The ‘butterfly effect’ reminds us that a flap of a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. Applied to the taking of selfies, perhaps it is like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings: every selfie generates a disturbance somewhere else.
The selfie effect is political which can be deadlier than a hurricane or tornado.
Each selfie reflects and reinforces the dominance of individualism in contemporary society. This is made possible by the Internet which is ironic since the cyberspace is not a single entity but composed of multiple networks. How social is social media when selfies glorify the individual and not the anonymous multitudes?
But we are not appalled because the ruling ideology promotes competitive individualism. When we pose for a selfie, we think it is a liberating act when in fact it symbolizes our submission to mainstream corporate-sponsored ethos.
As a counter-argument, we can highlight the social uses of selfies. This we can’t deny since there are visible proofs of how selfies are maximized by mass movements across the globe. We can also cite the value of selfies to many individuals who were deprived of the right to assert their identities for a long time. In the past, their concept of self was imposed by others, but selfies allowed them to see their true selves for the first time. Should we deny them this epiphany?
As the taking of selfies becomes more ubiquitous because of mobile internet, there must be a better way of addressing its political role. It is easy to perceive the conservatism of this act but we can’t ignore its positive legacy at the same time.
Perhaps the framing of the debate can be improved. We certainly can’t ban selfies but there’s a need to develop a critical appreciation of this seemingly mundane thing.
Let the so-called social media influencers discuss the proper mechanics and ethics of selfie taking but for those of us who are interested in politics, especially the progressive side of politics, we have broader concerns to tackle.
For example, if selfies promote individualism, we should probe the conditions that allowed this selfish attitude to dominate society. And if selfies empower many lonely individuals, we should question why the smartphone-powered visuals could override other potent acts of solidarity.
It is individualism, not selfies per se, that should trouble us. We live at a time when there’s a breakdown of social institutions and the collective spirit is rejected in favor of self-interest. Technology developers and innovators are primarily in search of commercial success and not philanthropy or social change. When they offer something new, disrupting the social order is far from their minds. The selfie was never conceptualized to challenge the status quo.
Narcisisstic selfies, therefore, should not distract us from our urgent task: Changing the social conditions that put premium on individual glorification over community solidarity.
As stated earlier, we should not ignore the power of selfies to inspire individuals, especially those who have been marginalized in society. Indeed, when individuals cannot find deeper ties around them, they cultivate a stronger sense of the self. If selfies can give an instant feeling of completeness, why stop people from pursuing this harmless addiction in the digital age? But there’s a problem if we simply accept that only selfies can provide a meaningful identity to individuals.
The desire to be seen is perhaps a modern thing and we may wrongly assume that this can be achieved only through selfies. When societies disintegrate or individuals lose collective attachments, we become more aggressive or desperate to give better representation of our lives. We cling to these idealizations for survival. Our task, therefore, is to assert that there are superior alternatives to selfies. We should also demonstrate that community-building is more effective way of creating solidarity among individuals. That political participation reduces or even eliminates the superficial longing for personal aggrandizement.
Or in other words, the idea of excessive selfies will be rendered irrelevant if selfies become unnecessary in the real world. To put it bluntly, no selfie enthusiast will thrive in a community where everyone is immersed in a collective political undertaking.
Taking selfies is already part of our normal routine but why is there a lingering notion that it is awkward or that we have to defend it from time to time? To remove the guilt, we have to identify the roots of this confusion. At the risk of antagonizing the anti-selfies, I dare say that the abnormality lies elsewhere. The real problem is not the selfie or the selfie taker but our society which elevates individual competition as the essence of living. As long as there is a mad scramble for viral selfies, it is a troubling indicator of a society lacking in grassroots solidarity. The solution is not to mock the lonely Internet user but to change what is wrong in the selfie world.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the chairman of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Metro Manila. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org