“I can’t deny the fact that you like me … right now, you like me,” said an earnest Sally Field after accepting her best actress Oscar in 1985.
Thirty years later, Field has yet to live down the speech, which has been both criticized and parodied for its awkward appeal for peer recognition. But in all reality what did she say that the rest of us aren’t essentially saying every day on social media?
With almost everything we post, we are ultimately soliciting validation that, yes indeed, everyone likes us, really likes us, along with our opinions, comments, ideas, and, in particular, our images on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and more.
In fact, it seems as though we’re bypassing text altogether in lieu of the quicker and more convenient method of posting photos to convey a message or represent a moment.
“There’s a compulsive need to make imagery and to look at imagery,” said Fred Ritchin, dean of the school at the International Center of Photography in New York City.
No doubt. With billions of images being taken each year, we’re pretty much junkies looking for the next fix. And with the advent of smartphones and other technologies that allow us to shoot images most anytime, and anywhere, we’re taking them at a rate unparalleled in any other time in history.
But our love affair with taking pictures is nothing new. Since the invention of photography in the 1830s, we’ve been smitten with it. Even the selfie, which was only added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013, can be traced back to Edwardian times when subjects would simply photograph themselves standing in front of mirrors.
Now, however, we seem utterly consumed by not only taking selfies, but sharing them as well, leading some people to question if we’ve become a nation of narcissists living to photograph the moment, instead of just living in the moment.
Not so much, believes Laura Wexler, professor of American studies, as well as professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies and director of the Photographic Memory Workshop at Yale University.
“We’ve probably always been a pretty narcissistic culture,” she said, and then went on to say that narcissism isn’t always the motivation behind why people manipulate images of themselves.
“People used to borrow clothing to look better in portraits. Immigrants would go to photo shops and rent clothes because they wanted to tell or assure people back home that they were doing well.”
Wexler also pointed out that throughout history, portraits have often been manipulated to project a certain style or image, and that the selfie is no different except that now we have infinitely more control over the results.
“It gives power to individuals to shape how they look. For kids to be carrying this amazing technology around, and take pictures of what they see and themselves, is empowering.”
Even more empowering, she said, is the ability to connect with people on a global level. “The power to instantaneously connect with people in faraway places and access to communication and information is unprecedented.”
It’s not all good, however, and our obsession with images, particularly of ourselves, can have far-reaching implications, especially for young women already struggling with body and confidence issues.
Doha Khoury, a licensed clinical social worker in West Hartford, believes that the pressure to maintain a perfect image, especially in light of celebrities who edit their selfies to remove blemishes, inches off their thighs, and other perceived flaws, can be intense.
“It can lead to unrealistic expectations of their own physical appearance and dissatisfaction and preoccupation with their self-image,” she said. “Female teens are particularly affected and are especially prone to feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem.
“For some, this can lead to anxiety, depression and eating disorders.”
And because teens spend so much time on social media, it can become a tool, used to shape their self-identity, Khoury said, instead of allowing them to develop their own sense of self.
But like Wexler, Khoury also sees the value in having the ability to connect with peers who have similar interests, and allowing teens to become more involved in their communities through social networks.
So what does it all mean? Have we become a nation of narcissists, posting endless images to help us figure out if anyone out there likes us, really likes us? Or are we the same as we’ve always been, just more sophisticated in our technology and ability to populate cyberspace with images of ourselves and the world as seen through our smartphones? And are our endless selfies harmful or helpful?
The answer is, maybe all of the above.
“Questions about images, their power, and attention to attaching ourselves to idealized images are not new,” Wexler said. “But it’s different now because we are surrounded by a universe of pictures and pixels with the ability to carry thousands of them around in a pod; that’s what is unprecedented.”
She wonders if down the road, we may need to figure out an etiquette or code of ethics to deal with the influx. “Just because we have the capacity, doesn’t mean we have to use it in all possible ways.”
But for now, it seems as though we are, and that’s changing the very nature of photography itself.
According to Ritchin, the inspiration in taking photos has shifted from exploring the world and ourselves, to capturing images for confirmation of what we’re seeing, and to validate who we already think we are.
“Photography is often used to explore realities; now we often make images with a predetermined statement.”
And despite the fact that most of us are taking vast quantities of pictures on a regular basis, they don’t necessarily qualify as photographs. “We all have pencils, but we’re not all writers,” he said. “We all have cameras, but we’re not all photographers. People make images all the time, but often what they are doing is simply recording, ‘That’s my breakfast.'”
However, like most other trends that have come and gone in favor of the next big thing, Ritchin believes that we will eventually get over our obsession with the selfie, too. “It’ll take its course, and we’ll see where we end up.”