They’re about more than narcissism; they’re also tools for political self-identification.
In 2013 that silver fox of the lexicographical world, the Oxford English Dictionary, proclaimed that “selfie” was the word of the year and recorded that its use in the English language had increased 17,000% from the year previous. That precipitous rise mirrors its transition from a niche colloquialism to a now international cultural phenomenon—one that has precipitated Kim Kardashian’s entry into publishing as well as a public awareness campaign in Russia regarding the hazards—sometimes fatal—of incautious self-photography.
Trivial though it may seem, the preponderance of the selfie is taking on increasingly inventive, political registers as well. A New York Times front-page story from earlier this month documented (or perhaps, lamented) the pervasiveness of campaign trail selfies in the wind-up to the 2016 presidential bid (which the article’s author christened the “Selfie Election”).
Rebecca Stein, Adi Kunstman, and Negar Mottahedeh, who have all studied politicized social media practices in the Middle East, have documented the use of selfies as a tool for building solidarity—from the Israeli military to Iranian protesters. All three have documented the ways in which selfies can operate in myriad contexts; from validating political violence, to challenging an election result; at times seeking to trivialize something, in other instances seeking to glorify it.
We asked them all a few questions that consider the political function of the selfie, inarguably one of the most ubiquitous forms of self-expression today.