When you’re mad, or happy, or looking into the eyes of your sweetie, do you know what your face looks like? Probably not, according to Dr. James Kilner, neuroscientist at the University College London.
Kilner holds that you know very little about what your face looks like most of the time, though you probably believe you look much more attractive and much younger than you actually are. Bummer, right?
But, according to Kilner’s research, you might find solace where you least expect it: in the front-facing camera of your smartphone.
His studies show that our ever-growing affinity towards selfies stems from the fact that we can now doctor them to match the perception we have of ourselves as total hotties. In an experiment, subjects were shown various versions of a selfie, some edited to be more attractive and others to be less attractive. When asked to choose the original, most subjects actually chose the version that showed a more attractive visage.
All Selfie Everything
Our devices, and the services we use with them, encourage selfies. There isn’t a new phone on the market that doesn’t have a front-facing camera. Instagram lets us beautify and distort those phone images. Twitter, Viber and countless other apps offer similar filters. Snapchat lets us add a bit of reality to our camera snaps, by sending a fleeting moment through the ether the same way we would in real life. And then there’s straight up Photoshop.
This, along with the intrinsic need to explore the self, may explain why selfies have grown so popular.
The #selfie tag on Instagram has over 72 million entries and new businesses are sprouting up to capitalize on the craze. People are taking so many selfies, that doctors are seeing an increase in head lice among teens.
More than ever before, we have the ability to capture our facial expressions, enhance them, and use them to communicate with each other with an unparalleled level of control over our appearance.
No longer just a teen pop culture trend, Selfies have become fodder for philosophical and psychological discussions.
Narcissus, Is That You?
The NYT’s Jenna Wortham wrote an excellent piece on the selfie, arguing that facial expressions belong in our conversations. By showing your face, you’re offering a more realistic window into your existence. It’s not about vanity; but rather about expressing yourself the same way you do in real life, and having a record of that expression over time.
But is it really “real life” that you’re expressing with an overly doctored selfie?
Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better, sees it as self-exploration.
Thompson believes that the narcissism theory — that those who take selfies are simply (and pathetically) self-obsessed — is an argument that’s been used for ages during each big technological shift. When mirrors first became cheap, there was a great deal of resistance from many who believed that mirrors would unnaturally focus our attention on ourselves.
“Every time you take a selfie, you re-see yourself through a new set of eyes,” said Thompson. “Instagram did something even more interesting and added filtering. Not only are you looking at yourself in the original picture, but you can re-see the photo over and over and over again as you change filters.”
Research has not yet determined whether or not our edited selfies, the ones that make us look super sexy, have some sort of long-term affect on our self-esteem. But if selfies are helping us see ourselves the way we want to, as suggested by Kilner’s research, is that really a bad thing?
Many people out there, overwhelmed by Photoshopped super models and sexy studs in mainstream media, feel bad about their appearance. Selfies, whether through Instagram or Snapchat, might help with that in the long-term.
Selfies could lead to more self(i.e.)-confidence. That’s not to say that whoever wears out their front-facing camera first will get higher grades, or a better job, or a hotter lover. However, the more conscious you are of way you look, the way you interact, and the way your body language speaks for you, the more you can improve it.
Consider how much we pay attention to the behaviors and expressions of those around us. Body language accounts for the vast majority of our communication with each other. You know when someone’s distracted, or tired, or excited. You can tell the difference between how your girlfriend genuinely smiles at you and fakes it for her boss. You can tell when your mother or father is putting on a brave face for you, even though they’re really stressed.
Now imagine what you look like in those situations. Do you know the difference between your genuine smile and your fake one? What does your brave face look like?
Selfies, and every extension of them, offer an entryway into this era of self-exploration.
Selfie All The Things!
Video chat is supposedly as close as we get to real-life, human interaction, but it’s not normal at all.
We aren’t accustomed to seeing our own faces in the middle of a conversation. As a result, we spend a good deal of our time in Skype video chat looking at ourselves, and ultimately having a less in-depth conversation.
Even trying to look the other person in the eye is impossible, because of the placement of the camera. If you look directly at the person, you appear to be looking just below them, from their perspective. If you look directly at the camera, you give the effect of looking directly at them, but you’re not.
Even the technology built specifically for selfies isn’t necessarily perfect.
Instagram gives you tools that give you total control over your appearance. With the right angle, blur effects, and filtering, Alf can start to look like Kate Upton. This enhancement gives you a confidence boost, but then you have to deal with the Instagram community, ever-ready to mete out judgement in the form of likes. One selfie may get five likes, and another fifty. Does that mean you should conform to the more “likeable” version of yourself.
Snapchat, on the other hand, doesn’t offer any quantification. There is no “like count” on your snaps, but there is ephemerality, destroying any record of the photo you took. Though you can filter these photos, you can’t look back on them.
Just Between Me And You (And Myself-ie)
Whether selfies will raise our self-esteem is still an unanswered question, but probably not for long. Selfies aren’t a passing trend. This is where communication is headed.
My mother, years ago, only saw her friends and family in person. She only spoke on the phone to plan a meeting, at the mall or the movie theater or wherever. I’m not sure where people hung out in the 60s. The post office, maybe? She had absolutely no idea what she looked like when communicating with others.
A generation later, you’ll find a 12-year-old Jordan talking constantly to her friends on the phone. And then on AIM. And on text. The barrier of location had been broken, permanently. At any time, in any place, I could communicate with just about anyone. Thanks, internet.
Flash forward five or ten years, to my younger sister in her glorious college years. She spends more time looking into her phone screen than anything else. She’s texting and FaceTimeing and Facebooking. If she’s not Snapchatting, she’s Instagramming. The majority of her Facebook photos include herself.
More so than ever before, we can see ourselves. During our conversations. During our time alone. Always.
For better or worse, we should all start preparing ourselves for a good look in the mirror. My mother always said, “no one can love you until you learn to love yourself(ie).”