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In the Beginning was the Image: The Omnipresence of Pictures

Time, Truth, Tradition


Edited By András Benedek and Ágnes Veszelszki

The authors outline the topic of visuality in the 21st century in a trans- and interdisciplinary theoretical frame from philosophy through communication theory, rhetoric and linguistics to pedagogy. As some scholars of visual communication state, there is a significant link between the downgrading of visual sense making and a dominantly linguistic view of cognition. According to the concept of linguistic turn, everything has its meaning because we attribute meaning to it through language. Our entire world is set in language, and language is the model of human activities. This volume questions the approach in the imagery debate.

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The Selfie Moment: The Rhetorical Implications of Digital Self Portraiture for Culture (Trischa Goodnow)

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Trischa Goodnow

The Selfie Moment: The Rhetorical Implications of Digital Self Portraiture for Culture

1.  Selfie and Rhetoric

When a shard from a bowl is unearthed from an ancient civilization, archeologists and anthropologists learn much about the people who produced it. They discern aspects of life in that time from the way the bowl was made, used, and even decorated. We might call these accidental traces as the original purpose was not to speak about their life but to live it. Alternately, rhetorical critics study purposeful traces, those artifacts that people construct to tell the world, both present and future, who they are. Traditionally, rhetorical critics examined public speeches to infer elements of the immediate and cultural situation in which speeches were produced. More recently, however, critics have begun to examine all types of artifacts in a culture to examine their rhetorical import. In this essay, I examine the digital self-portrait, also known as the selfie, to mine the rhetorical implications of this phenomenon for culture. As Hall (2014: loc 132) suggests, self-portraits “have often been in the vanguard of cultural developments, influencing their own society’s sense of identity and selfhood”. Consequently, it is appropriate to place the selfie in the vanguard of contemporary culture.

The estimates of the numbers of selfies taken on any given day is approximately 93 million (Kennermer 2014). With this staggering number it is clear that something is going on. Academic studies often focus on the motives of the individual selfie taker. For example, some studies examine the narcissistic nature of selfies (Weiser 2015). Additional studies focus on the differences between the way men and women take selfies (Albury 2015), the functions of selfies as visual conversation (Burns 2015), and even what the conversation about selfies says (Sorokowski et al. 2015). In virtually all of these studies, the selfie is considered as a discreet act that speaks to and of the author. I propose here to examine the phenomenon writ large as an artifact of culture rather than the individual.

Selfies, taken as a whole, can be mined to determine the rhetorical implications they pose. I argue here that selfies reflect cultural perceptions about narrative, time, and values. To undertake this study, I begin with a general discussion of selfies. Then, I will explore each of these areas of cultural perception along with ← 123 | 124 → theoretical foundations for each aspect, before, finally drawing implications from this analysis. For this study, I examined selfies in general, as well as, individual selfies from which to draw conclusions.

2.  The Selfie Phenomenon

The first known selfie is also one of the first known photographs. In 1839, Robert Cornelius sat motionless for three to 15 minutes to capture his own visage on film (W2). The cell phone reinvigorated the notion of the self-portrait for the average person as digital technology made taking pictures for no particular reason both easy and inexpensive. With film photography, the average person took photos for a purpose because of the expense and the time it took to have the film developed. However, with digital photography, readily available with most smart phones, the “developing” is instantaneous and cost is negligible beyond the device itself. Further, most selfies are uploaded to social media so there is no expense in printing. As a result, there is no barrier to the impulse to take random, seemingly meaningless photographs. Hence, the evident probability of selfies on social media. I argue here, however, that the selfie is not meaningless. The selfie reveals the current culture’s perceptions of narrative, time, and values. The next sections explore these aspects.

3.  Narrative and Time

A narrative is the telling of a connected sequence of events that have a beginning, middle and end. Fisher (1984) suggests that humans make decisions based on the stories we hear. He opposes this to the rational world paradigm where humans make decisions based on rational argument. In order to make decisions based on narrative, the story must be internally consistent as well as externally consistent. In other words, the story must hold together as a story and make sense with what is known to be true in the real world. I argue elsewhere (Goodnow 2005) that news photographs affirm, challenge or reaffirm known and emerging social narratives. Consequently, the photograph has the power to provide reasons from which to make decisions.

In his 1989 book Art as History Maurice Berger (1992) argues that news photographs are traumatic because they are moments caught in time with no beginning and no end. The viewer is helpless as to know the events that led up to the photo and cannot stop the photo from unfolding. Consequently, the viewer is held to that moment when the image was taken. Though Berger talks about the news ← 124 | 125 → photograph, the same theory can apply to other photographs as well. Any photo is a moment caught in time without a beginning and without an end.

Narrative is interconnected with the notion of time as narratives happen with the passage of time. While narrative is about the arc of events during a specified time, time itself is an elusive concept. We denote time in seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, decades, epochs, etc. How we perceive time impacts how we approach certain tasks, people, and events. A half an hour in the dentist chair seems to last an eternity while a half an hour laughing with your best friends goes by in what seems like a minute. Photographs are snapshots of time.

Historically, photographs recorded events, either personal or public. They might record a rocket launch, a political candidate at a rally, a wedding, a birthday party or a vacation. They recorded points in a narrative. The selfie eschews the notion of narrative. The selfie is often an image without context. Though some types of selfies do show some background, many selfies feature just the face of the picture taker. In fact, “Selfie City,” a website devoted to collecting selfies from major cities, just features images that contain the face of the picture taker. In these instances, selfies are points in time with no context. Granted, a caption may explain more of the story behind the selfie. However, if a story contains a sequence of events, likely the caption will only illuminate one point in a potential story. As a result, selfies are not part of a larger narrative.

The argument can be made that by looking at a series of selfies a story unfolds. While this may be true, most selfies are not meant to be viewed as part of an ongoing narrative. Rather, selfies are discreet images meant to stand on their own. What does this mean for and about culture? A recent generation was known as the “me” generation. Narcissism runs rampant throughout the world, particularly in U.S. culture. The notion that a picture of just your face would be appealing to friends and any potential viewers on social media reveals a great deal about the culture’s need and interest in understanding the greater narratives from which good decisions can be drawn. This lack of interest in the whole story is a symptom of what Rushkoff (2013) calls present shock.

Present shock occurs when we are present-oriented without regard to our history or our future. The dangers of present shock manifest itself in a lack of continuity and the need for something to take place immediately. Essentially, present shock is an endless cycle of needing excitement in the present without the patience for a longer term payout. The selfie expresses just this. It says, “Here I am in the present… No wait, now I’m in the present… no wait, NOW I’m in the present!” The selfie is relentlessly a record of the present, without regard to the past or future. ← 125 | 126 →

4.  Values

Aristotle in The Rhetoric defines the three public speaking occasions: deliberative (legislation that is future oriented), forensic (judicial that is past oriented), and epideictic (ceremonial that is present oriented) (Herrick 2009: 84). Aristotle contends that epideictic address seeks to reaffirm the values prevalent in society (Herrick 2009: 86). Most contemporary forms of address can be identified as one of these types of speeches, even those forms of rhetoric that are non-verbal. Selfies would fall into the epideictic category as they seek to celebrate something, even if that is just the self. What is relevant here is the values that selfies espouse. I identify three values that correspond to the three types of selfies commonly found.

In order to discern these types, I assigned the 40 students in my Visual Rhetoric class to examine a minimum of 20 selfies, either their own or those found on social media sites, and categorize them. Through a process of elimination, we developed three categories that encompassed all of the sample selfies. These categories are adventure, popularity, and attractiveness. Each of these categories relate a corresponding value that can be found prominently in society. In addition, these categories are decreasingly contextualized, relating to the narrative and time aspects of the selfie phenomenon. I discuss each of these categories here.

4.1  Adventure

The adventure category usually relates one of two experiences, either daring adventures or location adventures. Daring adventures are those selfies where the person is doing something physically challenging. These images include situations such as skydiving, bungie-jumping, rock-climbing, or finishing a marathon. The idea behind these types of adventure selfies is to illustrate that the picture taker is also a risk-taker.

The second type of adventure is the location adventure selfie. These images show the taker in the context of an exotic place. Such images may show things like the subject at the beach, the Roman Colosseum, the Louvre, the Lincoln Memorial or other such recognizable places. These selfies uphold the primary value of exploration. Based on the Frontier Myth common in Western culture, exploration, of conquering uncharted lands (experiences), is a value that is cherished.

Adventure selfies illustrate that the taker is participating in the value of exploration. These images are highly contextualized. Hence, they relate more of a narrative that can be assumed. When a selfie is posted in the adventure category, the viewer wonders about the story. So, if someone is seen outside the Louvre, the viewer can assume there is a story about the trip that resulted in the image. Though the ← 126 | 127 → selfie will most often be accompanied by a one sentence caption, such as, “At the Louvre,” the narrative itself is incomplete. Consequently, while the adventure selfie contains more context, it still plays into the lack of full narrative.

4.2  Popularity

The popularity selfie often depicts the picture-taker with one or more friends. Because of the nature of the devices used to take the selfie, the picture-taker is most often in the center of the image. Even if the person is standing on the edge of the group, the tendency is to center the taker. Consequently, the picture-taker is always center stage. However, what is important is that the picture-taker is viewed as having friends. Not only that, but the images usually picture the subjects as having a good time.

These images espouse the values of camaraderie and support. Since we live in a narcissistic time, being popular enhances the value of the self. Popularity selfies reinforce the notion that the picture-taker is popular. However, these images lack context in most situations. As a result, the narrative of the image is lacking. The selfie-taker is the only important element in the image. The moment of the image is most important as what came before or what comes after is irrelevant. The popularity category functions to illustrate the state of the picture-taker in the moment.

4.3  Attractiveness

This category of selfie is the most popular type and consists of two subcategories, the workout selfie and the facial selfie. The workout selfie is interesting in the breakdown between men and women. Images of women in this category usually depicts the taker in workout gear and often depicts only the body with the face cut off. Men, on the other hand, rarely cut off their heads in the photos. Pictures of abs and biceps are prevalent. The other interesting observation available in this subcategory is the method of taking this type. Often the subject takes the picture in a mirror’s reflection. Hence, the viewer observes the subject examining themselves. This clearly indicates that the subject is the center of attention and seemingly deservedly so.

On occasion, these images will be accompanied by a “before” shot. Consequently, there is an evident narrative; “this is what I looked like before and now I’ve lost weight and look great”. There is a sequence present. More often than not, however, there is just the image in workout gear, showing off the subject’s physique. In this case, the image is of the moment, revealing where the subject is now.

The facial selfie only reveals the face, with little to no background. This is perhaps the most revealing selfie for culture. As mentioned before, the website, Selfie ← 127 | 128 → City, only collected this type of image and managed to cull over 3200 facial selfies from five continents (W1). Without context the facial selfie can only be about the self. In fact, one could argue that the purpose of the facial selfie is less to share an image than to garner “likes” and comments. In this way, the subject’s self-esteem is reinforced because of the potential popularity of the image. A common type of facial selfie is the make-up free selfie which certainly requires a response. Hence the value of pride is paramount in the attractiveness selfie. This type of selfie also reinforces the “now” focus as the subject needs confirmation now.

5.  Implications

An examination of the selfie phenomenon reveals that the popularity of this type of image communicates the “presentist” nature of contemporary culture. With the focus on now, cultural narratives become less important. When that happens, planning for the future also has less importance since all that matters is now. The problem with this perspective is that it denies the connectedness between events, things, and people (Rushkoff 2013: 240). The inability to make connections to the past and plan for the future results in a fractured existence. It’s like the person with no short term memory; they have to keep asking why they are where they are.

Further, with the emphasis on self, other actors in the on-going story become unimportant or even irrelevant. The focus on self inhibits the civility in culture. Some tourist destinations have banned selfie sticks because they were causing problems with other tourists, including injuries. Tourists taking pictures of themselves also limits the interactions with others. Before the advent of the selfie, one would ask a fellow visitor to take a picture and perhaps strike up a conversation. Thus, the totality of the experience was enhanced. Now, we need not ever talk with a stranger because we are self-sufficient. The less we interact with others, the less empathetic we are to others. I do not mean to claim that selfies make us selfish. Rather, I believe they are symptomatic of a larger cultural phenomenon.

Finally, looking at the values that the types of selfies represent, a further depiction of the self in culture is evident. Values represent exploration, pride, and presence. While the first value of exploration echoes persistent cultural values, pride and presence are self-centered and counter-intuitive to democratic values. Consequently, the individual’s importance breaks down the value of community, presaging a decline in civility. All of these implications are not necessarily harbingers of doom. Rather, they are an assessment of where culture stands today. Understanding these implications can enable citizens of culture to make more informed choices for the future. ← 128 | 129 →

6.  Conclusion

By looking at the various types of selfies, we can come to a greater understanding of what selfies say about our culture and our future. These purposeful traces reveal the way that we consider time and narrative. Selfies provide evidence of our presentist leanings. We are concerned with the here and now. This has implications for how we plan and prepare for the future. This presentist culture is further evidenced by the values selfies espouse. With focus on the selfie-taker, connections to other people, events and time are minimized. While it is easy to discount the importance of selfies, it is evident that the selfie is a valuable indicator of the status of culture.


Albury, Kath (2015): Selfies, Sexts, and Sneaky Hats: Young People’s Understandings of Gendered Practices of Self-Representation. International Journal of Communication 9: 1734–1745.

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Burns, Anne (2015): Self(ie)-Discipline: Social Regulation as Enacted Through the Discussion of Photographic Practice. International Journal of Communication 9: 1716–1733.

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Goodnow, Trischa (2003): Evaluating the Story: News Photographs and Social Narratives. Visual Communication Quarterly 10/3: 4–9.

Hall, James (2016): The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History. London: Thames & Hudson.

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Rushkoff, Douglas (2013): Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. New York, NY: Current.

Sorokowski, P. – Sorokowska, A. – Oleszkiewicz, A. – Frackowiak, T. – Huk, A. – Pisanski, K. (2015): Selfie Posting Behaviors are Associated with Narcissism among Men. Personality and Individual Differences 83: 123–147. ← 129 | 130 →

Weiser, E. B. (2015): #Me: Narcissism and its Facets as Predictors of Selfie-Posting Frequency. Personality and Individual Differences 86: 477–481.

W1 = selfiecity.

W2 = The Public Domain Review.