18/12/2014 01:38 GMT | Updated 16/02/2015 05:59 GMT

What's It All About, Selfie?

We all know about the stratospheric rise of the 'selfie'; I mean, it would be pretty difficult not to. Selfies are prolific. They have become a cultural norm, the very word an established feature of our vernacular. Recently I saw an advert for a 'selfie-brush' - a hairbrush that is designed with an insert for your iPhone, so you can take selfies and brush your hair to your heart's content. This item really is plumbing new depths of absurdity and arbitrariness. Why on earth such a thing exists, I do not know; all I know is that it does, and that it is very, very silly.

I don't have a problem with the selfie per se; nor do I have a penchant for them as such, but I do occasionally indulge; and an indulgence is what it is. I can just about handle egocentric photographs when they're taken surreptitiously; their existence in the virtual reality of social media is one thing, but somehow their presence in actual reality feels like quite another. On a recent trip to Barcelona I saw hordes of tourists wielding so called 'selfie-sticks' - they were flailing the instruments around as they enjoyed some trigger-happy selfie snapping. I found the whole spectacle rather distasteful, and, well, just really uncool (if I may be permitted to make such a value judgment).

I think what I found a bit shocking was the blatant and unabashed overtness of the activity - these people with their selfie sticks. I guess I felt uncomfortable at the thought of society condoning such a phenomenon. Selfies, quite legitimately I think, could be perceived as displays of vanity, and it seems strange that this is 'okay' now; that it's socially permissible; that it even seems to be encouraged.

And yet, actually, I don't think the rather earnest tourists I saw in Spain necessarily fall into this category. They seemed to be exploiting the selfie photograph as a means to validate and authenticate their own experiences. This is particularly ironic, because I would suggest that selfies are one of the most inauthentic entities of our times. They're inauthentic because they're underpinned by inescapable insincerity, by a sense of self-promotion and self-consciousness: they are utterly contrived. Selfies either function in this context - as a means by which people wish to present themselves to the outside world; as carefully cultivated visual inscriptions of one's own identity - and also as an extension of the photograph's original purpose: to capture images.

If we take a picture, a selfie or not, doesn't it seem like we own that experience a little more? Aren't we able to assert some kind of claim on that which is captured, because we have chosen to capture it? As Susan Sontag says, the photographic enterprise makes us feel like 'we can hold the whole world in our heads - as an anthology of images'. The photographic image imbues hidden, intangible memories with greater longevity; memories morph into authoritative visual images that can be seen by many. They don't seem so much like interpretations of the world, but as little pieces of it. In this sense I suppose the tourists' selfie-snapping represents the logical outcome of photographic evolution. Phones and their cameras have become extensions of consciousness that claim and substantiate experience; but this was always the function of the camera, and the essence of photography, even in the medium's original decades of the 1840s and 50s.

So, culturally and psychologically, selfies make total sense - if traditional photographs seem to appropriate and claim the thing, person or place that is photographed, then selfies, those pictures in which we are both subject and object, make it seem that we have greater ownership of ourselves; of our place and position in the world, of time itself.

However, perhaps this is only an illusion. As I've already suggested, selfies are inherently inauthentic - more often than not, they can't help but expose their own attempts at claiming such ownership and authority, even if they try to appear nonchalant and spontaneous. Crucially, for the most part, selfies are fundamentally about moulding one's own image; we become our own brand; we imitate ourselves. They are the modern, crass epitome of that often quoted line from Shakespeare's As You Like It: 'All the world's a stage/ And all the men and women merely players'.

Much easier than interaction with other people, selfies divorce consciousness from identity. Instead, we place our identities in the hands of others. We craft the outer self that we are projecting to the world, and then relinquish ourselves from it. These photos become narcissus pools of frozen time. They remind me a little of sentiments expressed by Grayson Perry at a lecture I attended, where he was speaking about the role of the artist. He confessed that he has become successful with no virtuosic skill, and that his art rests on appropriating ideas from clever art-critics who project their ideas and analyses onto his admittedly vacuous art-pieces. This is just like a selfie which goes out into the ether of cyber-space; a floating void, waiting to be filled by the emotions and feelings of others - of their approval, their envy - we seek this from selfies; we seek to be noticed by others, for this provides us with feelings of gratification and validation. Without the response of others, selfies are hollow.

It's almost as if through the culture of selfies we have all become Narcissus, reclining by the water's edge, pulling different poses and gazing at our own reflection; but we need people to come up from behind us and stare at our reflection too - we are not content with seeing merely ourselves, we want to see others looking at us while we attempt to mould their perception. This is a deeply human desire, and it is hardly new. However the scope of photography, and especially social media and the digital image, means we have an unprecedented ability to do this, to create visual montages that document our existence, with us at the centre of it. What my feelings really are regarding selfies remains ambiguous, but suddenly a world without them seems hard to imagine.