
    This: Do you think we’re motivated by vanity? Maybe we need the word exclusively in here. Humanity is motivated by vanity, yes, but not exclusively.

    I barely remember logic and I barely remember the rules of debating (I S-U-C-K-E-D) but I’m pretty sure there’s some sort of fallacy for merely stating that everything is a selfie…cuz like that Lauryn Hill song, then you ultimately say everything is everything and then everything just goes in a circle.

    I have to say though, this was generally a enjoyable read, some very good points were raised despite potential circular or deviating arguments.