My Word: The Selfie Generation

According to Oxford Dictionaries, which voted it “International Word of the Year,” “Selfie can actually be traced back to 2002.

Woman taking selfie (photo credit: (Illustrative photo: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusa)
Woman taking selfie
(photo credit: (Illustrative photo: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusa)
The year 2013 was noteworthy for a birth. Not the arrival of Prince George in Great Britain – although I wish the royal baby well – it was the word “selfie” that grabbed my attention. In case you slept your way through the year just ended and missed the addition of the word to the global culture, a selfie refers to the pictures people take of themselves – you can spot them doing it by the distinctive way they hold their digital phones and the funny faces they make. The result is not a pretty picture in any sense.
The pregnancy was longer, harder and more public than Kate Middleton’s (or the Duchess of Cambridge, to give her proper title).
According to Oxford Dictionaries, which voted it “International Word of the Year,” “Selfie can actually be traced back to 2002 when it was used in an Australian online forum. The word gained momentum throughout the English-speaking world in 2013 as it evolved from a social media buzzword to mainstream shorthand for a self-portrait photograph.”
The most famous – or infamous – selfie is the one taken by President Barack Obama together with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela, as if any of them lack photographs to pass on to his or her children and heirs.
It turns out that, courtesy of Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter and the wonders of the Web, “Selfies at funerals” is a recognized genre. And to think that my first instinct at a grave is to make sure I’ve turned my phone off rather than to shoot myself.
The fact that Mandela’s death will be remembered for that extremely awkward group shot and the fake interpreter of sign language is pathetic in its own, very 2013, way, although among the most intelligent uses of smartphones that I have seen is the animated phone conversation between two deaf friends.
It was also very 2013 that the world discovered that, in the supposed interests of American security, the country which prides itself on its principles of freedom spies on friends and enemies alike, but despite its vast intelligence apparatus, no US security detail thought to check the identity of the self-confessed deluded man standing close enough to the president to hit him with one of his outrageous hand movements.
Photos of The Photo were reproduced around the world in seconds. They clearly showed a sour-faced first lady not joining in the party – maybe she wasn’t invited – but at least maintaining the sort of decorum you might expect from world leaders at a gathering ahead of the funeral of one of the most prominent people of his generation.
Gossip columnists predicted that the photo marked the end of the marriage of Barack and Michelle Obama, and it can’t be easy being married to a man so clearly in love with himself yet stalking German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The selfie is a strange act. I admit I don’t get it (or do it, publicly or in private). But then – much to the disgust of my son – I don’t own a smartphone (or maybe that should say that no smartphone owns me, tempting me to do things that defy common sense).
I enjoy taking photos more than being in them; when I take a picture of stunning scenery or the wonders of nature, I see little point in adding my own image. It’s not that I lack an ego – no weekly columnist is deficient in that department – but if I want to remember a moment or place, it’s enough for me to have the picture I took.
I have, however, had a few occasions that I consider missed opportunities over a 25-year career at The Jerusalem Post. My photo album includes pictures I took of the Dalai Lama during the first of his visits to Israel in the 1990s, but none of the two of us together. (The Dalai Lama, by the way, did not attend the Mandela memorial – something to keep in mind as the status of the late South African leader goes from being a hero to a saint.
Nobody is perfect and that certainly includes Mandela.) When I recently mentioned to a friend that I regretted not having my handshake with the Dalai Lama on record, he pointed out that I could easily Photoshop myself in.
I think that’s part of what bothers me about the Selfie Generation – on the one hand, it shares way too much information (so much so that the term is now routinely summed up as TMI) and yet on the other it cannot trust the information it receives. One of the best end-ofyear pieces I read, a piece by Luke O’Neil on, noted the lack of accountability in the digital age. And if you “liked” or “shared” the fake photo of the Pyramids or Sphinx in the snow, for instance, now is your chance to feel foolish.
The way that information can so easily be edited or deleted worries me. How can we bring up a generation to appreciate fact-checking, careful handling of information – or even the simple rules of grammar and spelling – if everything can so easily be changed? We live in an age of: Post first, think later; whatever.
And certain values need to preserved – not out of snobbery, but because they count for something.
THERE ARE definite double standards when it comes to information sharing as an ideal.
Here I add my voice to those who say that Jonathan Pollard, the US naval intelligence analyst caught spying for Israel, committed a crime, but thanks to Edward Snowden we know that the US has regularly listened in to Israelis from prime ministers down. Now, after 28 years in prison, would be a good time to let Pollard go. It’s not like the NSA won’t be able to keep its eyes on him.
I also find it strange that Julian Assange, the man behind WikiLeaks, claims to be driven by the belief in freedom of information above all, but his own operation and funding completely lacks transparency.
You can clearly take the idea of the naked truth too far. This year has seen several instances of IDF soldiers showing a side of Israel rarely seen – including the backsides of five female rookies who apparently thought it a good idea to drop everything but their helmets in the barracks and record their posteriors for posterity.
They were reportedly devastated when the uncensored photos went viral (raising more than morale among Israel’s male supporters) but where did they think the photos would end up? As I noted in June when the story broke, part of the change in attitude has to do with technological developments. When we had to take a film to be developed at a neighborhood store, we naturally exercised a lot more self-censorship even if fewer people could ultimately be expected to see our photos.
Ever since we got dressed and left the Garden of Eden, we all have something to hide as well as what to be proud of. And those addicted to posting selfies on the social media should be warned: People like me don’t hit “like” on such pictures, we’re more likely to snap back with an unflattering comment. Well, you get the picture.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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