There were a lot of news stories about selfies Monday morning. Ellen DeGeneres took one while hosting the Academy Awards, and the resulting photo now holds the record for most retweets. The Guardian wrote a funny correction involving that picture. And Matt McFarland wrote that self-portraits with a handheld camera have been around for about a century.
To read as much news about selfies, you’d have to go back to at least … Friday. In Elle, Natalie Matthews reported on a study that said men take more selfies than women. Some Swedes are encouraging “wefies,” selfies that promote “a sense of community and shared responsibility,” Leslie Katz reported in CNET. And several outlets picked up a story trumpeted a few days earlier in The (U.K.) Daily Mail that said selfies in which teens touch heads are facilitating lice infestations.
In fact, just about every day, a Google News search for the word “selfies” returns dozens of results. In a time of great uncertainty about what audiences want from news organizations, one answer roars back from the trenches with astonishing frequency: News about self-portraits taken with phones.
The fascination with selfies reflects “the usual mainstream/ conservative media teen tropes: oh, the world is going to hell in a hand-basket and the teens are to blame,” Jon Savage, the author of the 2007 book “Teenage,” writes in an email.
“Coverage of teens in the media always oscillates between utopia and dystopia, dream and nightmare,” Savage continues. “It all depends on your worldview: if you’re hopeful about things, then you’ll be inclined to see what Teens do as interesting and futuristic in a good way. If you’re not, then it’s all downhill – everything they do is another nail in the coffin. It’s all about adult projection.”
Perhaps the most selfie-obsessed news outlet is Britain’s Daily Mail. A search for the word in Mail Online’s archives yields 592 hits — about 9.5 stories involving selfies per day as of March 3, the 62nd day of the year (a day, I must point out, that has not yet ended). By contrast, Mail Online has run 553 stories featuring the word “Ukraine,” 398 with the word “Syria” and 167 that feature the word “bum.” (Mail Online has, though, tried its best to launch the term “belfie,” for “bum selfie.”)
Other publications have answered the siren song of the selfie with think pieces. Rachel Simmons wrote in Slate that selfies are “a tiny pulse of girl pride—a shout-out to the self.” Noah Berlatsky argued that looking at selfies as a movement rather than individual works was folly: “People use a common form in different ways; that’s how art works.” James Franco mused about celebrity selfies for The New York Times: “I’ve found that Instagram works much like the movie business.” They are “a kind of visual diary, a way to mark our short existence and hold it up to others as proof that we were here,” Jenna Wortham wrote in the same outlet.
Before Oxford Dictionaries named “selfie” its Word of the Year, the term may have been easier to dismiss as kid stuff, a totem of teenage stupid like zoot suits, bobby socks or tamagotchi. In “Teenage,” Savage writes about the “Victory Girls,” the teen children of working mothers during World War II who were blamed for VD outbreaks, a teen sex epidemic and being “unabashed uniform chasers.” They were soon “idealised teenagers,” Savage writes in his email to Poynter.
“So go figure: the media always gets it wrong about the young. Which, I suppose, it should.”