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.
The selfie is not an inherently political medium, but it does appear to lend itself to political purposes—why do you think this is?
NEGAR MOTTAHEDEH: It is important to point out that the selfie is fundamentally a product of the routine, the everyday, and the unremarkable in the sense that it captures the quotidian aspects of our private lives. So the emphasis in the selfie is: “Where am I today” “What am I doing?” “What do I value?” “What captures my attention?” “How do I feel right now?”
When the selfie is articulated with objects that are invested with power, as it often is, however, it has the potential to challenge power. The selfie regularly challenges notions of control, of capital, of art and urban design, of copyright, and of privacy. It is in this sense, I believe, that the selfie, aligns itself with the ordinary, everyday body of the collective, as opposed to, say, the body of a leader or a monarch whose life and times is captured by capital-H History. That concept of “the people” is in fact the selfie’s Ur-form, its ancient incarnation.
#iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life chronicles the digital life of the 2009 Iranian post election uprising—it was the first social revolt to be catapulted onto the global stage by social media. During the uprising, “the people” came to be defined less by a particular socioeconomic or ideological category, and more by the mimetic gestures and viral composition of which it was constituted; “the people” appeared, in fact, for the first time in 2009, as a collective, comprised of both flesh and data, an amorphous sensing body articulated with and networked to others who were at a distance elsewhere.
The term “the people” could be thought anew: as a kind of contagion that survived online and off, and that perpetuated itself through mimetic practices that combined the corporeal sensing body with the intangible digital body. Through acts of listening and recording, seeing and screen grabbing, tweeting and retweeting, posting and reposting, creating content and repurposing, “the people,” became something akin to a collective digital flesh, a shared sensorium that saw and heard the world together and at the same time. In this way, the term “the people” emerged for the first time as a networked term during the #iranelection uprising.
The selfie is closely associated with this networked term. It is an image captured of some part of a person’s body (not just the face) that also touches the technology that captures it and posts the selfie along with a hashtag on a social platform. The function of the hashtag is to connect the selfie to other selfies, as well as other textual and visual content on social platforms. The selfie therefore simultaneously points to an embodied form (the actual body that touches the technology that captures it) and to a collective life online that spreads it and that also pulses through its networked appearance as viral content. The actual physical body in time and space, the digital body on a social platform, and the collective body that spreads the selfie online, these are all indexed by the networked object simultaneously. Little wonder then that political figures co-opt the selfie when they attempt to align their voices with the voice of the people. As part flesh and part data, the selfie embodies the virality of the people’s networked presence both online and off.
In the instances you’ve studied, how have people used selfies to build solidarity around a cause?
ADI KUNSTMAN & REBECCA STEIN: Our collaborative work focuses on the interplay between new media technologies and the Israeli military occupation. In this political context, over the course of the last few years, solidarity selfies have proliferated. We have seen them deployed by Palestinians from Gaza in the midst of their bombardment by the Israeli military, and by international anti-occupation publics as acts of protest against Israeli actions. They are instances of the much broader, globalized phenomenon of selfie-based protest that has emerged over the course of the last few years; today, many online publics see selfies as particularly effective and powerful tools for standing against oppression, violence and other social evils.
In Digital Militarism, we examine a body of lesser-known or theorized selfies that part ways from the more standard subversive register of selfie solidarity: the militarized selfie or a phenomenon that we term “selfie militarism.” At issue is the use of selfies, and selfie-based political actions, by Israeli soldiers and civilians to support, beautify, and normalize the violence of Israeli militarism—a phenomenon that has grown markedly in Israel over the last few years.
In selfie militarism violence often takes somewhat surprising forms—emerging in and through the banal and often beautified terms of mobile self-portraiture. The militarized selfie, then, is a hybrid genre that couples commonplace selfie conventions with militarized political sensibilities to support violent, racist, and/or militant nationalist projects.
Selfie solidarity often mobilizes digital intimacy for its political cause, such as the details of the face or body and the private intimate spaces in which selfies are typically shot—in homes, bathrooms, bedrooms. These selfies traffic in the feeling of closeness, however illusory—the affective sensation of proximity. Such digital intimacy can be quite effective as a political strategy, as seen in the use of selfies by politicians to make them appear “closer to the people”, or in cases of selfie-based campaigns associated with illness or attendant stigmas (for example, the #Weareallclean campaign against stigmatising HIV and AIDS).
“We Are All Clean” campaign, 2014.
In this instance, as in many other selfie solidarity campaigns, the intimate encounter with the face and body is mobilized to reduce distance, to encourage identification, or orchestrate compassion. At work is a collapse of the private into the public in a way that reminds us how the seemingly private is always deeply politicized, and how the domain of the public (notions such as politics or citizenship) are necessarily enacted in private gestures, sentiments, and spaces.
Selfie militarism in the Israeli case operates along similar lines, yet with a different purpose and different political logic. For unlike most global campaigns of selfie solidarity, it is not intended as a counter-hegemonic articulation or performance. Rather, the militarized selfie stands with and for Israeli state violence, with and for racism, occupation, and war.
Stanford University Press blog
How the Green Movement mobilized social media in the interest of social change.
Stanford University Press blog
How Israelis live intimately with the military occupation in their digital lives.
Thursday, July 30
A one-hour online seminar on digital tribes, and finding your digital niche.