THE BLOG

Selfies and the Search for Personal Identity

14/04/2014 14:03 BST | Updated 13/06/2014 10:59 BST

Apparently, 7 April was Selfie Day; a day when the great and not-so-great took the opportunity to hold their smartphone at arm's length and take another photo of themselves. Sounds like every other day on Twitter, no? But it did get me thinking: when we take a selfie what are we saying? Why are we so interested in ourselves, in the image we project?

Right from the start I want to admit that I love selfies - I take loads of them. In my case I take them when I'm somewhere new, doing something interesting or when I meet people I admire. I've just got back from a working trip to Tanzania and Uganda with a client. In Tanzania I met this little boy and I took a selfie. He was very poor and his mother was tied to a tree in the middle of the village because she has mental health issues.

This is an understandable selfie. What I don't do is take selfies just to illustrate how gorgeous I am. Mainly because I'm not gorgeous but also because it just seems a bit pointless. I mean, who cares? And everyone knows that you don't really look like the primped, posed, toned selfies you take in the bathroom mirror! Plus if I started taking those kinds of selfies my very gorgeous wife would be extremely unhappy.

But is this national obsession with taking photos of ourselves just a way to slap our self-constructed image on top of any other that might exist in our minds and the minds of others? Obliterating any 'false' impression that might exist? Yes, probably. But even more than this I think it's about personal identity and fortunately, this article on the BBC News website agrees with me!

These days personal identity is more important than national identity. As my friend Ben Page from Ipsos MORI, who ran the survey in the article, says: "We're not trapped by the class or place or background we were born into - or at least in terms with how we feel about ourselves. People are almost creating their own identities."

In the UK, or more specifically I suspect England, national identity is slipping away to be replaced by an individual identity. No longer do we define ourselves in a collective sense. In my view it's not really that big a surprise. If I'm anything to go by I define myself by my job first and foremost. That's fairly typical of most self-employed people or small business owners - your job is who you are. It's the Jones-the-Steam syndrome. I am Paul the PR. But after that - deeper than that - I am my interests and my family. I'm British/English on my passport but I'd never answer the question 'who are you?' by just saying I'm a Brit. It just wouldn't make sense to me.

The internet and social media have accelerated the rise of the personal over the national. We're all so much better informed about what's going on right across the world but more importantly we can see that people in other countries live similar lives to our own; we have common bonds and common interests. We can build virtual friendships with people from other countries that are just as rewarding as those we have at home. That means nationality starts to become irrelevant. Plus, let's face it, your friends in the USA or Germany or Australia or Africa are always going to have the edge over that bloke you went to school with!

My feeling is that there is always a desire to break out of the box you were born into. The history of the internet is littered with people who have gone to extraordinary lengths to create a personal and public identity that denies their past - and reality. On the internet you are who you say you are, no questions asked. And this allows people to create a new identity and in many cases, while striving to maintain it, it becomes their real personal identity. Selfies are part of this.

So what of the future? Will we ever again say first and foremost: I'm a Brit? I'm English? I doubt it. Some would say that only in times of national emergency, war and such-like, do most of us stand up and be counted together on a national level. The internet has changed many things. If I can now find out house prices in Key Largo - three-bed waterfront detached with mooring for super yacht: £400, and the average life expectancy in an Indian slum, 47 years for a man, then I'm bound to start thinking in a more global context. And my national identity starts to seem just a little bit parochial.