Selfies could be a Tool for Social Good

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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The term ‘selfie’ may pop into your mind the image of a teenage girl pouting at an iPhone, seemingly oblivious to what’s happening in her surroundings, or a daredevil athlete hanging off a cliff or skyscraper moments from his/her death – symptoms of an apparent self-obsessed culture and, many claim, the decline of our society – but it’s been researched that selfies have a much deeper cultural implication that often complicate such stereotypes. Alicia Eler, in her book ‘The Selfie Generation’ conquers such clichés to imagine the selfie phenomenon as a double-edged sword, something vulnerable and yet empowering in today’s digital age.

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In criticism to the fact that taking selfies is often classified as narcissistic or objectifying, selfies have very often played an important role to empower marginalized groups like women, LGBTQs, people of color, migrants, refugees etc. The handiness of digital media leads to an access of all kinds of individuals, a new generation of users who are not as afraid to be different or unique, thus creating a mirror according to Eler who states, “”Was there ever a time when adolescents weren’t obsessed with their own image?”” she asks. Young or old, you can’t blame individuals for wanting validation for confidence, and now thanks to the digital world of social media, it’s simply a tap away.

In 2013 Eler authored an article for Hyperallergic titled – ‘The Feminist Politics of #Selfies’, throwing light on the relationship between women of color and selfies, in opposition to an article on a feminist blog called Jezebel that implied selfies as a shout for help, amidst a number of negative media coverage. “”Can we discuss what Selfies mean to those who never get the opportunity to see themselves in mainstream digital media?”” posted comic book author and artist Mikki Kendall on Twitter during that year. While taking and posting selfies publicly can, unfortunately, inherently expose the user to hate speech & trolling, it also introduces them to a worldwide network of support. With the introduction of selfie phenomenon, images of the marginalized; i.e. the others who were shoved out of mainstream media now had a platform and chance to be in the spot light.

In 2013, Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year was revealed to be ‘selfie’ and since then these digital portraits have had an omnipresent occurrence in an era where visibility is said to be proportional with political power. Activism and protests have taken on varying forms since the introduction of selfies. They’re starting to leave behind the act of banner marching which often requires community organizing and are now focusing on decentralized fluidity and sharing visual information via the many digital media platforms.

“”The goal is gaining visibility through a different logic – by using everyday images, tactics, hashtags, iconic events, & identity politics.”” says Irmgard Emmelhainz in an article authored on e-flux.

Of course, with the use of digital media come along many drawbacks and one has become all too apparent since the start of the tech age: surveillance. In spite disclosure of spying by government agencies like the CIA or NSA on civilians, or that our private information is accumulated and sold by many digital media corporations like Instagram and Facebook, we seem undeterred and unaffected from posting our most personal moments for the public to see. We still engage in the practice of the selfie, even though own images are monetized for profit, our online actions, interactions and transactions are monitored, and our online activities tracked by the very tools that connect us.

“”The threat is not digital so much as it is personal,”” says Eler. With the use of digital media, there is an ubiquitous attitude of ‘I have nothing to hide,’ but that truth is different for artists and activists who may be empowered by the visibility offered by these self-digital portraits. Operating under the restriction of surveillance in an era where visibility is proportional to political power forces activists to be fluid in their movements since their digital footprints could be used against them. One can see this playing out in transcripts videos or other digital recording used in photo journalism, whether it’s video of a white police officer misbehaving or shooting an African-American man or the final messages of people in war torn cities, this new form of’self-surveillance’ has led to some of the most moving documents of global/political events in history.

Eler discusses Standing Rock protests, where a company Energy Transfer was to build a massive oil pipeline but was met with heavy resistance from the Native American community residing there. Activist Mark Tilsen spent many months at Standing Rock and spoke to Eler about the surveillance happening there by a counterterrorism contractor specializing in tech inspections hired by Energy Transfer. Tilsen said that Energy Transfer had many phones tapped to hear talks among fellow activists staying at the protest cap. Not only that, law enforcement was using Social Media check ins to locate who was at the protest camp, over a million people across the world ‘checked in’ at the protest camp in solidarity with the activists.

This reminds me of a social media post by artist Glenn Ligon. In a screen shot from his mobile we see a wireless network options menu and the first available network is “”FBI Surveillance Van #9013C.”” Was there actually a surveillance vehicle close by? No one knows. But such shares, check-ins or screenshots can also be classified as sophisticated versions of selfies, according to Eler. Under surveillance, attack or any form of danger, a selfie can help say, “”I am here, I am not afraid and I am live.””

A question often asked is how can online activism actually make a difference? In 2017, Obama was interviewed by Prince Harry for a BBC radio podcast, the former American president said that for a digital protest to have a real impact, communities need to move ‘offline’. He claims is easy to disagree and troll people veiled by the anonymity of the web but when people sit down and have real life conversations about problem, the hidden complexities become more apparent and we are able to connect with someone unexpected. If this doesn’t occur, often our ideas or beliefs are simply reinforced because of the feedback loop in digital media systems.

Not only activists but artists as well were quick to adopt the phenomenon of the selfie as a rich subject matter for their work. In 2003, Ryan McGinley became famous with his first gallery show, The Kids Are Alright, at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, one of the youngest artists to ever be featured by the prestigious institution. Many recoiled from the works’ controversial subject matter, many more rejoiced over its rawness, which painted a portrait of a somewhat dystopian youth culture in New York and in the US. Beyond uncensored documents, McGinley also turned the camera on himself for deeply intimate self-portraits in the style of what would later become known as ‘selfies’.

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Selfies Could be a Tool for Social Good. (2019, Aug 28). Retrieved from