When Did Group Pictures Become 'Selfies'?

The answer has more to do with language than photography.


It has been four short months since Oxford Dictionaries editors declared "selfie" their word of the year for 2013, but already the word’s meaning is shifting.

A selfie, it seems, is no longer just "a photograph that one has taken of oneself," but a photo that features the picture-taker.

For instance, Ellen Degeneres' now-famous Oscars selfie was not actually hers, but Bradley Cooper's. He was the one holding the camera phone.

Besides, it wasn't a simple self-portrait but a group shot with a dozen people in it. (That's not a "selfie," but a "group selfie" or a "groupie," some have suggested.)

What is happening to the selfie?

At first glance, it seems it may be turning into what linguist Ben Zimmer calls an "anachronym," a word or phrase that remains in usage even as behaviors change.

"The accumulated cultural knowledge of past technologies ends up powerfully shaping the way we talk about new technologies," Zimmer told me. "Think about the terms that we use for telephones, for instance. We still talk about 'dialing.' And we talk about 'taping' something even if it's on the DVR. Sometimes what we're left with is language that's sort of obsolete."

Consensus on language tends to lag behind behaviors. We do things first, and then we figure out ways to describe them. Plenty of technology companies have noticed this pattern and tried to game it. It's why you hear a brand like Bing trying to encourage use of its name as a verb, the way we talk about googling, xeroxing and instagramming. Microsoft even paid for “Bing it” dialogue in episodes of Gossip Girl. But most of the language we use to describe technology evolves from the ground up.

"Terms that relate to communication technology may start off as being rather technical and obscure," Zimmer said. "They become mainstream because people need a term to refer to the things we're doing, so they get clipped or shortened to various diminutive forms."

Before email, we had "electronic mail," which was also the term used to describe faxes in their early days. "Moving pictures" turned into "motion pictures" and "movies." (And a word of caution to those who keep declaring "peak selfie:" In 1925, The New York Times decided "the moving picture is now at the zenith of its power.") Early coverage of the television refers to "visual broadcasts," "broadcast pictures," and "radio sight." As time goes on, we find ways to simplify clunkier and more descriptive terms.

"You can't really dictate these things," Zimmer said. "There can be a lot of flux early-on, a lot of competing usage. But when people have already fixed on one particular term, it's hard to displace it with something else. And so that's why we sometimes get older or more anachronistic terms sticking around. Then you have the conservative forces of language, which serve to create a sort of inertia around those terms until the next wave."

This helps explain what’s happening with “selfie” because the word has been established, even as the thing itself continues to evolve.

Selfies tell dramatic stories:

They serve as visual trail-markers:

Even the photos that clearly aren’t self-taken but evoke selfies compositionally are called selfies, like the close-up shots of animals in this BuzzFeed list of selfies, for example. And as selfies become more culturally ingrained, we’ve also seen more photographs of selfies — images that reveal the moment of the selfie as it’s being taken, but not the photographic result. (See: Photos of selfies of Meryl Streep and Hillary Clinton, Bill de Blasio and the New York City press corps, etc.)

Is it still a selfie if you use a selfie stick to hold the camera farther away than at arm's length?

"I feel that the selfie definition would insist on you holding the camera and you being in the photo, but it could also accommodate others," said Ben Yagoda, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware who has written several books about language.

Is it still a selfie is you use a timer and the camera sits 20 feet away from its subject? "There has to be a board of people to decide these things!" Yagoda said.

But the weird thing about the "selfie," is that turning a camera on oneself isn’t a new behavior.

Instead, we're taking a new word and folding it back onto the way we describe an old practice. In the same way that there were listicles long before BuzzFeed came along (we just didn't call them that before), selfies were being snapped for decades before the Facebook generation was even born.

Consider the 1950s selfie that Colin Powell recently shared:

Or this 1920 shot of five photographers on the roof of a studio in New York City. The "self-portrait" aspect of a selfie isn't what distinguishes it from earlier forms. After all, self portraiture predates photography by centuries. Even Michelangelo painted himself onto the walls of the Sistine Chapel, some art historians believe.

A selfie isn't just "a photograph that one has taken of oneself," but also tends to be "taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website," as the editors at Oxford Dictionaries put it. That part is key because it reinforces the reason why we needed to come up with a new name for this kind of self-portraiture in the first place.

Think of it this way: A selfie isn’t fundamentally about the photographer's relationship with the camera, it's about the photographer’s relationship with an audience. In other words, selfies are more parts communication than self-admiration (though there’s a healthy dose of that, too).

The vantage point isn't new; the form of publishing is.

This explains why we call the photo from the Oscars “Ellen’s selfie” — because she was the one who published it. Selfies tether the photographer to the subject of the photo and to its distribution. What better way to visually represent the larger shift from observation to interaction in publishing power?

Ultimately, selfies are a way of communicating narrative autonomy. They demonstrate the agency of the person behind the lens, by simultaneously putting that person in front of it.