Why is selfie the word of 2013?

Selfie is the word of 2013 but for the life of me I can't figure out why; obsessing over self-image isn't anything particularly new. As a teenager, I'd grab my film camera and spend obscene amounts of time taking pictures of myself with the self-timer button; that impulse only increased with the advent of webcams and digital cameras. 

But why are selfies a big deal now? I've been struggling to understand why this has become such a phenomenon now in 2013. This year, the use of the word selfie has increased by 17,000 percent.

Google Trends

On the surface, it seems that there must be more to it than the mere mix of easy picture-taking technology plus social media; Facebook has been accessible to the international community since 2005, Myspace launched in 2003, not to mention earlier cyber hangouts like LiveJournal, Angelfire, and Geocities (RIP good buddy!). Photographic technology like digital cameras and flatbed scanners have been commercially successful for two decades. And to take it a step even further, painters have been immortalizing their own faces in their artworks for literally centuries.

But can we blame it all on the smartphone? A selfie, as defined by the fine folks at the Oxford English Dictionary, is a photo typically taken on a hand-held device like a smartphone. Is it just that the technology has become so ubiquitous and online sharing has become a matter of pushing a few buttons that the selfie is the hallmark of 2013? Many have pointed to front-facing cameras, particularly the iPhone 4, as the turning point in the popularity of the selfie movement.

A fan nabs a selfie with Brad Pitt in Toronto.
Canadapanda / Shutterstock.com

So: they are popular. But what does it all mean?

Decriers claim selfies are nothing more than attention-seeking narcissism, "a cry for help", or "the male gaze gone viral”. Advocates of self shots appreciate the empowering nature of being able to control and share one's own image with a larger community and see selfies as a source of pride.

(Full disclosure: right now I have 19 selfies on my smartphone and another 13 pictures just of my nails; I probably take at least 10 photos for every one I post online. You can reasonably guess which side of this argument I'm on.)

In a sense, all the selfie is doing is simply democratizing one of our most base instincts: the drive to record ourselves, to cement our place in time and history as well as to create a legacy of our time on this planet. But it's a stupid word for an activity that's hardly new in human history.

And now some facts about selfies:

The first known selfie was taken by a Philidephia chap named Robert Cornelius back in 1839 (below).

Robert Cornelius, the first man to turn the camera on himself.

The first known online use of the word selfie was in a forum post in 2002; an unidentified Australian man posted a picture of a gash in his lip, and apologized for the photo's poor quality, stating "it was a selfie".

The hashtag #selfie was used for the first time on Flickr in 2004.

Today, the tag selfie returns almost 61 million posts on Instagram. (The blunter "#me" gets almost 163 million hits.)

Astronauts take selfies!

Luca Parmitano/Twitter

Selfie came in at number nine on TIME Magazine's list of buzzwords in 2012.

A study from earlier this year concluded that people who take too many selfies could be damaging real-life relationships.

Selfies have been taken on other planets by robots.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity self-portrait.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

People excel at taking selfies at the most inappropriate times and places, like funerals, tours of concentration camps, a grandparent's death bed, and suicide attempts.

A recent survey found that 53 percent of Canadians have taken a selfie. British Columbians are more likely to take selfies than other Canadians.

A U.K. survey shows that 30 percent of the photos taken by people between 18 and 24 are selfies, with men taking more selfies than women.

You have probably taken a selfie in the last 24 hours. Don't be ashamed. Most of us have.

Do you enjoy taking and viewing selfies?

Yes 18%
13 votes
No 78%
57 votes
Rather not say 4%
3 votes
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