Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Selfies more about sharing than self-love

A typical selfie.
A typical selfie.

It probably doesn't happen like this, but I like to imagine a huddle of ancient boffins gathered around a large wooden table, all corduroy jackets patched at the elbow with leather. The debate over the contenders for the Oxford Dictionaries' "international word of the year" would take place between puffs on pipes and sips of mead. "It simply must be twerking," one learned lexicographer would intone, with an illustrative wobble. "Twerking isn't ready," another would declaim, to a murmur of approval. "This is the year of the selfie!"

And so "selfie" it is. The self-portrait photograph is not of course a new thing. Some have dug up examples dating as far back as 1839. Self-taken Polaroid portraits are gathering dust in attic boxes around the world. The difference is that they can now be taken and exchanged easily and cheaply, usually with a mobile phone. And they've become an unlikely mode of online banter.

The word itself originated in Australia, the dictionary people believe. The first example found dates from 2002, in the form of an online comment left by an inebriated young Australian. They can't have pavlova, but we'll let them have selfie.

Even if many of a certain age and disposition will regard the term as already having jumped the shark (the phrase "jumped the shark" has itself probably jumped the shark, come to think of it), they say it warrants the accolade because usage has increased so rapidly - a staggering 17,000 per cent over the past 12 months.

The response couldn't have been more predictable. This strange and alien practice beloved of The Young People brought talk of "narcissism and moral decline", of "screaming narcissism". The choice of word of the year "makes us all look like raging narcissists", according to One commentator on Radio New Zealand explained that this was the fruit "very much of the me-generation who want to focus on themselves". One of New Zealand's great broadcasters, Brian Edwards, meanwhile said that the word selfie "sounds like masturbation". He really did.

Unquestionably there's a good lick of vanity at play in the rise of the selfie, and sometimes, such as in the examples collected at the "Selfies at Funerals" site, downright weirdness. But narcissism? Narcissism is at heart about staring at your own reflection. Essential to the idea of the selfie, however, is sharing the image with friends (or fans, even) online. They're not uniformly boastful, either - there's plenty of comedy and subversion among the sullen glares and duck-faces.

Nor is it limited to the so-called Millennials. Judith Collins has been merrily tweeting selfies all year, including one with the Prime Minister. Parliament's commonsense hipster Peter Dunne has even begun dispatching video-selfies to explain his policy positions.

The overwhelming impetus for the selfie surge is not narcissism, nor even self-promotion, though both play their part - it's a willingness to share information, a shariness. They might even be regarded as the quintessential "citizen media": the photographer of the image is also the subject of the image, is also the publisher of the image.

A crucial drawback of all this is that the information, the words or images, could end up shared in unintended places. Do you really want that Toronto mayor-inspired selfie to end up in the paper when you appear in court or win Lotto?

Fresh opportunities to share nearly everything keep on cropping up. A few days ago the "Narrative Clip" went on general sale. The device, which documents your life at 30-second intervals, is promoted as "a wearable camera that snaps automatic photos of life as-it-happens, creating a searchable and shareable photographic memory".

Not for me, thanks. Yet the Narrative Clip evokes the science fiction spectre of fully recorded lives, as most recently, and brilliantly, played out in The Entire History of You, an episode in Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror TV series in which individuals upload and replay to friends and lovers their experiences from an implanted hard drive.

That's a long way from a selfie, obviously. But those Young People, the accursed "me-generation", might be better attuned to the indelible implications of over-sharing, more suspicious of Facebook as guardian of their information, than their parents imagine. The real success story in the world of selfies is something called Snapchat. Relaying hundreds of millions of photographs between users every day, this is a giant selfie junction. The crucial, and different, thing about this rapidly growing service is that the messages, the images, are viewable for 10 seconds after opening, before being deleted forever.

There is no vast cache of these images; they're ephemeral, shared and junked. And such is the perceived clout, or commercial threat, of Snapchat that its owners were reportedly offered north of a gobsmacking US$3 billion ($3.6 billion) by Facebook to sell this week. They turned it down.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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