Oxford Dictionaries has named its Word of the Year and it is “selfie,” which, in a dryness only writers of dictionary copy – and Brits at that – can convey, the authors call “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”
Selfies are often derided as a symptom of the “me” generation, forgetting that every generation – save for the “greatest,” which was consumed by a world war – is criticized as a “me” generation. Indeed, selfies are not all good. We have been subjected to far too many chaotic bathroom background scenes in mirrors, adding the risible to what was intended to be sexy. Also, the idea of the funeral selfie just seems, well, creepy.
But selfies should be celebrated, not just in the dusty, musty halls of Oxford, but by anyone who believes in the power of the individual and markets.
In fact, selfies are part of a technological revolution, a symptom not of moral decay but of genius and innovation. Think on it: One could always take a picture of oneself. Robert Cornelius took the first photographic self portrait in 1839. Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, better known as Nadar, even added a bit of animation to genre in 1865, making it the first revolving self photographic portrait.
But it took several pieces of technology, developed and commercialized by invention and ingenuity, to make the selfie a household word today. First, you needed a digital camera, which was invented in the 1970s by folks at Eastman Kodak. It would be decades before technology made it feasible to use digital cameras widely, but a range of small, handy digital cameras became widely available by the 1990s, with downloads onto PCs everywhere.
Then Samsung decided to put a camera in a mobile phone in 2000. Soon, every handset manufacturer was adding a camera feature. In fact, the photo function has become most smartphone's number one selling point, far above something like call quality.
Finally, you needed the rise of social media. From MySpace to Facebook to Twitter to G-d knows what, social networks were driven by images. Not only could be take a photo, but we could share it – and share it with a whole bunch of folks who would share it again and again. The flu doesn't spread as fast as a well-shot, provocative, or downright dirty selfie.
And that is where the power of the individual has come in. Selfies represent how we want others to see ourselves. Some are touching while others want to make us envy Helen Keller. But no one can say they give a misleading portrait of who we are.
We have lapses in judgment. We often do things the “wrong” way. We are imperfect. We are never as sexy as we think we are.
But we are individuals, some rugged, some misguided, some downright crazy. But it is the individual spirit that has driven American innovation and entrepreneurship since Franklin tied a key to a kite and took a stroll in the rain. We value the individual. Hell, we celebrate it. The idea of a collective is abhorred by our nature. Groucho, not Karl, is our favorite Marx.
And so selfies reign, and long may they. They are a part of us, in addition to being a reflection of us – an honest reminder of our spirit and what drives us.
It's true. Just look it up in the dictionary.