Selfies: Word of the Year and… Insight into the Transparent Generations
21 November 2013

by tmartin on November 22, 2013

SELFIE! SAY IT THREE TIMES FAST now: selfie, selfie, selfie. Kinda’ makes you giggle, doesn’t it?

Maybe that’s why the general media went over the top reporting Oxford Dictionaries’ announcement this week that this cute ‘lil term took Word of the Year honors. Heck, it gave everyone a great chance to say selfie selfie selfie with a straight face in a public place!

The Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year highlights a word or an expression that that basked in the spotlight during the year. The Oxford Dictionaries folks said their researchers saw the frequency of the word selfie increase by 17,000% over the past 12 months.

In other words, selfie emerged from social media techie slang to become a noun that appears on CNN. It bumped out other 2013 trend terms like binge-watch (“I binge-watched the whole first season of Modern Family last Saturday on Hulu”), bitcoin (Coins of the Realm: What the Heck is a Bitcoin and Why Should You Care –, showrooming (“Did you showroom that monitor before you got it on Amazon?”), and twerk (Miley Cyrus. Yuck. ‘Nuf said.)

OK, hit the pause button a moment. You do know what a selfie is, right? You’ve probably even made one or two or 20 of them, even if you never used the word.

They are those often-goofy pictures you snap while holding your camera or smart phone out in front of you, so you can record the moment you or you and your sister/BFF/child/cousin/spouse came out of club/wedding/vacation attraction/pool/ party, leaned in close, and made a face at the camera.

Later on you’d all laugh about it. Maybe have it put on a mug as a silly holiday gift. Wonder aloud why no one is quite in focus. Sometimes wonder why exactly you made it … and then send note to self to keep away from camera when drinking cosmos or to start that diet asap.

Of course, this is 2013, so all the above has the added step of not only representing a moment of your personal history but also one you feel compelled to share. That means you turn around and promptly post it on Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/emerging platform of your choice.

Or, as Oxford Dictionaries defines it (& yes, of course they define it!):

    noun (plural selfies)

    a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website: occasional selfies are acceptable, but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary

The Oxford folks said they found the earliest use of the word in 2002, in an online Australian forum where a member posted a picture of said member’s face after a drunken fall down the stairs. “And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie,” posted the writer.

That moment in 2002 says a lot about where we are in 2013. It says a lot about the Millennial generation. And it says a lot about how we increasingly see ourselves in the world.

Millennials – people born between roughly 1980 and 2001– and Generation Z – those born after 2001 – live life in a transparent style that makes those in pre-Millennial generations cringe.

The hung-over – or perhaps still drunken? – Millennial who posted that first selfie typifies this worldview.

Some of us recoil in sheer horror at the mere idea that anyone would know we took an inebriated tumble, let alone share an image of our face afterward. To the new transparent world? It might elicit a shrug or an eye roll among peers. Everything lies out there for the world to see.

Selfie moments don’t live to be shared only with your actual friends and the moment’s co-participants. No, they live in the very public world, immortalizing you in a way that 15-minutes-of-fame never could.

Transparent lives aren’t about flash-in-the-pan fame or celebrity, the type of pop culture that Andy Warhol saw when he wrote in a 1968 art exhibition catalog, that “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” Instead, they are more about putting yourself out there under the assumption that you’re so compelling everyone will care. Or at least your always connected, always digital network of friends and followers will.

Remember the early era of the web log, before it became a blog?

It was the mid-1990s. The web and the oldest cohort of the Millennials grew through adolescence together, setting foot in the wide wonderful world together. And, together, this emerging interconnected digital medium and this emerging generation created endless electrons of blogging angst, angst that expressed the agony of first dates, first loves, first breakups, and dreams dashed and re-found.

These early blogs mostly featured teens and young adults expressing experiences they seemed certain no one else had ever had – and expressing them to the whole online world with one click.

Never before had any generation come of age with such a powerful ability to create – and to share those creations. Never before had a generation been able to expose its innermost self at the speed of pixels and bits. Never before had a generation been able to see itself reflected back on itself so quickly and easily and collaboratively.

In hindsight, the selfie seems almost pre-ordained.

It was only a matter of time before the Millennials and those who grew up behind them embraced their image-equipped mobile devices to continue their pattern of sharing. Everything.

And it was only a matter of time before swells of others started doing the same.

And so 2013 became the year where selfies – or at least use of the new term – grew 17,000 times over and you can’t stumble through the ether without getting treated to close up selfie moments of the famous and the not-so alike.

Where some see the erosion of privacy and respect for boundaries, others see a healthy and transparent way of life. Where some see obsessive self-focus, others see the blissful joy of sharing. Is it TMI, or just enough information?

Because it has become so easy to share, we do. As we do, our concept of the line between public life and private blur and waver.

Selfies offer one manifestation of a fundamental shift in self to world relationships. Whether they knew it or not Oxford Dictionaries really did nail a key trend of 2013.

So say it loud, say it proud, and post … but as the Oxford Dictionaries definition says posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary.

Yes, let’s give a cheer for the Word of the Year: Selfies, selfies, selfies!

I guess I’m not much of a sharer. I’ve made selfies – holding out my iphone to immortalize moments like me & child & NYC public library lions or me & child in a corn maze. Haven’t we all made these kinds of snaps? But I’m of the old school where the results end up in a print photo with limited circulation.

Despite this, the Pew Research Center’s Millennial quiz tells me I’m 82% Millennial. If you want to see “How Millennial are you?” give it a try yourself:

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