The evolving definition and usage of “selfie”

The word “selfie” was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2013 but its usage and meaning continues to evolve:

A selfie isn’t just “a photograph that one has taken of oneself,” but also tends to be “taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website,” as the editors at Oxford Dictionaries put it. That part is key because it reinforces the reason why we needed to come up with a new name for this kind of self-portraiture in the first place.

Think of it this way: A selfie isn’t fundamentally about the photographer’s relationship with the camera, it’s about the photographer’s relationship with an audience. In other words, selfies are more parts communication than self-admiration (though there’s a healthy dose of that, too).

The vantage point isn’t new; the form of publishing is.

This explains why we call the photo from the Oscars “Ellen’s selfie” — because she was the one who published it. Selfies tether the photographer to the subject of the photo and to its distribution. What better way to visually represent the larger shift from observation to interaction in publishing power?

Ultimately, selfies are a way of communicating narrative autonomy. They demonstrate the agency of the person behind the lens, by simultaneously putting that person in front of it.

The key to the selfie is not that people are talking photos of themselves for the first time in history; rather, they are doing it with new purposes, to tell their own stories to their online public. This is what social media and Web 2.0 are all about: putting the power into the hands of users to create their own narratives. The user now gets to decide what they want to broadcast to others. One scholar described it giving average people the ability to be a celebrity within their online social sphere. The selfie is also part of a shift toward telling these narratives through images rather than words – think about the relative shift in updating Facebook statuses years ago to now posting interesting pictures on Instagram.

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