03/03/2014 11:06 GMT | Updated 02/05/2014 06:59 BST

To Thine Own Selfie Be True

Given that Selfie was chosen as 'International Word of the Year' by the OED for 2013, and therefore much written-about in the national papers, I shouldn't have been surprised when it happened. But nothing prepares you for the moment when somebody much older, who prides himself on his Luddite tendencies, abruptly casts a beady eye towards your iPhone, and asks 'So tell me: how do selfies work?' And thus, amid much laughter, it came about that my father, celebrating his 81st birthday with tea and cake, appeared in his first selfie, several weeks ago. I'm just grateful that the questioning stopped there: I could feel myself grow tense, in case he asked me to define the verb 'to twerk', added to the OED last year. Such questioning would have swung a wrecking ball through the careful choreography of family events...

The selfie is so last year perhaps, but it's hardly a new concept: it's today's equivalent of the artist's self-portrait, in the same way that instagramming your lunch is just the current version of still life. Humankind has always tried to bear reality through gazing into its own identity.

And it doesn't stop there. There's the shelfie too: posting a photo of your bookshelves or your current reading pile, whether in the attempt to impress with your levels of erudition, or to sum up who you are in what you read. The food or drink still-life extends 'being what you eat': your lunch, your coffee, that enticing glass of wine. I have heard, and shuddered, that some people prefer to post photos of their bottoms (the 'belfie') or their legs; teenage girls seem to sum up friendship with multiple pairs of Converse-clad feet in photo-posed proximity. Less self-portraiture, more self-marketing, as so much time is lost re-posing, editing, filtering and sharing carefully staged, faux-casual versions of the lives that we end up without much time to live. Reading a book becomes a process involving shelves, covers and individual lines being photographed, until you find that you're so busy photographing and displaying what you're reading, that you don't have time to read at all. You've taken so long to instagram your coffee that the photogenic froth has vanished and your drink's gone cold.

This endless smartphone-gazing narcissism is just part of the status anxiety of an era where it's not enough just to have a name, occupation, age, marital status, religious affiliation or nationality. Prufrock's preparation of 'a face to meet the faces that you meet' now includes your number of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, or how many endorsements your Linked-In profile has. It's not enough to see something you like: you have to 'pin' it to a virtual Pinterest board, creating a public statement of your own exquisite taste in fashion or the decoration of your home. Friendship or romantic entanglement are acted out through superficial back-channel 'liking' and 'favouriting', masquerading as genuine concern, the 'defriend' or 'unfollow' all too easy when rose-tint filters of easy 'liking' fail. There are so many kinds of insecurity, it seems: real life inadequacy was not enough...

I have been bombarded, recently, by endless new ways to define myself. So many people have been posting test results that it's felt as though everyone's received some strange mid-term report. What Shakespearean character are you? What London Underground line? What font? What European country? What Oscar acceptance speech-giver? What Philosopher? Are you a highly sensitive person, and which Oscar-nominated director should direct your life? The fact that I can cite results tells me mostly that I, too, procrastinate when there's important work in hand.

In a garden centre this weekend, adding 'ageing' to my self-defining status, I saw some racks of bird-feeders and bird-food, outside but under cover of a canopy, as hailstones echoed overhead. Closing time approached and the plant-hunting pensioners went home for tea; a few small birds flitted beneath the canopies and from shelf to shelf, checking for holes in the peanut bags, stopping too fleetingly for photographic evidence. A cheeky robin paused for a moment on the head of a hideous robin ornament. What a photo it would've made, I thought - amused as the bird's apparent sense of irony defied my wish for something witty I could tweet.


Nature defied the 'selfie', just as the echoing hailstones defied the start of Spring. I have learned this weekend that I am the combination of Hamlet, the Hammersmith and City line, Garamond, Malta, Roberto Benigni, and Jeremy Bentham; that I am a highly sensitive introvert whose life should be directed by Alexander Payne.

'I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be'. Just like Hamlet's existential anguish, though, I ask: in this thickening forest of 'selfie' definition, can we alight deftly, even if it's too briefly to record, on any remaining authentic features of ourselves?