“I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that one should become a person like other people” – Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver (1976)
I’m on the internet.
I mean I have access to the internet.
Duh. How else would I be writing?
What I mean is that besides being on the internet writing right now, I use social media.
Am I supposed to put social media in quotes or capitalize it or something?
I wouldn’t say that I have an internet “presence” (I am putting quotes around that word) or something.
I’m no Jenna Marbles.
But I’m sure I’ve been on the World Wide Web long enough to suspect that the government might have looked at what I’ve posted online at least once.
At least that’s what I assume from everything that Edward Snowden says.
If you’re on the internet. Someone has watched or is watching you.
Internet “presence” not required.
This seems a little weird to me.
I don’t have the investigatory curiosity of the NSA, but I know for most people peeping into the average person’s email box wouldn’t seem worthwhile. After all, who wants to spend all day sifting through unintentionally forwarded messages (usually off-color, potentially job-losing jokes), a marginal friend’s political rants, inappropriate vacation pics, video of someone’s cousin’s niece’s goddaughter’s 2nd birthday party, or Grandma Jean’s old borscht recipe?
Wouldn’t watching someone who actually has a “presence” on the internet be much more useful?
At least it would be more entertaining.
My philosophical inclinations tells me that ultimately I know nothing, but I know even if my online activity isn’t being monitored by the NSA, that whatever I post is likely to be seen by someone, somewhere.
At least that’s what I assume.
But is a 43 year-old single man in Toledo, Ohio who posts pictures of his cats dressed as characters from popular TV shows on Facebook really more likely to be an Al Qaeda operative?
Now, I know be truly watch-worthy on the internet (to have a “presence”), the first indicator that someone is worth watching is that one has posted pictures of one’s self.
Lots of pictures.
Too many pictures.
Preferably taken in a bathroom.
Those who are familiar with the internet identify this type of self-portraiture as is commonly called: the selfie.
Whether you’re Justin Bieber or a 15 year-old Justin Bieber fan, the internet is an infinite digital reservoir for one’s self portraits.
This is me doing a selfie:
If you think about it, the selfie isn’t such a new thing.
All the great artists painted self portraits.
Those are selfies, right?
Cindy Sherman does nothing but self portraits.
If you really think about it, is there really a difference between a van Gogh and a selfie?
That’s not a rhetorical question.
You see, there’s a real philosophical conundrum here.
Sure, posting pics of ourselves online is a fun way to catfish meet other people or to stay in touch with friends. Or even as an art or means of self-expression.
But what does the selfie say about us philosophically?
Certainly devoting one’s online presence (oops, “presence”) exclusively to self portraiture may be viewed (and perhaps rightly so) as narcissistic. And it may be difficult to argue that you’re not inordinately self-centered when most of your photographs look like this:
Ok you say. We need to get a philosophical grip of ourselves. Selfies are innocuous. They’re nothing more than young folks with their smart phones posting harmless pictures online. But here’s the thing: have you noticed that there is an immoderate amount of self portraits online? That people seem to be overcome with the urge to snap photos of themselves everywhere, in any situation – no matter how inappropriate photo-snapping may have been?
Given the volume of online self portraits, one could argue that our cultural fixation on posting images of ourselves is exactly the kind of vain self indulgence that gets in the way of thinking and acting in ways that benefits more than us. Bertrand Russell says:
One of the troubles about vanity is that it grows with what it feeds on. The more you are talked about, the more you wish to be talked about.
We post pictures of ourselves to show others our massive hotness. We post selfies to show off our new tattoos. Or our ability to pose for pictures cleverly. Our selfies show others how hip we are. That we have a presence on the internet.
That we’re relevant.
That we matter.
That we are important.
That we exist.
All eyes on me.
When you get down to it, the philosophical problem with the selfie is that when we spend too much time thinking of ourselves, who we are, or how we are perceived by others – if we reduce ourselves to nothing more than mere images, we get caught in the trivial; as mere visual beings we lack substance. We become a society that values style over substance.
In particular, our own style.
Only our own style.
We fall in love with our own reflection.
Think of it this way: can a narcissist truly do any good for others? Of course, the answer is no. A narcissist lacks the ability to identify or sympathize with others. A narcissist lacks empathy. A narcissist, by definition, cannot fix his attention to anyone or anything beyond himself.
Now imagine an entire culture of people where a fixation on the self is encouraged.
A culture of psychologically solipsistic people, encouraged to think (and sometimes act) as if we are the only people who exist can never be a good thing. A successful, if not philosophically adept, society requires that people pay attention to other people at least some of the time.
Ok, you say. Sure, someone who is overly fascinated with their own image may have some narcissistic issues. And the internet is undoubtedly saturated with amateur self portraiture. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that an internet full of selfies is indicative of a culture that is self absorbed and lacks philosophical depth or awareness. Blogs, pod- casts, personal YouTube channels, and DIY porn sites are better examples of online self-indulgence. Even if we never personally post pictures of ourselves, there’s plenty of us out there in cyberspace.
Have you ever been horrified to see yourself tagged in a photo you didn’t know someone took?
For some, the selfie isn’t all about the image. It represents the philosophical act of self expression.
Don’t scoff. I’m being serious here.
When we post pictures of ourselves online, we are in control if the image that we display to the world. We can use visual images as a means of communication when we are unable to express ourselves in words. A person may be forced to hide particular aspects of their identity or preferences in the real world, but on the internet, a person can freely communicate exactly what they think, feel, or how they want to express themselves.
But if we control the image others see, we are free to post whatever image of who we want to be. Perhaps more importantly, we are free to post images of who we truly are.
Selfies are acts of existentialist expression.
Yes they are.
I use this image as my Facebook profile pic:
It’s obviously not a selfie (although I will insist that it is).
But what does this image say about me?
The image might say that I am a fan of the TV show Breaking Bad. And that I like cats. And perhaps it shows that I have a sense of humor. The fact that it’s not a picture of me says a great deal about me as well. It may say that I’m intentionally and/or maliciously hiding something like my age, race or gender.
It may say that I’m shy and am afraid of being judged before someone gets to know me.
It could also say that I’m a cat person who identifies with the methamphetamine-dealing, anti-hero, Walter White and am looking for others who share my proclivities and point of view.
What does a selfie say about any of us?
If I was Cindy Sherman, my selfies would critique and deconstruct media images of femininity.
You might think this picture is nothing more than an expression of obnoxious vanity, but someone else may see a kindred spirit or philosophically like-minded individual.
If we think of selfies as a personality compatibility gauge, we can quickly determine who we may or may not be attracted to or want to associate with or friend on the internet.
A person who posts a selfie like this:
Sends us a message: The message tells us this is a man who likes his guns and likes his Guitar Hero guitars.
His message will either appeal to or repel us.
If you think about it, selfies are kind of like those old notes we used to pass around in elementary school.
The thing about selfies is that it’s not just solipsists and Randian objectivists who think that they’re the center of the universe. People are not only fascinated with images of other people, we’re fascinated with images of ourselves. We think in images. It would be quite un-human if the internet did not reflect our innate fascination with images.
And even if the selfie is nothing more than an exercise in narcissism, it doesn’t mean that selfies can’t be philosophically useful. Here are a few philosophically worthy things we can learn from selfies:
A fan of Kant’s ethics would not post naked pics (there’s no way you‘d want to universalize that).
A Cartesian dualist knows not to post pictures taken in a bathroom.
It’s highly unlikely that an Aristotelian-type magnanimous man would post pictures of himself smoking weed.
A nihilist would never do duckface.
A Marxist is not inclined to show off his bling.
Philosophers have a intrinsic ability to read a deeper meaning into anything.
Remember: There’s a meaning to everything… unless you’re a postmodernist.