JANUARY 26, 2018
THERE’S A PASSAGE in Alicia Eler’s new book, The Selfie Generation: How Our Self Images are Changing Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent, and Culture, in which she discusses sexting with someone as she lies in bed. As the selfies they share grow steamier and steamier, Eler’s paramour asks her to send what is known on the internet as a clitpic. Eler then describes taking off her pants and contorting herself so that she can get her pudenda, if you will, in the frame. As she takes the selfie and clicks send, Eler discusses the change she experiences: from heart-beating, hands-shaking lust to a flood of anxiety made manifest in a lump at the back of her throat.
For Eler, the thrill and sheer carnality of sharing a clitpic gives way to the fear about where it might end up. It’s a telling passage insofar as it encapsulates some of the core issues Eler examines in The Selfie Generation: intimacy and publicness, agency and surveillance. It’s a moment when the selfie’s power to communicate meaning — in this case, desire — clearly intersects with its status as a glob of code that circulates among other users. By sharing a selfie of this sort, Eler exercises some control over the representation of her body. At the same time, she cedes much of that control by sending it to someone else, thereby pushing it into the flow of data that moves across networks and infrastructures. As she points out, privacy settings are established at the whim of corporations whose financial interests perpetually redraw the lines regarding what is ours and what is not. Eler’s clitpic is never really hers, at all. Therein lies the contradiction at the heart of the selfie: it frees us and contains us all at once.
Through a mix of reportage and personal reflection, Eler gives a snapshot of the snapshot, situating the selfie in a variety of cultural milieux: intimacy and relationships, journalism and activism, memes and savvy advertising. One of her primary goals is responding to the contempt with which people (often but not always people of older generations) talk about selfies. Throughout the book, Eler provides readers with new ways of thinking about selfies through an array of different case studies. From her point of view, the speed and ease with which selfies are dismissed as meaningless narcissism prevent a nuanced understanding of their use-values for the people who take and share them.
Like most of Eler’s examples, the passage about sexting does double-duty. She frames selfies as way of communicating intimacy. As the story of her evening of sexting indicates, selfies are frequently the means by which people maintain connections with one another. It is also part of Eler’s broader argument, wherein she suggests that seeking validation in the form of sharing a selfie is not necessarily a slippery slope to self-obsession. One of the strengths of Eler’s analysis is that she does not routinely lapse into defensiveness when countering those who would disagree with her. Instead, she offers concrete examples of how the validation people receive by sharing selfies is meaningful to them. For instance, Eler discusses how the selfies shared by people with chronic illnesses circulate information about their struggles with ailments and the coping mechanisms they use to weather them. These selfies help people who feel isolated in their disabilities to build connections with others who share their experiences. She also describes how selfies of this sort encourage patients to advocate for themselves in hospitals and doctors’ offices. So the forms of validation that attend sharing selfies are far more than mere vanity.
Even so, it’s to Eler’s credit that she understands how the specter of narcissism always haunts the selfie. As she argues rather forcefully, much of the disparagement lobbed at selfies takes the form of condescension toward women. I think Eler’s periodic references to Kim Kardashian, the celebrity selfie-taker par excellence, help her flesh out that issue well. Kardashian makes a living by taking and sharing selfies and is, as a result, probably the most widely recognized woman in the world. That’s definitely the case for people in the age bracket Eler dubs “the selfie generation.” Kardashian has tens of millions of followers across Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, where she shares selfies in which she is impeccably coiffed and dressed or, perhaps more often, in various stages of undress. (I can report that she spends more time than you might think naked and covered in glitter in what seems to be her bathroom.) Kardashian is the very embodiment of what many perceive to be the self-indulgence of the selfie.
Yet Eler uses Kardashian’s celebrity as the ur-example of how all people take and share selfies. For that reason, referring to Kardashian provides Eler with a way of articulating how the mundane moments that people capture and share in the form of selfies figure into the broader fabric of internet culture. The flood of images from her everyday life that Kardashian shares on social media — drying her hair, boarding a plane — invite likes and comments from her tens of millions of followers. Her posts then loop them into algorithms that shape the rest of the content they see online. In that sense, we are all Kim Kardashian. When we share selfies in search of likes and comments, we become enmeshed in the processes of datamining that fuel the digital economy. For as risible as people find Kardashian, when it comes to selfies and social media, we are really no better or worse than she is. Most of us are just poorer.
Selfies incite any number of feelings in the people who view them; they make us laugh, enrage us, or simply bore us to tears. One of Eler’s main points is that selfies are not just Kardashian-esque banality. Throughout The Selfie Generation, Eler asks that the reader think about the times we scroll through social media and encounter selfies depicting the hardships and struggles of others: illness, discrimination, persecution. In a lot of ways, these selfies ask that we witness someone else’s pain. The rub is: Being on the receiving end of a selfie makes someone else’s difficult experiences about us. Our initial reactions are instinctive. We wince, well up, or look away in discomfort. When we see selfies that document the hardships of others, our reactions can be sympathetic. Even so, sympathy is our reaction to someone else’s experience. Empathy, actually stepping into someone else’s shoes and understanding an experience from the perspective of the person who lived it, is a step beyond sympathy. It is more difficult because it requires more work. Making someone else’s difficulties about us is nothing if not narcissistic. In many ways, stalling at sympathy in those instances is no less self-involved than a duckface selfie tagged with #blessed.
Eler understands that. It imbues her analysis with a self-reflexivity that helps her deconstruct the complicated feelings — and the tricky politics — that attend viewing selfies that depict the struggles of others. In one passage, Eler recounts following a transgender acquaintance on Instagram during his transition. She recalls the changes in J’s face in the selfies he posted after he began taking testosterone, as well as the scars on his torso in the selfies he posted following his top surgery. By discussing her encounters with J’s selfies, Eler underlines the weird politics at work when intimate content is shared on a network where one has weak ties. To that end, Eler liked J’s posts because she wanted to support him in his transition, even if she did not know him well. At the same time, she admits an awareness that liking someone’s transition selfies is, perhaps, more about how it makes her feel than it is about him.
Eler’s introspection on this issue raises a question at the heart of the book as a whole. She emphasizes the power hierarchies at work when she views the selfies that document a transgender man’s experience through the eyes of a cisgender woman. In doing that, she makes plain the limitations of witnessing, in general, and the ideological questions raised by witnessing in the form of viewing someone else’s selfie, more specifically. I see Eler’s discussion of J’s presence on social media as an illustrative moment because it lays bare the fact that the politics at work when looking at someone else’s selfies involve encounters with hierarchies of power and cultural difference.
Throughout The Selfie Generation, Eler expresses her desire to add nuance to the conversations we have about selfies. She does that most explicitly in the chapters that highlight their potential to perform activist work. Eler uses the idea of selfie journalism as a way to shift conversations about selfies away from debates about narcissism and toward the political potential of selfies. She uses the term selfie journalism to describe the impact that social media has had on reportage of current events, like how people became aware of the shooting of Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer when his fiancée live-streamed it on Facebook. Eler also uses the term in reference to the Twitter posts of people in Aleppo, who shared selfies when they found themselves trapped in the crossfire in a battle between the military of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and opposition groups who had attempted to depose him.
If Eler and I were to have a beer, I would press her on the power of selfie journalism to do activist work. I do not disagree with her — the potential is there — but I think she is more hopeful about it coming to fruition than I am. When I read the chapter about selfie journalism, I thought back to seeing the footage that Diamond Reynolds streamed on Facebook as her fiancé Castile sat slumped in his car as a bloodstain bloomed across his T-shirt. I remembered my eyes going wide and then looking up at the ceiling because it was so scary that it felt too real to take in at once. I have heard others say they could not look away from Reynolds’s footage. When I read Eler’s discussion of it, I remembered the difficulty I had looking at it at all. I also recalled scrolling through Twitter during the Battle of Aleppo and seeing the images Eler references: people caked in blood and kneeling in the dirt, often holding the bodies of loved ones who had either been shot or crushed in the rubble of a collapsed building. As I read this chapter, I remembered the night I sat on my couch and scrolled through images of people in Aleppo on Twitter. It was brutal. My face was wet before I noticed I had been crying. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I put my phone down, put my face in my hands, and wept until it hurt.
What I remember most from learning about those events via social media was the mix of paralysis and shame I felt. My experience of them had a good deal in common with Eler’s experience of seeing a transgender man she did not really know document his transition on Instagram. What was I actually doing for the people I was allegedly witnessing? And who was I to be crying about anything? Should Eler and I have that beer, I would ask her to convince me that there can be a linear connection between the experience of witnessing the pain of others via selfies and participation in the slow, daunting labor required of lobbying for legislative change. I make the effort by donating money and calling elected officials but will confess that doing it can be so taxing and laborious that I feel deflated and am not nearly as diligent about it as I could be. How might the shock of seeing Diamond Reynolds’s livestream and the horror of images from Aleppo do more than prompt small gestures in the immediate aftermath? How might they actually sustain activism over time?
My favorite part of The Selfie Generation is the section where Eler examines a controversial photo from the 2016 US presidential election taken by photographer Victor Ng. In it, hundreds of women turn their backs to candidate Hillary Clinton as she speaks at a campaign stop. They do that in order to position their cell phones so that they can take selfies with her and post them to social media. In the days after Ng took the photo, several commentators used the image in order to bemoan selfies as manifestations of self-involvement and an obsession with celebrity.
Eler underlines how that critique prevents attention to how selfies with Hillary Clinton helped women feel connected to a movement focused on electing the first female president. In an election where Clinton’s opponent actually bragged about having assaulted women, the selfie-takers’ feelings of solidarity were especially important to them. Insofar as sharing those selfies helped motivate other voters, Eler sees them as the desired outcome of a media-savvy political strategy. This section is a good example of how Eler pokes holes in consensus narratives. Election coverage often applauded Donald Trump for his social media savvy. For that reason, Eler arches an eyebrow in response to the way Hillary Clinton’s success in doing the same thing was dismissed as feminine excess. “But her emails,” indeed.
Eler makes it clear, even after just a few pages, that her interest in selfies is, in part, related to her commitment to progressive causes. For that reason, The Selfie Generation offers some good grist for the mill for technophile lefties as they contemplate how to continue working for those causes in the face of a reinvigorated neofascist movement. Commonly referred to as the “alt-right,” this movement is equally technophilic and emboldened by a presidential administration that seems to welcome its support — often on Twitter, by the president himself, who, for the record, has fewer followers than Kim Kardashian. For a long time, conventional wisdom on the left was, in the words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never the dismantle master’s house.” But as Eler argues throughout this book, the ubiquity of social media and the prevalence of sharing selfies is such that they likely have to. Let’s hope, as Eler does, that they can.
Hollis Griffin is associate professor of Communication at Denison University and author of Feeling Normal: Sexuality and Media Criticism in the Digital Age (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017).