Have you ever taken a selfie? Think about that question for a moment before you answer. Think about the word itself, which was just chosen as the International Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries. Surely you’ve taken a picture of yourself before. I have, and it’s usually because a family member wants a picture with me and there’s no one around to help. You reach out, get close, make your best guess at framing, and click away.
But that’s strictly utilitarian stuff. That’s not a word-of-the-year activity. What I’m asking is: Have you ever taken an honest-to-God selfie? Have you ever been alone, in your home or at the gym or even the damn supermarket, and decided that you needed to take a picture of yourself? As an act of vanity? With the express intent to publish the photo on social media in order to present an image of yourself—attractive, cool, sophisticated—to your friends and stalkers? Answer my fucking question: Have you ever taken a selfie?
I bet some people reading this have, but I bet most of you haven’t. It’s something people do when they’re needy, and when they want other people to say they’re hot, and when they completely lack the useful kind of selfconsciousness that helps us preserve some dignity.
I’m not trying to be prudish here. I think more people should get naked and stage performance art pieces that rile up the town elders. I’m all for challenging the boundaries of puritanical America. But a selfie is nothing but a declaration of our loneliness and superficiality. Yet it’s not a cry for help; it’s a cry for a quick fix, a little hit of dopamine for our egos. Something to keep us chugging along in our semi-permanent state of sadness, a thin balm for our overriding, desperate and insanely unrealistic desire for fame. It’s a symptom of our sickness. It’s the way in which we fail to face our problems.
It’s a good word of the year, though. It would be like choosing “Jersey Shore” or “Kardashian.” It says enough, doesn’t it?
I think, overall, the Internet is a bad thing. I’m personally so sick of it, though maybe it would be different if I didn’t have to be there all the time. The sad part, too, is that I’m addicted. There’s a point late in the day when I could spend the next 15 hours off the Internet without consequence. But I don’t. I make attempts, but even in those attempts I catch myself thinking about Twitter or email or some site that might be updated. I catch myself turning my head toward my computer, like the way an alcoholic’s eyes drift to the bartender when his beer is empty and he can’t focus on any conversation until the next one arrives.
Always I think, “What might I have done with my life, up to this point, if not for the Internet?” It’s hard to say. But it’s annoying to me that it draws me in so effectively, because I think it’s making me at least slightly unhappy. And why does it work so well? I don’t know. It’s like there’s something out there that, when you peel away the Internet’s protective shell, will shatter me.
I promise there’s a point to this. We’re not going off the rails; not completely, though it’s tempting. But a lot of us have this Internet problem. Our shared Internet problems probably exacerbate our individual Internet problems, because if someone tries to beat his or her own Internet problem, they find their community is enmeshed in Internet problems, and there’s no support system. You can’t recover from an addiction when you’re surrounded by other addicts.
When a person criticizes the Internet, someone else inevitably lists all its great qualities. I believe them; there are a lot of good guys out there, in every category. But then again, I don’t believe them. Because in the broader sense, we know what kind of content triumphs. We know what sucks us in, and we know what feeds the bad side of our addiction. There’s no need to name names; the quality speaks for itself, and it’s inescapable. The good stuff gets swamped. And that’s if you know where to find it in the first place, which is rare enough. Most Internet users are like drivers on the interstate; fast food everywhere, until it starts looking like the only option. And it’s cheap. And it tastes good.
I think our new reliance on a steady stream of stimuli has fucked our brains. There’s no focus, no patience. We’re frantic hunters for Something Better. We can’t even watch pornography the right way. I think it’s probably worse for people 10 years younger; the little junkies who have to compulsively check their phones every 10 seconds. Someone has taken a hot wire to our attention spans, burning them through. So we end up needing things that are BIG and OVERT. We need spectacular stories. How many times have you read the phrase “restore your faith in humanity” as a headline in the last month? We need .gifs, which reduce the human (or animal?) condition down to bizarre movements we can laugh at.
We need to mock, we need to snark, we need to bitch, we need to be offended, and then we need to be uplifted in the most anodyne way possible. We need to feel that Batkid means something, with its $105,000 price tag, when kids are starving and dying every day in our cities. We need to hide behind the hopelessness. We need to fabricate depth from the shallow waters. This is the cycle of life on the Internet.
(Interlude: In case you were curious, I am aware of how unfunny and angry this all sounds. I have no excuse or explanation. It’s just sort of happening.)
And selfie is a product of that cycle. The Internet enables the selfie. It’s the drama of the Internet played out on a smaller scale, for people who lack the self-critical impulse that keeps the rest of us from devaluing ourselves.
Hell, maybe the selfie people are evolved. Maybe they’ve cast off the last vestiges of shame that keep the rest of us down. But I don’t think so. I think they just represent a less refined version of what the rest of us experience. It’s a raw need for some kind of validation packaged into a photograph. The image itself could be hot or it could be funny or it could be impressive, but beneath the surface it all reeks of desperation. We’re not asking, we’re begging: Keep me safe from the trouble outside the gates.
Choosing “selfie” as the word of the year is such a brilliant choice because the definition is the same as the thing it symbolizes. The selfie is a snapshot of the West in 2013: melodramatic, gaudy, pitiful and lonely. Begging to be stimulated, begging to be validated, and totally, beautifully screwed.•
This essay originally appeared on Paste, December, 2013.