An Observation on Selfies and Social Norms

Last Saturday was a phenomenally beautiful day, so I went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for a few hours. Not a lot’s blooming yet, since the winter lasted so long this year. But there were flowers out, and so many people.

I had my Real Camera with me and took a bunch of shots. Then I decided that I wanted a photo of myself in front of the flowering magnolias, so I took a selfie with my phone.

Then I noticed that I felt weird. I wondered how many people had seen me take the selfie and what they would think. I braced myself for some friendly older person to run up and offer to take the photo for me, but nobody came. (This is, thankfully, New York.) I sighed in relief, wandered over to a different tree, and took another.

And I found myself wondering why I’d felt so weird about the selfie, and how this relates to a broader trend of selfie-hate that I’ve observed online.

Much of the ire about selfies seems to be directed towards women and young people specifically, which is ironic given the historical trend of rich and powerful older white men having actual oil paintings of themselves commissioned and displayed in their homes. That’s a lot more effort than even the most well-posed selfies, I’ll tell you.

But what about a sightseeing selfie? All around me, people were having their photos taken in front of beautiful plants. The difference is, they’d come with friends or partners or family, and I’d come alone. Having someone take your photo in front of something cool is a pretty common thing to do while sightseeing. Nobody seriously thinks there’s anything weird or awkward about that (although they might get annoyed when people are sightseeing right where you’re hurrying down the sidewalk to get to work). What if you’re sightseeing by yourself?

There’s a way that you’re expected to experience certain things–restaurants, movies, landmarks, botanical gardens–and that is, not alone. Taking a selfie in the botanical garden felt weird because I felt like I was expected to have someone there with me to take it. A “normal” person doesn’t just go to botanical gardens alone; they have people to go with.

I actually don’t usually have the option of taking a friend or partner along when I go exploring in the city because most of my friends and partners live in other states. But even when I do have the option, I’d usually rather not. I like doing things by myself. I like taking as long as I want to set up my shots without someone hovering over my shoulder. (Also, I’ve noticed that when I have people with me while shooting, they always try to suggest shots to me. I’d rather they just took the shots themselves!) I like the quiet. I like not worrying about being sufficiently entertaining and cheerful.

Having someone else there to take your picture isn’t just a sign that you’re a Normal Person Who Hangs Out With People; it’s also a way to make sure that you don’t appear narcissistic or whatnot. There’s a plausible deniability there–maybe they’re taking that photo of you for themselves! But in fact, I don’t think it’s exactly a controversial claim that lots of people like having photos of themselves in cool places they’ve been, whether it’s to show them off to others or just keep for themselves to remember that experience.

I don’t have some huge point to make here. I just wanted to reiterate both for myself and for others that doing things alone is okay and totally reasonable, especially if you’re not a very outgoing person, and that it makes no sense for it to be “normal” to have people take your picture in front of things but “weird” to take your own picture in front of things. Most of the arguments I see against “selfies” are really just thinly veiled attempts to shame people for taking pleasure in themselves and their lives and wanting to share that with people. Fake modesty seems like a crappy alternative.

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An Observation on Selfies and Social Norms
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6 thoughts on “An Observation on Selfies and Social Norms

  1. 1

    You seem to feel fine about doing things on your own, and I’m genuinely happy for you. No sarcasm here.

    However if you genuinely see no problem taking selfies on your own, why do you care about what others think about what you do, unless they’re people you associate with?

    It’s not like their opinions about your selfies are going to be relevant in your life.

    1. 1.1

      Kirbmarc: Why does there have to be a reason? Having people shoot you dirty looks or laugh at you hurts. Knowing that people think I’m full of myself or silly or immature hurts. It’s not about Rational Logic 100% of the time. Humans evolved to care what fellow humans think of them, even when they’re not in the same tribe (there are some scary research studies showing that people feel hurt when rejected by KKK members despite hating the KKK!). All this “why do you care about what people think” stuff rings very hollow for me as someone who’s studied psychology.

      You seem to feel fine about having people think badly of you, and I’m genuinely happy for you. No sarcasm there! But not everyone’s feelings follow Rational Logical Principles all the time.

  2. 2

    Isn’t the selfie-hate just anti-fashion? For a while, it seemed like a lot of people were perfectly happily doing selfies – so the control/conformity crowd started making fun of it. I assume it’s just that they’re angry that they can’t do selfies with famous people (or whatever) and are engaging in a little bitter well-poisoning.

  3. 3

    I vaguely remember a media lecture where the fact that in holiday photos, working class people take pictures of themselves in the landscape while middle class people take pictures of the landscape.

    Its down to working class people wanting to show their friends back home that they are having fun somewhere, while middle class people want to show that they “appreciate” the scene.

    Either way its all classist bullshit, so enjoy doing exactly what you want to.

  4. 4

    Selfies these days seem to fall into three categories:

    1: Self-portraits. As you note, there’s plenty of historical precedent here. It only is a ‘problem’ when young women do it, because, you know, reasons.

    2: Vacation Selfie. Really, this is the same beast as the self-portrait, just against a cool backdrop. The critique of these tends to be less about the content, and more about the increasing use of selfie sticks (which are never quite as inconspicuous or innocuous as their wielders seem to think–in particular, a lot of creepy upskirt aficionados have given them a bad name). Again, though, there’s nothing wrong with putting yourself in your own vacation picture.

    3: News Event Selfie. This is the area where a little more discretion would be useful. The Black Lives Matter marches, for instance, are not a backdrop for someone to take a self-portrait while mugging for the camera. Essentially, if you’re treating other people as props, then it becomes problematic. Otherwise, yeah, go for the selfie, every time.

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