James Franco on the Importance of the Selfie

The Oxford English Dictionaries chose “selfie” as its word of the year for 2013. I haven’t been one to post any selfies on my Instagram account and have done very few self-portraits on my (now defunct) photoblog. But when I read James Franco’s op-ed in The New York Times titled “The Meanings of the Selfie,” I mulled over what he had written and started to gather a renewed appreciation for the phenomenon. Franco writes:

But a well-stocked collection of selfies seems to get attention. And attention seems to be the name of the game when it comes to social networking. In this age of too much information at a click of a button, the power to attract viewers amid the sea of things to read and watch is power indeed. It’s what the movie studios want for their products, it’s what professional writers want for their work, it’s what newspapers want — hell, it’s what everyone wants: attention. Attention is power. And if you are someone people are interested in, then the selfie provides something very powerful, from the most privileged perspective possible.

The perspective here is misguided, however. His central premise is that we, as humans, must persistently seek some kind of validation for what we do. For Franco, apparently that comes from getting lots of comments and faves on his Instagram account.

Franco goes on to differentiate between the celebrity selfie and the non-celebrity selfie, and this is where his essay picks up some pace:

Now, while the celebrity selfie is most powerful as a pseudo-personal moment, the noncelebrity selfie is a chance for subjects to glam it up, to show off a special side of themselves — dressing up for a special occasion, or not dressing, which is a kind of preening that says, “There is something important about me that clothes hide, and I don’t want to hide.”

Of course, the self-portrait is an easy target for charges of self-involvement, but, in a visual culture, the selfie quickly and easily shows, not tells, how you’re feeling, where you are, what you’re doing.

But it was the way Franco ended the essay that really captured my attention:

I am actually turned off when I look at an account and don’t see any selfies, because I want to know whom I’m dealing with. In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”

I am still not 100% in agreement: there are amazing photographers on Instagram that never post selfies. But I would agree that given someone who has a similar following on Instagram, the person who is more revealing, the one is saying “Yes, this is who I am” is the one who is posting those selfies.

With some luck, I will change my mind and actually start posting selfies in 2014.

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