When Twitter's CFO, Anthony Noto's tweeting gaffe signalled Twitter's interest in the Justin Bieber backed selfie app Shots, he demonstrated just how economically important the selfie is as a marker of cultural change in the digital era. For those who see the selfie as a trivial act of vanity, they would do well to understand why they are so important; the dramatic rise in selfies documents the changing function and form of the photograph, social media, and political protest.
Whilst selfies are not solely a product of the digital age, and early examples can even be found in the 19th century, their rise in popularity is largely coincident with the rise of social media, starting almost 10 years ago on MySpace. As Smartphone cameras have evolved, the ease with which they can now be taken has grown. Indeed, much communication online takes the form of creating, exchanging and viewing images - so much more efficient than a thousand words - and that as lives are lived online, it is little wonder that so much time is devoted to growing the profile of the digital self, in the world of 'pics or it didn't happen'.
Yet there appears to be a simultaneous anxiety that in the ever growing world of social media, our faces, our lives could be lost in the ocean of images, and there is a need to not just be seen, but recognised, valued, and, simply, liked. Although at risk of becoming a tool for the vain, the selfie may be a plea not to be forgotten or overlooked in and amongst social media newsfeeds. Tagging yourself to the popular, or the famous, in a recognisable setting is not merely self-promotion.
Selfies require quite a range of skills, and at times courage, as when 14 year old Jack Surgenor squeezed a cheeky selfie into the Queen's visit to Belfast in June of this year, although he was not alone on doing so. In the spirit of extraordinary photos shared online (think 'Extreme Ironing'), a selfie can be a breath-taking display of speed, agility, technical skill and bravado, much like its sibling, the photobomb, all in the proximity of a celebrity, if not monarch.
Historically, the photograph captures the view seen by the photographer, as if we are looking through their eyes at a scene or event. The selfie changes this; we are no longer included in the image by looking on with the photographer, but are excluded, in a third position, looking at the photographer and what or whoever they are with. This exclusion is exacerbated by the fact that the photographer has 'tagged' themselves to whoever else is present, to increase views, likes and retweets. In this way the selfie marks a great shift in our thinking about the photograph, and what it captures and this is not just a vanity drive on the part of the photographer.
Whilst many selfies can be heart-warmingly funny, we should also recognise that they are the tool of the excluded and oppressed, and play an important role in activism, for example the young women of Saudi Arabia dangerously taking selfies whilst driving (and the danger was not due to the impact taking a selfie driving). In that context an image really does say more than paragraphs of empty political rhetoric as we witness someone place their future on the line. Not to be forgotten.
So the rise and ramifications of the selfie should not be underestimated. There is even now a selfie toaster (http://tinyurl.com/pgkpk7l)! But is it the difficulty creating a selfie with it that has killed off Google Glass, which remains more like a conventional camera? In certain parts of the world such as South Korea 'selfie sticks', and specialist selfie cameras such as the HTC RE, are so widely used now that they have to be registered for fear they disrupt important radio communications (http://tinyurl.com/qeg4en5). Technology is responding to the overwhelming demands from those who are learning how to be recognised and not forgotten in the digital age.