The empowerment paradox. A discourse on the self(ie) obsession

Whereas there have been quite a few terms on this blog that needed a short explanation before delving into a more in-depth discussion of a topic, the word selfie is most definitely not in need of a definition. This recently emerged, ubiquitous trend has taken the world by storm, raising a lot of debate around the subject and dividing not just the academia, but the general population into two polarized camps: those who celebrate this sensation as a means of empowerment and self-expression, and those who criticize it because its practice leads to narcissism and self-centeredness. (Richard Kedzior and Douglas E. Allen 1893) Some scholars think of the selfie as an example of “rampant individualism” and of a “growing self-expression, if not narcissism” (Miller et al. 186), while others see value in it, view it as a mode of self-presentation, communication, political messaging or even artistic expression (Richard Kedzior and Douglas E. Allen 1893).

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(Selfie statistics. Source: infogr.am)

Online presence, especially on social media platforms, is a subject that everyone has something to say about. It is a heavily criticized area and it is clear that with something as all-encompassing as this, a consensus is a utopian thought. Prior to doing some research for this blog post, I realised that I will have to play the role of the devil’s advocate, finding ways to make the world’s fascination with selfies look less terrible in writing than it was in my mind. However, as it so often happens when reading about a subject, in order to get familiar with the other side of the story, one starts to understand and accept the phenomenon as an organic whole. The aspect that managed to catch my attention and make me reorganise my ideas, was the empowerment paradox that this new era of online “microcelebrity” (Richard Kedzior and Douglas E. Allen 1898) has created, and which the selfie trend is a perfect representation of.

How is it possible that a tool that so many consider a perfect channel for self-expression and empowerment can so often have the exact opposite effect? In the world of “digital immediacy” (Dinhopl and Gretzel 127) and “immediate online self-presentations” (Dinhopl and Gretzel 130), ordinary people are overwhelmed by the need to perpetually create visual statements and share them with a possibly global audience. A selfie is therefore the perfect tool for carrying such messages, as it is capable of transcending both cultural and linguistic boundaries (Iqani and Schroeder 405), generating interaction with strangers from around the globe.

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(How are selfies shared? Source: infogr.am)

When decrying this medium, most people bring up the argument about teenagers becoming self-absorbed and obsessed with their image because of it. The truth is, although the selfie-generation does have these tendencies, they are not created by this trend. These character traits inherent in the teenage mindset are merely accentuated, not caused by this phenomenon. The idea of empowerment stems from the simple fact that it allows for yet another way through which one is able to express oneself, to reveal truths that one might not be able to channel otherwise. Selfies, as a sub-genre of photography, are a democratic language that is capable of raising awareness about certain socio-cultural issues. Another aspect of this medium that adds to the idea of empowerment is its self-therapeutic power, by seeing “one’s own image in opposition to consumer culture-driven normative ideals and find spaces to define one’s own self-perceived attractiveness.” (Richard Kedzior and Douglas E. Allen 1895)

However, the above-mentioned traits also give way to, and must necessarily coexist with, the disempowering aspects of the selfie phenomenon. By encouraging users to create infinite versions of themselves, there is a danger that their identities become diminished by (over-)representation. Selfies become merely a novel “medium for augmenting the self for presentation and evaluation by others.” (Richard Kedzior and Douglas E. Allen 1899) This evaluation tends to become just another form of control over and peer pressure for the individual, and draws in an often unwanted or uncomfortable set of intersecting gazes. The first one, the panoptic gaze, in the Foucauldian sense of the term, is the fear instigated by the select few being able to constantly watch and judge the acts of the many. In contrast, the synoptic gaze describes the idea of the many constantly scrutinizing the few. The last gaze, the spectacle, describes the concept of an individual becoming an exhibit, an object of either contempt or of admiration. These forms of control are the cause of a vulnerability, that in turn underlines the idea of disempowerment. (Richard Kedzior and Douglas E. Allen 1899)

It is almost impossible to draw a conclusion from all this. The more one reads about the subject, the more complex the phenomenon becomes. Personally, I believe that the whole concept of empowerment seems to be an illusion veiled by many promises that it is simply unable to fulfill.  “Social media may be employed for differentiation and mobility, but this may not imply individualism since it is all performed with the moral censure of social conformity. The common point is that social media makes the creation and maintenance of conformity that much easier.” (Miller et al. 188)

Works Cited

Dinhopl, Anja, and Ulrike Gretzel. “Selfie-Taking as Touristic Looking.” Annals of Tourism Research 57 (2016): 126–139. CrossRef. Web.

Iqani, Mehita, and Jonathan E. Schroeder. “#selfie: Digital Self-Portraits as Commodity Form and Consumption Practice.” Consumption Markets & Culture 19.5 (2016): 405–415. Taylor and Francis+NEJM. Web.

Miller, Daniel et al., eds. “Individualism.” How the World Changed Social Media. 1st ed. Vol. 1. UCL Press, 2016. 181–192. JSTOR. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Richard Kedzior, and Douglas E. Allen. “From Liberation to Control: Understanding the Selfie Experience.” European Journal of Marketing 50.9/10 (2016): 1893–1902. emeraldinsight.com.jproxy.nuim.ie (Atypon). Web.

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