In comparison with the German version, entire passages have been omitted from the English version, marked with ellipses (…). Please note that this is an “abridged version”.
The term appeared for the first time in 2002, in an Australian blog. In November 2013, the venerable Oxford English Dictionary declared ‘selfie’ the Word of the Year. This year, the Indian company Velfie has now announced: ‘2014 was about selfies … 2015 is for #velfies!’ In the meantime, video selfies – or velfies for short – are spreading like wildfire. Where does this phenomenon come from? What makes it so attractive? Is it pure narcissism? What significance do selfies have for society and culture? Have we all regressed back to the ‘mirroring phase’ of early childhood?
Apps for millions
By now there are dozens of apps that allow users to circulate their video selfies online. In the wake of video apps such as Vine, which facilitate dissemination, apps for editing and dialogue communication are the latest craze. At the moment, India leads the pack among countries worldwide, and in many businesses there velfies have even become an integral component in fostering the corporate culture and communication among employees.
Another example from the pioneering country of India is the app Frankly.me, which allows users to address questions to politicians and celebrities via video selfies. Frankly.me played a central role in the state election campaign process in New Delhi in early 2015.
Also originating from India is the app Velfie, whose concept can be described as a karaoke machine in reverse: users download audio files containing quotes from celebrities, politicians, actors or historical figures from a media library and can then dub them over with recordings of themselves and distribute them online. In this way, the Velfie app offers a more professional option that picks up on the most common form of video selfies: people who post videos of themselves on YouTube singing and dancing to their favourite music.
Germany is at the forefront of the trend with the Berlin-based app Dubsmash. The Berliner Zeitung wrote: ‘Roland Grenke, Jonas Drüppel and Daniel Taschik, all still in their mid-20s, are the people behind Dubsmash. With their app, anyone can sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, Angela Merkel, Stromberg [the television character] and many other celebrities’ (Berliner Zeitung, 13 January 2015). Dubsmash has already spread to nearly 200 countries and has recorded 75 million downloads in just one year.
Selfie films and selfies at the cinema
Of course, narcissism in film has been around much, much longer. Rosalind Krauss pointed out an interesting aspect of the prehistory of video selfies in The Aesthetics of Narcissism (1976), where she described the then-new medium of video as a narcissistic medium. Unlike film, which is essentially representative, video promoted the narcissistic reflection of the self, she claimed, because it was the first medium that could simultaneously record and play back a person in moving images. (…)
Recent artistic works have frequently consisted of found footage films containing selfies of other people. The Belgian artists’ collective Leo Gabin, for instance, uses selfies from amateur films. Their appropriated selfies include teenagers dancing suggestively in ‘girls room dance’ (2012) and girls demonstrating their favourite cosmetics and commodity fetishist products in ‘Hair Long’ (2013). A selection of these can be viewed on Vimeo.
A much earlier production – and an effective commentary on the selfie mania that prevails on the internet – is the video Mass Ornament (USA 2009). Here, Natalie Bookchin, who was a member of the net art activist group RTMark in the 1990s, presents selfies of young performers as multiple split-screen images – and as ornaments of the masses. American artist Ryan Trecartin by contrast manages without any YouTube footage, staging completely overacted scenes of himself and others for his selfie videos.
Some earlier examples of autobiographical works are John Smith’s Hotel Diaries, in which the filmmaker speaks directly into the camera about his personal feelings and offers socio-political commentary. In their lecture Selfie-Shots im Film, Florian Krautkrämer and Matthias Thiele depicted the British Super-8 and short-film maker Tony Hill as a pioneer. For decades, Hill has been constructing astonishing, often inscrutable gadgets which were far ahead of the GoPro Selfie Kit and employing them in works such as the 1993 short film Holding the Viewer. In most of his films, however, Tony Hill himself remains invisible – in contradiction of the narcissistic selfie concept.
A well-known current example is the documentary feature Taxi Teheran (Iran 2015), in which Jafar Panahi responds to being banned from working as a film director by mounting a camera inside his car and filming himself in the role of taxi driver in conversation with his passengers. Similar motivations gave rise to the selfies by Ai Weiwei, which cultural critics have celebrated as the first and most important selfies in the history of art.
Aiming in a completely different direction are the Queer Selfies (New Zealand, 2014), in which visitors to the Big Gay Out event in Auckland confide their own stories to the camera (…).
The clips created by the Lebanese blogger SiMi A Merheb (Issam Merheb) are genuine video selfies in every sense of the term. In a humorous, almost Dadaist style, the films poke fun at Lebanon, its people and its customs (…). Despite his fondness for traditional culture, SiMi has no problem contesting the Indian origins of velfies: ‘A velfie is a video selfie made in Lebanon!’ (see: Please help to save the ‘velfie’)
The artistic and ideological history of selfies
Selfies and video selfies are a mass media phenomenon and can only be understood as part of present-day contemporary popular culture. (…) Without a doubt, excessive photographing or filming of ourselves has to do with the formation of identity and with the delight in believing – as Lacan also observed – that the person in the mirror is more perfect and more capable than we experience ourselves to be in our own bodies.
Rimbaud once wrote: ‘I is another’ (‘Je est un autre’, letter to Paul Demeny, May 15871). And in an essay that appeared in ‘four by three magazine’ in 2015, the German/Spanish art theorist Alexander Garcia Düttmann asks: ‘Is there a self in Selfies?’ He then immediately answers his own question: ‘No, it is unlikely that there is a self in a selfie.’ According to Düttmann, the self that appears in a selfie picture is not the self of the person who took the photo; rather, it is a self-reference to the medium (…) Selfies celebrate the moment of actuation, while the image or the film loses its significance. As a selfie, he says, photography or the photography of film disappears into everyday life – into an everyday world in which life is no longer connected to existence.
This thesis points to socio-political and media changes as the cause of the mass phenomenon of the selfie. The rapid circulation of images and films on digital networks supports this assumption. In the process, it has become less and less important whether the images are perceived as beautiful or ugly. The main thing is that they verify the (media) existence of the sender and that they are disseminated. Therefore, a ‘like’ is more and more rarely seen as an affirmative value judgement; rather, it is simply an acknowledgement of awareness – which ultimately serves only as a self-affirmation and does not promote communication or dialogue.
A short film by Matthew Frost featuring Kirsten Dunst gets to the crux of the matter simply and effectively. In the viral video ‘Aspirational’, two young girls discover the celebrity actress on the street and immediately corner her into making a selfie with them. When Kirsten Dunst offers to have a normal conversation with them, the two girls abruptly and categorically refuse to engage in dialogue. Instead, they request that Dunst tag them in her social media presence. The girls are completely focussed on ending the conversation so that they can circulate their trophy on the internet as quickly as possible.
As a mass phenomenon of our times, selfies are, above all else, an expression of the powerlessness of the individual and our lack of acknowledgement by the societal system. In the traditionally prevailing media, powerful figures from politics, business and the entertainment industry dominate the scene. In an age when nearly everyone has his or her own camera, selfies are a simple means of steering other people’s attention toward us instead. The girls in Kirsten Dunst’s film, too, are only interested in enhancing their own personal status, and not in the celebrity herself. The question is simply whether this method – which is occasionally declared to be democratizing – can ever really shake up the existing asymmetrical balance of power.
(…) The Vienna-based philosopher Konrad Paul Liessmann sees a danger ‘that what is behind this self-optimization is not the liberal idea that everyone should be themselves – but rather that there is a norm of a beautiful, high-performing, resilient person upon which we are all expected to model ourselves’.
Sherry Turkle (Alone Together) emphasizes that these so-called social media take the place of real social relationships – with the drawback that they lack the social cement that is necessary for the kind of interaction that would allow us to overcome the alienation in our own social lives.
Thus, our need to be valued and acknowledged as individuals is transformed into its opposite. Henry A. Giroux points out that this narcissistic culture contributes to how, in our capitalist consumer society, interpersonal relationships are being transformed into acts of commerce. Our electronic identities de facto become public property – which large corporations in the Big Data sector then exploit for commercial purposes.
We can identify a further paradox as far as the subject of privacy is concerned. In the belief that they are gaining an advantage and purpose for their identity, people take part on a massive scale in self-monitoring and the publicizing of their behaviour. In ‘Who’s Watching Whom?’ Lee Humphreys describes this as the construction of a voluntary panopticon. The term ‘panopticon’ is borrowed from Foucault’s theory positing that visibility is a trap and the aim of punishment is confession. To the extent that cameras are now omnipresent in our modern society, in Foucault’s language we could also translate ‘selfie videos’ and ‘likes’ to mean ‘surveillance’ and ‘punishment’.
Links to sources, videos and texts for further reading
Oxford Dictionary: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/press-releases/oxford-dictionaries-word-of-the-year-2013/
„Aspirational“ mit Kirsten Dunst auf Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/106807552
Dove Selfie Short Film: http://mashable.com/2014/01/20/dove-selfies-short-film/#XbxmEBEwlikj
#Velfie App Contest: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAmWvZIkwLR1GdTrLrh7ycA
Leo GABIN Videos: https://vimeo.com/user7415250/videos
Natalie Bookchin: http://bookchin.net/projects/mass-ornament/
Ryan Trecartin Videos: https://vimeo.com/trecartin
John Smith „Hotel Diaries“: http://johnsmithfilms.com/selected-works/hotel-diaries/
Tony Hill Films: http://www.tonyhillfilms.com/films
SiMi A Merheb: https://www.youtube.com/user/microsax
SiMi A Merhab, YouTube-Kanal: https://www.youtube.com/user/microsax/videos?view=0&sort=da&flow=grid
Queer Selfies: http://www.nzonscreen.com/title/queer-selfies-2014
Alexander Garcia Düttmann, Four by Three Magazine: http://www.fourbythreemagazine.com/is-there-a-self-in-selfies.html
Joshua Sarinana, Philosophy of the Selfie: http://www.joshuasarinana.com/philosophy-of-the-selfie/
Artur Kim, Towards a Philosophy of the Selfie: http://philoselfie.tumblr.com/
Piero Scaruffi, Selfies, Surveillance and the Voluntary Panopticon: http://de.slideshare.net/scaruffi/selfies-48208513
Katie Warfield, Making Selfies/Making Self: http://www.academia.edu/8991582/Making_Selfies_Making_Self_digital_subjectivities_in_the_selfie
Bent Fausing, SELF-MEDIA: http://de.scribd.com/doc/236971521/SELF-MEDIA-The-Self-the-Face-the-Media-and-the-Selfies
Angela Krewani, Feedbacking the Self (pdf): http://www.uni-marburg.de/fb09/medienwissenschaft/forschung/veranstaltungen/selfie_bilder-dateien/selfie_abstracts_update.pdf
National #Selfie Portrait Gallery (2013): http://www.moving-image.info/national-selfie-portrait-gallery/
Selfie City: http://selfiecity.net/
17 Funny ChatRoulette Screenshots: http://www.oddee.com/item_97000.aspx
8Bit Philosophy, Video Why Do We Take Selfies: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/8bit-philosophy/57397-Why-Do-We-Take-Selfies-Mario-Foucault
Bolex Selfies: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCumie5nRbq2iUwn9rhScuwg/
JK Keller, Idiot continues to take daily self-portrait for 16 yrs despite better projects, longer projects, more popular projects…:https://vimeo.com/108551893
Beckie0, She takes a Photo: 6.5 Years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRvk5UQY1Js
Anupam Kher #velfie tribute to Marlon Brando #2: http://www.v.ytapi.com/watch?v=yEu5f4POQO4
Museum of Selfies: http://museumofselfies.tumblr.com/
No Make-up Selfies: http://nomakeupselfie.com/