The End of the Selfie Hype Cycle

They've become boring. And that means they're finally getting interesting.

Javier Brosch/Shutterstock
Are you sick of reading about selfies? Are you tired of hearing about how those pictures you took of yourself on vacation last month are evidence of narcissism, but also maybe of empowerment, but also probably of the click-by-click erosion of Culture at Large? Could you do without another think piece analyzing the adoption of the word "selfie"? Or another indignant commentary on the glittery monstrosity that is the selfie sombrero?
Me, too. And yet this is, I should warn you, another thing about selfies. Yeah, another one. Sorry. It's just that, today, JibJab—the people who brought you those satirical animated videos in the late '90s and early aughts—released a new messaging app: one that lets you paste a picture of your face onto a moving character, creating a selfie-fied version of an animated GIF. (Remember "Elf Yourself"? It's like that—but less elf-y, more selfie.)
You can use the app to graft images of your face onto, among other settings, moving images of: classic cartoons. And Jack Nicholson movies. And cats.
The grafting is awkward. So are the animations themselves. The most obvious way to describe this new strain of selfie is "delightful." The second-most-obvious is "absurd."
And here's the thing: This is all precisely the point. And it is also why I'm littering the Internet with yet another story about the photos whose creators and subjects happen to be the same. Because with JibJab Messages, all the cultural freight of the selfie—the anxieties about narcissism, the fears about erosion, the concerns about the performativity in the age of social media—are subsumed in a series of wacky animations. It's hard to contribute to humanity's cultural demise when your face is awkwardly grafted onto Nyancat's.
And that, when it comes to The State of the Selfie, is a good thing. The media theorist Clay Shirky argues that new technologies don't actually become interesting until they become boring; that is, it takes a level of ubiquity for new tools to be used in truly innovative ways. In truly networked ways.
Which is another way of saying that new technologies, like so many other things, are subject to the hype cycle. The IT firm Gartner developed the cycle framework to describe the adoption patterns new technologies take as they come to market. Gartner, in that work, identified five different phases of adoption: the initial Technology Trigger (everyone going, basically, "huh"), the Peak of Inflated Expectations (everyone going "ooooooh"), the Trough of Disillusionment (everyone going "uggghhh"), the Slope of Enlightenment (everyone going "ohhhhhh"), and, finally, the Plateau of Productivity (everyone going "okay").
If you map this process—that is, if you chart public opinion about and reaction to new technologies—the Hype Cycle ends up looking like this:
Wikimedia Commons

You can see the selfie's trajectory in that curve—its path from hype to overhype to, simply, "hi." What JibJab's GIF-ified selfies suggest is that its form, as a tool and as a technology, has finally entered the Plateau of Productivity. We've moved beyond feeling excited or anxious or disillusioned about selfies and their place in the culture; we've simply accepted them as ubiquities. We've given in, basically. And that means that we can all just relax, and have fun with our selfies by, among things, grafting them onto jerkily animated scenes co-starring Jack Nicholson.

Selfies have become boring; that means they're finally about to get interesting.