Of Course Selfies Are Narcissistic. So What?

The Oxford Dictionaries' recent crowning of "Selfie" as word of the year has thrust the Instagrammatic art form into the spotlight, sparking feverish debates about the limits of online narcissism and millennial shallowness. But the critiques are misplaced; selfies have been around forever.

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The Oxford Dictionaries' recent crowning of "Selfie" as word of the year has thrust the Instagrammatic art form into the spotlight, sparking feverish debates about the limits of online narcissism and millennial shallowness. But the critiques are misplaced; selfies are only the latest trendy medium for a brand of self-absorption that's flourished well past our grandparents' generation. Today, Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig came to the form's defense. "When I'm on Instagram and I see that somebody took a picture of themselves, I'm like, 'Thank you,'" he told Rolling Stoneinviting "everybody" to take selfies at his funeral. "I don't need to see a picture of the sky, the trees, plants. There's only one you."

Koenig's right. Sure, selfies are narcissistic. But so what? They're plenty more interesting than the billionth sepia-toned sunset, and any self-depiction—online or otherwise—can be harrumphed about in the same crude terms. Millennials, despite their hysterical media depiction, didn't invent narcissismthey've just been given increasingly public channels for it. As Nathan Jurgenson incisively points out in a recent New Inquiry piece, "identity theater is older than Zuckerberg," and the very sort of narcissism that feeds selfies has similarly been thriving well before the Internet.
The form, really, isn't so new. Selfies have been around long before Instagram—and well before 2002, which Oxford reports as the word's birthdate. Here, for instance, is a magnificent five-person selfie that was taken in 1920. Up above, via Wikipedia, is a mirror selfie, taken by an Edwardian woman more than a century ago. Surely the general public would have latched onto the form had the technology been there for it. And what about painted self-portraits (at right, Van Gogh's), which came to prominence in the mid-15th century—is it not self-absorbed enough to spend weeks or months perfecting an image of oneself? Bookstores, too, have an entire section for narcissism—the autobiography, or "literary selfie," as it might as well be renamed to generate tween interest.
As Koenig points out, old people are no less self-absorbed: "I've been in nursing homes, where my grandma is. I've seen some of the most selfish people on the planet in there." Baby boomers, meanwhile, have been bemoaning the apex of youth narcissism the same week they're breathlessly recounting where they were when they learned JFK was assassinated—in other words, reframing a far grander historical event to talk about their own lives. And good for them; history-themed selfies are great, too. I took plenty when I traveled the country visiting presidential sites for a research project, occasionally snapping pictures of myself in front of Calvin Coolidge's birth site or Jefferson's Monticello.
And who doesn't want to be part of a historical moment, even if there's a gratuitous dose of self-obsession involved? Four or five decades from now, I won't have a particularly interesting story about the time I voted for the country's first black president mere weeks after my 18th birthday. But I'll have a selfie, taken in front of a mirror in my parents' house that day in 2008, featuring an "I Voted" sticker.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.