Selfies have become the cultural artifacts of our time, a digital mosaic of the diversity of our online lives. And while some say selfies are a mark of a deeply narcissistic culture, others say selfies are a new version of the old idea of the self-portrait. Some understand the selfie as an important means of self-expression and an affirmation of self-love. Selfies have also become a key component of a person’s “personal brand.” But whatever your take on selfie-culture, there is no doubt that the selfie is an icon for our time.
The act of identity construction performed online is at once a private and individual performance. But it is also a communal and public activity. So what layers of our true selves can be shared in a selfie? And what does it even mean to be authentic in digital life today? What does “selfie culture” say about the world we’re living in now? How can thinking about self-representation in the digital age help us make better decisions about sharing parts of ourselves, and even understand one another better?
I have recently written about interactive public art practice as an empowering pathway to connected learning experiences. Another example of this kind of work can be found with The #SelfieUnselfie Project which has aggregated a selection of photographs that have been titled “unselfies.” These unselfies are the result of an ongoing public invitation to consider how one represents themselves in the digital age. What is an unselfie? It is a representation of self to be shared online, but one that is not a self-portrait picture. How could you present a part of who you are with a different kind of image? It is the juxtaposition of the unselfie alongside the traditional selfie which continues to yield complex reflection and commentary on what it means to represent oneself online.
The #SelfieUnselfie Project is ultimately many things at once: an ongoing interactive public art project; a hashtag; a conversation that has inspired workshops, blog posts, and class discussions; a traveling exhibition/installation (shown in public libraries), and practice based research. The #SelfieUnselfie invitation remains open: please join in and contribute to this crowdsourced community reflection. The resulting digital artifacts will continue to be collected, curated, and exhibited in 2018-2019.1
I have many initial observations emerging from the early response to the #SelfieUnselfie invitation. For instance, youth have a deep understanding of the issue of their public online reception, their personal digital footprint, and their identity trace online. It is clear that most have sophisticated strategies for sharing themselves online. Many have expressed that the unselfie form was liberating, enabling them to share something they find important about themselves. There was much discussion about the notion of “connectedness.” Not surprisingly, many participants have expressed that connection is something that is developed not from impressions, but from a more dialogic sense of sharing. The unselfie might then open up potential pathways for dialogue. The unselfie has been understood as a prompt for the the curious viewer, inviting those who are interested to pay a bit more attention, to read (more closely) the social text. Efforts to construct an unselfie have almost always revealed a notion of identity that is both complex, creative, and multidimensional. Somewhat ironically, the unselfie form seems to have become a more intimate self-representation than the stark impression of a traditional selfie.
Finally, a broad observation from The #SelfieUnselfie Project comes from the simple acknowledgement that online life is indeed real life. Nathan Jurgenson argues that the digital and physical are increasingly meshed, and he identifies a false binary to see them as separate entities. He calls this false binary “digital dualism” – a systematic bias to see the digital and physical as distinct, often as a zero-sum tradeoff where time and energy spent on one subtracts from the other. The #SelfieUnselfie Project has made it more evident than ever that we are not trading one reality for another at all. Instead, our reality today is both technological and organic, both digital and physical, all at once.
I look forward to expanding upon these initial observations this coming year, while collecting and curating more digital artifacts for this interactive public art conversation. As always, the invitation to participate remains open.
1The first installation of the ongoing curation of material was held at Bergen Offentlige Bibliotek (Bergen Public Library) in Bergen, Norway in April 2018. The effort to extend the conversation and include more participants is ongoing, and there will be further exhibition opportunities in 2018-2019. If you are interested in partnering/collaborating for this project as an educator, librarian, or host for public exhibition, please contact @MiaZamoraPhD at email@example.com.