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 Stone, inviting "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 narcissism—they'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.