What the heck, America? Selfies breed selfishness

What the Heck, America?!?

This is the first installment in a weekly series of columns in which I will self-indulgently complain about whatever topic, trend, or event in American culture, politics or sports that ticks me off the most any given week.

This week Oxford University Press, the publisher of the Oxford dictionaries and unofficial vanguard of the English language, declared ‘selfie’ the word of the year for 2013. That means that selfie will be entered into the next edition of the Oxford dictionary as an official part of the English language. No word yet on whether the entry will be accompanied by a badly lit, poorly framed image of someone in desperate need of a new profile picture.

This development may come as a surprise to some people, not because 2013 wasn’t the year of the Selfie (thanks, Snapchat), but because the concept of a selfie is not new. As long as there have been cheap cameras and bathroom mirrors, selfies have been a plague to society. But now they are exploding all over the Internet. Smartphones are to blame. With the advent of the front-facing camera, selfies are no longer confined to the bathroom mirror. Now anyone anywhere can photograph him or herself doing nothing.

Therein lies my problem with the thing. Before, selfies were for people who didn’t have interesting things to photograph. Selfies reflected badly on the selfie-ee. A selfie profile pic meant you weren’t doing more interesting things that someone could photograph you doing, like climbing a mountain or going to a theme park or camping in the wilderness.

But now, people are taking selfies while doing those very things. It’s a testament to our supremely self-absorbed and materialistic society that no matter how exciting the activity, how exotic the locale, how beautiful the landscape, the instinct is to photograph ourselves.

We don’t even have the social skills to ask a stranger to take a photo for us anymore. The selfie used to reflect badly on the individual. Now, in the era of instagram and snapchat and other me-centric social media, the selfie, and its popularity, reflects badly on us all.

The selfie is an inherently selfish construct, with its basic concept being that you are more important than your surroundings. Whether literal or metaphorical, the way the selfie treats the subject’s relationship to its setting is telling. Where you are becomes a vague background, in contrast to a normal portrait that takes into account the subject’s environment. Instead of caring about where you are at and photographing yourself in that context, the selfie involves elevating the self above all else. But it needn’t be this way.

Next time, instead of taking that selfie, ask someone to take a picture of you. Next time you are in the great outdoors and want to document it, try and get more of that beautiful sunset in the frame and less of your mug. Next time, when you open up your camera app and before you start reaching for the “switch camera” button, take a look at what is on your screen. See the world displayed on your screen and appreciate it.

Heck, maybe even look at the world without a smartphone at all. But that’s another rant for another day…