A few months ago I wrote a blog post where I advanced the theory that selfies are a mimetic response to the rise of celebrity culture epitomised by Kim Kardiashian. The popularity of the selfie is thus inextricably linked to the popularity of the celebrity who uses the selfie as a means to advertise the self like a commercial brand. In this blog post I want to expand on these initial findings. I want to find out if there is perhaps something larger at play with regards to the emergence of the selfie, and how it ties into a global economic order.
The selfie as it is performed by the public at large is, in the first instance, a visual response to an image that already exists such as a selfie by a celebrity, an actress or a model. It is impossible to regard selfies autonomously because they always fit into a larger context which is played out in the public sphere – most dominantly via the media. In the United Kingdom, the tabloid press in particular has been one of the key drivers in disseminating and promoting celebrity selfies. The Daily Mail, amongst many other newspapers and news websites, constantly refers to celebrity selfies. Reports on selfies in the Daily Mail are so frequent that it would indeed be rare for them not to be featured. Although it might not appear as such, these reports usually follow a very strict format which can be broken down as following: a celebrity produces a selfie, the selfie is newsworthy because it is exceptionally sexy, beautiful, raunchy, funny, fantastic and so forth, in conclusion the report includes a brief update on the celebrity. Crucially, and this can be very subtle, these selfie stories often incorporate little hints how the celebrity achieves to be beautiful (and therefore also ‘newsworthy’) such as references to a diet, make up or fashion. In other words, the newspaper actively promotes for the reader to aspire to the celebrity’s look.
The Daily Mail has perfected the technique of promoting a celebrity’s look to the extent that the online version of the newspaper includes a photo and a link to the fashion item that the celebrity is wearing in the selfie. This service which is called ‘femail fashion finder’ directs the interested reader to a shop where the clothing seen in the selfie can be bought online. The example I provided above involves the British celebrity Lucy Watson and the ‘femail fashion finder’ promotes the bikini she is wearing for £31.98. Crucially, if the reader makes any purchase from the online shop linked to this report, regardless if this actual bikini is purchased or not, the newspaper receives a commission.
This economic relationship is important because it illustrates that the mainstream media, and the tabloid press in particular, has a vested financial interest in promoting the selfie as it equally promotes consumption of a large variety or other products. The indirect benefit to the online version of the newspaper is that celebrity news drives internet traffic, which, in turn, increases online ad revenues. Amazingly, dailymail.co.uk ranks as the 63rd most popular website in the US from where it derives 31% of its traffic. The online version of the Daily Mail is therefore the highest ranking country code domain name in the US. This upward trend is not just supported but it is actually facilitated by Daily Mail’s coverage of celebrity culture including the rise of the celebrity selfie.
Selfies are generally associated with narcissistic tendencies – a love for the self that needs to be captured in a photograph. On a psychoanalytical level one could compare the selfie with the mirror stage which Jacques Lacan described as the child’s first step towards identification. In fact, Lacan’s description that the mirror stage ‘typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body image’ can be seen in the large proportion of selfies where sexual allure is performed via the body. In addition to the selfie as narcissistic love of the self, I feel it is important to relate the selfie to consumption. This relationship can be established on two levels: in the first instance the selfie tends to include an object that is consumed – may it be a drink or food item, but as examples from above indicate, they also include clothing, make up, sunglasses and so forth. The ubiquitous iPhone is very often part of the selfie and is therefore also referenced as a must have item of consumption.
In the second instance, this performed consumption is, in fact, mirrored in the way that the photograph is taken and then shared on social media. Here, the act of taking a photograph is synonymous with the consumption that this photograph captured in the first place. The viewer, too, is implicated in this form of consumption as celebrity selfies are continuously promoted by the mainstream media. The selfie has created a giant feedback loop that is less concerned with the image of the self, or indeed the celebrity it represents, but actually, it relates to an insatiable debt-ridden consumer society hungry for the next image, the latest trend or the newest hype.
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