BEIRUT: In the heyday of MySpace, before Instagram and iPhones, selfies were an emergent form of folk art for millennials.
It starts with a certain angle: a smartphone tilted at 45 degrees just above the eyeline is generally deemed the most forgiving.
Then a light source: the flattering beam of a backlit window or a bursting supernova of flash reflected in a bathroom mirror, as preparations are underway for a night out.
The pose is important.
Knowing self-awareness is conveyed by the slight raise of an eyebrow, the sideways smile that says “you're not taking it too seriously.” A doe-eyed stare and mussed-up hair denote natural beauty, as if “you've just woken up and can't help looking like this,” as described by Carole Hamad, an avid selfie taker.
Afterward, a flattering filter is applied. Outlines are blurred, colors are softened, a sepia tint soaks through to imply a simpler era of vinyl records and VW camper vans.
All of this is the work of an instant. Then, with a single tap, it’s ready to upload.
THE TERM ITSELF
Credit for the first documented use of the term “selfie” typically goes to an Australian man who used it in an ABC Science Online forum in 2002 to describe a shot of the bloody lip he sustained after a drunken face-plant: “Sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”
The term may or may not have been big in Australia, but it was still unfamiliar enough down the road. It was not until 2012 that the term “really hit the big time,” according to Time, which included “selfie” in its top 10 buzzwords of the year.
FLIP PHONES AND WEBCAMS
It may seem primitive by the standards of this Instagram-mad era, but the boom in digital photography in the mid-aughts was actually pretty groundbreaking from a cultural perspective.
The century-plus dominance of film photography, with its hassle and expense, had ended just a few years earlier.
“The rise of cheap digital point-and-shoot cameras, webcam-enabled laptops, and camera-enabled flip phones meant that, for the first time in history, people could carry a camera pretty much anywhere and snap pictures of anything,” Ali Enzawi, a 32-year-old local photographer that has turned to Instagram to portray his work, told Annahar.
Enzawi noted that given that this technological shift happened just as members of the millennial generation, soon to become famous for broadcasting their lives online, were taking the stage, “we can hardly be surprised that the kids turned the camera on themselves.”
MYSPACE, MY FACE
Make no mistake; MySpace was the breeding ground for the selfie as people know it today.
In that relative Bronze Age for social media, before Facebook went mass, the colorful, teen-friendly platform was a sensation. It grew so fast that, for a hot second, it seemed like it might swallow the youth culture.
According to PwC, in April of 2005, this shooting-star platform actually passed Google in the number of monthly page views.
Seemingly every teenager and 20-something was required to maintain a colorfully decorated MySpace page, and every MySpace page needed a profile shot that expresses the user’s persona.
Many took it seriously.
Lynn Hajj, a millennial who was an all-too-frequent user of MySpace at the time, told Annahar that she swapped out her profile shots every couple of weeks and that some selfies took as many as 15 takes to get right.
“I don’t want people to think I’m sitting there taking all these pictures of myself,” she said, “even though I kind of am.”
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
According to Roger Massaad, a Lebanese psychologist currently writing a research paper on the effects of social media on Lebanese teenagers, considers that the selfie might have been new, but the impulse behind it was as old as adolescence itself.
“Teenagers have long considered themselves actors, of sorts, performing for what psychologists call ‘the imaginary audience’,” Massaad said.
“This is the idea that adolescents think people are more interested in them than they actually are, that people are always looking at them and taking note of what they are doing, even if it is just walking across the room,” he added.
How cool it was, then, when the imaginary audience became real.
THE SELFIE GOES VIRAL
MySpace may have failed to swallow the culture whole, but selfies basically did.
Within a few years, virtually everyone was armed with a smartphone featuring a switch-camera icon that flipped the camera lens toward the user.
The shots they took found an audience on look-at-me social media platforms. Tourist Meccas, from like the Eiffel Tower to the Great Wall of China, became virtual forests of selfie sticks.
The selfie even ascended to celebrity A-list at the Oscars, thanks to Ellen DeGeneres’ memorable group mug a few years ago.
Is the selfie blight on the cultural landscape or a new form of folk art? At least one institution seems to think the latter.
The Museum of Selfies is set to open for a limited run this spring in California, exploring “the history and cultural phenomenon of the selfie, an image of oneself taken by oneself, with roots dating back 40,000 years.”
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