My whole life I have been told that I am the creator of my own life, my own identity, my own self – but to what extent? Does this mean that I, along with the rest of society, am immune to societal influences? Are we creators of ourselves, or does that duty remain with society?
The link between societal trends or values and an individual’s lifestyle has been long standing. We often see reports, research and news stories on how body image issues are connected to media portrayal of celebrities, or the instant fashion trends set by a major celebrity – most recently replicas of Kendall Jenner’s Paris Hilton dress taking over every online fashion store ever. But how far do these trends extend, and do they really alter an individual’s style of life?
An article from the Wall Street Journal explores the connection between the “group”, i.e. society, and the “individual”, and how an individual’s behavior is shaped by what people around them consider appropriate, correct or desirable’. Wang writes that social norms and trends shape not only our behaviour and the way we present ourselves, but also our attitudes and even our opinions. I’m sure many people can remember a time when they altered their taste in music, their political views, or even just their opinion on another person or thing, in order to blend in and follow the customs of a certain group, community or family they were a part of – I can think of multiple occasions on which I have done this, from hiding my love of country music because it was not perceived as cool, to sharing my parent’s political views simply because I didn’t know any better and wanted to avoid an argument. In the article, Wang expands on this idea, and suggests that social norms and followers allow groups to distinguish outsiders, yet it is often these outsiders who begin trends, according to social psychology professor Christian Crandall. Dr Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at UPenn, states that ‘The more public an object or behavior is, the more likely it is to spread’. Which brings me to my next point – the “selfie” trend.
Selfies have exploded across social media since its inception, from the most re-tweeted selfie of all time, to former President Barack Obama’s controversial selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Now as I scroll through my instagram, twitter or facebook feed, I see an array of self-portrait photographs, from both celebrities and everyday people. According to Senft and Baym (2015), ‘the selfie signifies a sense of human agency (i.e., it is a photograph one knowingly takes of oneself, often shown to other humans)’. But let’s get real here – a selfie is merely a curated representation – a simulacrum even – that only captures one moment, one emotion, one aspect of your life. In no way does one photo shape who you are – maybe it shows people you don’t know some particular features or one destination or moment in your life, but it has no power to shape you as a person. However, in following the #selfie trend, you are being influenced by society and following a cultural movement. Sure some selfie trends begin for a reason, for example to raise awareness for male suicide, but the overall trend is an ‘ultimately trivial cultural phenomenon… but right now, it defines our cultural movement’ (The Daily Dot, 2015).
For me, this idea becomes problematic, since the majority of people I know, myself included, publish selfies on a regular basis. But we do not do it with good intent or raising awareness in mind, because when it comes down to it, its all about the likes, and the sense of validation that comes with it. The following video stood out for me, highlighting the issue of the need to be admired or approved. It is concerning when a 15-year-old girl is using selfies to compete with her peers and gain popularity.
This video also highlights the difference between spontaneity and posing in selfies, and how it can change the entire purpose and outcome of the photograph. As Nicholas White, a writer for The Daily Dot, writes; ‘we have now en masse turned to the selfie, intimacy and spontaneity may be the conceit, but they have become as artificial as any Hollywood movie’. Thanks to modern technology and in turn the rise of the selfie, we have, in a sense, lost ourselves to societal influences. We are becoming artificers, constructing our identity through surreal and often false appearances, and although we are able to construct a seemingly perfect image to publish of ourselves, this trend stems from societal norms, and the human desire to somewhat conform and fit into these customs.
Ultimately, I think that societal and cultural influences definitely impact us, but it is up to oneself to decide whether to embrace these influences and essentially blend in, or to reject them. The selfie trend has most definitely captured me in its web, with an incessant desire for approval and likes, however my research has made me re-think my motives and need to post such photos. I want to be a creator of my own self, of my own life – not be an artificer of an identity that isn’t really mine, or a product of society’s constrains. I think I would much rather be the country music-loving, non-selfie-taking outsider, than a follower with an identity that’s not a true reflection of the real me.
Wang, S 2011,’Under the Influence: How the Group Changes What We Think’, The Wall Street Journal, 3 May, viewed 20 March 2017
White, N 2014, How selfies changed how and what we share, The Daily Dot, weblog post, 25 April, viewed 20 March 2017
ABC News 2013, ‘Selfie’ Nation: The Social Self-Portrait Trend, online video, 3 April, YouTube, viewed 20 March 2017 (linked above)