When I was recently in Paris walking down the rue de Rivoli on my way to the Louvre, there was a group of three people in front of me – they could have been a mother with her two teenage kids. And each of them was holding up a selfie stick and filming themselves as they made their way down the street. I had never seen anything of the sort before. Now in a city like Paris you can see the excesses of the current selfie mania on every street corner. It’s only outsiders who seem able to enjoy the many wonderful views the city offers without resorting to the smartphone for a selfie that immortalises them in the scene.

And the figures show that what I had seen in Paris is no longer the exception. The June issue of brandeins magazine tells us that 40% of British millennials now choose their holiday destination according to how well it will show up on Instagram – obviously always featuring the inevitable selfies.

The camera – an eye or a mirror?

The phenomenon of sightseeing-tourism and its banks of clicking cameras is nothing new. After all, the less time I have to familiarise myself with a place and really get to know it, the more important it is that I at least make a photo to prove that I was really there. Yet the exponential rise in the number of selfies posted on social media for me is a sign of new quality in the way we view reality, life and ourselves.  

It reminds me of the story of Narcissus whose vanity was punished when he saw his own reflection in a pool of water and fell so in love with it that he became completely fixated – without ever knowing that it was his own reflection in the water so that the object of his impossible desire was simply himself. That’s the punishment. Probably very few people now know that in the ancient world self-love (narcissism) was considered a punishment. It was Nemesis – some sources say Artemis – who dammed Narcissus to such unrequited love in his reflection. 

Some of the knowledge accumulated by the ancient Greeks has weathered well and at the very least is still a match for what we know now. And in this case they may even be well ahead of us since nobody nowadays would ever dream of the idea that narcissism could be the punishment for self-love. This makes the ancient story even more alluring when I think about the selfie mania we are now confronted with. 

When it comes to selfies what we are doing is using the camera to see ourselves like we do with a mirror. Yet a camera, as Wim Wenders puts it so well, should be an eye, through which a person looks out onto the world. 

I shouldn’t be seen by myself alone, I should be seen by EVERYBODY

Only we’ve gone a whole lot further now: we’re not satisfied with just gazing at ourselves lost in adulation, we want to share each and every one of our iconic selfies with the whole world. Yet when we do so, the world drops into the background, because the world is reduced to me. And the world is especially wonderful when I am seen by the maximum number of people who click me the greatest number of Likes. Or so the logic goes. 

Of course everyone is free to do just what they want. Even so, I do still wonder from what kind of a cultural reference frame this selfie cult(ure) has sprung. 

Being a star for a moment

“In the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes”, said Andy Warhol prophetically back in the 1960s. He’d recognised that we’re moving into a media age when anybody can take on star allures just because they’ve made a short appearance on TV. Today, the television still has a certain role to play, but it’s the internet that enables everyone at any time across the entire globe to shout out: Hey look here, see just how cool I am and what cool things I do!

Please don’t misunderstand me. I think it’s fantastic that everyone can now share their ideas in blogs and podcasts and videos on YouTube or other platforms. It’s particularly beneficial to the great many young people whose artistic or technical gifts or skills in practical matters entertain other people or help them through the day. Earlier on, and far too often, all this knowledge and know-how was hidden away in private, ignored by publishing houses and agencies, and never saw the light of day. How good it is that things have changed!

And yet – if I’m drinking a latte macchiato somewhere in the world or eating a sushi – honestly, who on earth has really got to know this? Who’s interested? Certainly not posterity! Only those people out there just like me whose only concern is that their next selfie is better than mine and picks up more Likes.  It’s the affluent society in love with itself and brazenly flaunting its lifestyle. In love with itself without recognising that this is the only love it has. Just like Narcissus.

Digital trumps analogue?

Yet whatever motives might be feeding it, one thing for sure gets lost in this rampant selfie mania: the pleasure in the passing of a lovely moment and the confidence that the best always remains embedded in our memories.  

From time immemorial people have captured and preserved experiences, important events, and key figures in paintings and portraits – from the marvellous cave paintings of our ancestors over 30,000 years ago to the paintings, portraits and drawings of Dürer, da Vinci, Brueghel, Bosch and Goya. Then some 150 years ago the advent of photography opened up a host of new possibilities which are second nature for us today. 

Yet when people spend a large part of their lives searching for the best selfie pose and the best selfie background, and when their eyes are permanently riveted on the display of their smartphones, they lose the freedom to seize and take immense pleasure in such moments, to enjoy them fully just as they are without any ulterior purpose. In short, here the digital world trumps the analogue. 

I believe that we should use the possibilities offered us by the internet and digitalisation consciously and purposefully. But I also believe that the more we are enveloped by digital reality the more we will develop an equally strong need for experience in the analogue world. And I also have a definite hunch that our need for what’s original and what’s authentic will once more reaffirm itself. This makes me hopeful – even in times of the selfie mania. 

More Dagmar Woyde-Koehler