Is the selfie still cool?

No one is ready to suggest the selfie — Oxford's word of the year for 2013 — will die any time soon, but some observers see it losing some of its cool and eventually evolving into a new and perhaps more ephemeral way of spreading the self-image an individual wants — for whatever reason — to project to the world.

Snapping a shot of yourself to post online may not have quite the cachet it used to

Ellen DeGeneres's star-studded selfie taken as she hosted the Academy Awards on March 2, 2014, was retweeted more than one million times in less than an hour and set a Twitter record. (Ellen DeGeneres/Associated Press)

As much as graduates at a university in Rhode Island might like to snap a selfie when they're getting their diplomas next week, they've been told to refrain from pulling out their smartphones to take the shot.

Runners in Hong Kong were also urged not to take selfies during the city's marathon earlier this year, as organizers wanted to avoid a repeat of the collision the previous year that was caused by one participant's desire to capture an instant sporting memory.

Author Douglas Coupland snaps a selfie as he is made an Officer of the Order of Canada by Gov. Gen. David Johnston during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on May 7, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Reports have also surfaced of selfies falling out of favour everywhere from an Alabama sorority to the White House and Nelson Mandela's memorial service.

No one is ready to suggest the selfie — Oxford's word of the year for 2013 — will die any time soon.

"It's here to stay. There's no question about that," says Toronto author and cultural critic Hal Niedzvieki.

But he and other observers see the social media phenomenon losing a bit of its cool, and not just because it is coming under scrutiny from finger waggers. 

'Killjoy moment'

Bryant University in Rhode Island hit the headlines last month when it asked graduates to refrain from taking selfies at graduation "in the interest of decorum and to keep commencement day activities running on time," according to its website.

"That's a killjoy moment there, isn't it?" says Sidneyeve Matrix, a media professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Bryant University president Ronald Machtley is happy to take selfies with students like Ali Luthman, just not while they are receiving their diploma from him this year. (Ali Luthman/Associated Press)

"I do understand, from an event planner's perspective, that having a flow of people is really important to keep things on the clock, maybe even for safety's sake but … for me the bottom line is that moment belongs to the student and their parents."

Niedzvieki, author of The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbours, says any backlash emerging against selfies right now appears to be technical. It's also more in the vein of: Don't do a selfie when you're crossing the street because you might get killed.

"It's more of a backlash of technicality rather than a substantive sort of moral understanding that we need to start pulling back on some of these … ingrained patterns of self-exposure and self-marketing," he says.

It's more of a backlash of technicality rather than a substantive sort of moral understanding that we need to start pulling back on some of these … ingrained patterns of self-exposure and self-marketing.- author Hal Niedzvieki

Still, social judgments are starting to be passed on selfies. One blog attracted headlines last year after drawing attention to the idea of taking selfies at funerals.

"Many people interpreted funeral selfies as further evidence of millennials' self-centredness. I didn't," blog author Jason Feifer wrote in the Guardian newspaper.

"Had my parents' or grandparents' generation grown up with the kind of social media tools that today's teens have, they'd have done equally embarrassing things for all the world to see."

Another blog by Feifer drew attention to taking "selfies at serious places" and provoked an apology from someone who posted a "thumbs-up" selfie from a Holocaust memorial.

There's even a catchy music video, #SELFIE by The Chainsmokers, that ridicules the phenomenon and has gone viral, to the tune of more than 97 million clicks and counting on YouTube. That's up 10 million views in the last week alone.

Losing its appeal?

Beyond ridicule, however, is the impression that the selfie is losing a bit of its cool factor. Witness Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres taking a celebrity-filled selfie at the Academy Awards earlier this year and quickly setting a Twitter record for retweets.

Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz takes a selfie with President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington on April 1, 2014, a picture that sparked some controversy when it was used by the smartphone maker for promotional purposes. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

"Once a bunch of old celebrities are doing it, at the most uncool places in the world like the Grammys or the Oscars, well, [then it's] more in the mainstream and less exciting, less on the cutting edge of technology and less appealing to youth," suggests Niedzvieki.

That kind of evolution is no surprise in the fast-paced online world, where even the once-popular networking site MySpace has become what one writer for New Hampshire Public Radio called the "velvet leisure suit of social media."

It was the same for BlackBerry's BBM messenger service back in the day, says Matrix. "You had to stay with BlackBerry because all your friends would be on BBM.

"We've seen those things become either over or a lot less cool, so I think that even though we're still in love with our selfies right now, I foresee that in a few years … it will just become so commercialized and so co-opted that it will be highly uncool."

Google Glass future?

So what will follow? That's harder to predict.

"I never profess to know what's going to happen next although the general trends continue to be interconnection and simultaneity between present and future," in which images are set out for posterity, says Niedzvieki. But he does have one idea. 

Pope Francis takes time to pose for a selfie with visitors at the Vatican on Aug. 30, 2013. (Riccardo Aguiari/Associated Press)

"The future is going to be the kind of Google Glass sort of future where we're linked even more closely to a steady stream of images that we produce around the product, and the product is you," he says.

As for Matrix, her guess is that whatever follows the selfie in popularity would be an "ephemeral" form of media or communication, particularly because of concerns that have arisen around privacy. Short messages would be key.

"It's about brevity, but they're also not everlasting, they don't become part of our digital footprint," she says.

"So brevity like [video app] Vine, or ephemerality like [photo messaging app] Snapchat or …text messages that can disappear."

Marketing ourselves

Matrix's ephemerality aside, the driving force behind the selfie seems to be the interest in creating a lasting impression of yourself for others.

"We've reached the point where we subsume our natural human instincts into the less natural and more learned instinct of developing a kind of profile, a commercialized profile, which is essentially marketing for ourselves," says Niedzvieki.

Who shares a selfie?

A survey by the Pew Research Centre earlier this year found 55 per cent of U.S. millennials have posted a selfie on a social media site, more than twice the rate of older Gen Xers (24 per cent) who have done the same thing. 

Among aging Boomers, the percentage falls to nine.

There is, however, a widespread view that putting your life in cyberspace can go too far: Nine out of 10 millennials "say people generally share too much information about themselves online, a view held by similarly lopsided proportions of all older generations," said Paul Taylor, Pew's executive vice-president.

"At that point, we really start to think about our lives the same way that celebrities think about their lives."

Niedzvieki has talked with students about these kinds of issues, and when he puts it that way, all of a sudden, they aren't so keen, he says.

Until then, they may have been more focused on thinking how much fun it is to post a selfie and build a social profile.

Plus, they may be thinking that potential employers will want to see if they have thousands of Twitter followers and can manage their online content, posting appropriate selfies rather than that picture from the party where they are proudly sporting a tequila belt.

"When you put it in different contexts, it becomes a lot less appealing to people," says Niedzvieki. "When you say 'what value are you gaining out of producing a steady stream of content for billion-dollar multinational corporations who encourage you to do this relentlessly.' Where's the value for you in this? Do you get paid? No. do they get paid? Yes," he says.

As new as the phenomenon of the selfie seems, Niedzvieki suggests that it is "very much an extension of the media environment that started in the 1950s with the arrival of TV in every house.

"I don't think that we ever really understood what we were unleashing when we unleashed television, and we still don't understand it and these technologies are filled with unintended consequences."


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