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What's in a selfie? Answers to this question tend to focus on women and girls, despite the fact that men and boys post them too. While it's true that women and girls post more selfies--according to the research project "SelfieCity" women in New York City post 1.6 selfies to the man's 1--this difference does not justify that the critiques of selfies land almost exclusively on the shoulders of women and girls. But, the critiques are out there, so let's take a look at them.
The main critique of selfies seems to be that they express vanity, narcissism, and superficial attention-seeking. They are either cast as braggadocio--Hey world, check out how good I look!--or as desperate attempts to receive the validation of others, which suggest embarrassingly low levels of self-esteem.
The evidence seems to bear out in this regard. A 2013 study conducted by researchers at Birmingham Business School in the UK found that selfies shared on social media can serve to alienate those in our networks who are not close friends or family. People who are not close to us do not like them, and that diminishes their perception of us.
Others argue, as many do of stripping and sex-work, that the selfies of women and girls reflect the internalization of our sexual objectification within a heterosexual, patriarchal culture. In such a context, women and girls are socialized to value ourselves as sexual objects that exist for the consumption and pleasure of men. To be valued and validated, then, we behave in ways that fit these expectations, and ultimately reproduce our existence as sexual objects. For like-minded critics, selfies do just that.
Sociologist Ben Agger, author of Oversharing: Presentations of Self in the Internet Age, refers to the selfie craze as "the male gaze gone viral". He views the practice of taking selfies as a consequence of women and girls having been socialized in the above-described way. Speaking more specifically to sexy and naked selfies, sociologist Gale Dines suggests they are evidence of a "porn culture" in which women and girls are expected to behave like the porn actors that fill the web. Dines argues that presenting ourselves as desirable sexual objects is one of the few ways for women and girls to be visible and noticed in society.
Research into social media user behavior validates these critical theories. A 2013 study by researchers at Harvard Business School found conclusively that on Facebook, men do the majority of profile viewing, while the profiles of women constitute the majority viewed. In sociological words, men are active subjects on social media sites, and women are passive objects.
Our final critique comes from sociologist Nishant Shah. In a 2014 talk in Graz, Austria, Dr. Shah explained that the digital self is inherently a shared self, and that once shared, it exists beyond the control of the person to whom it is attached. This was recently made painfully and criminally clear by the hack of the digital accounts of celebrities that resulted in a massive leak of nude selfie photos of dozens of women (and a few men). Actor Jennifer Lawrence, a victim of this hack, decried the episode as a sex crime, which seems appropriate given its violating nature. However, according to Dr. Shah, "revenge porn" laws do not currently cover selfies--only images taken by others. This critique comes down to the idea that one loses control over one's body, one's self-image, and one's reputation by sharing. In a hacker culture, simply possessing selfies on our devices opens us up to unwanted sharing and loss of control.
So, from the critical standpoint, selfies hold the potential to be quite damaging to our relationships, our identities, and to the status of women and girls in society.
Click here to read the surprising arguments in defense of the selfie made by some sociologists in Part II of this debate.