The Allure of the Selfie: Instagram and the New Self Portrait. Brooke Wendt. Network Notebooks 08, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam. (50p) ISBN 978-90-822345-1-0
I’ll just come right out and say it: Brooke Wendt’s The Allure of the Selfie was not what I expected. I mean, the title has the word ‘selfie’ in it. The cover is stamped with silhouettes of a bikini-clad woman. I think I was imagining something along the lines of an art book filled with rows and rows of duck-faced teenagers and twenty-somethings. I was expecting a spectacle.
Instead, Wendt took me to a place I haven’t been since grad school. Her collection of five essays, plus introduction and conclusion, are fully researched academic pieces that will make you think. Think. On a topic that sounds seemingly shallow, Wendt has produced a carefully thought-out, deeply analytical pop culture investigation of self-obsession in the twenty-first century. At forty-five pages, it is a short collection, but certainly not a quick read, and I’m not ashamed to say that, yes, I had to look up some words.
The Allure of the Selfie is, at its core, an exploration of how Instagram and our creation of selfies have changed the landscape of self-portraiture and self-identity. The first essay in the collection, “Message: Camera Ads and Smartphone Commercials” traces the influence picture taking has had our psyches through the last hundred years. Wendt analyzes Kodak print ads and smartphone commercials to arrive at the ultimate conclusion that will steer her essay collection: “We use social networks to elevate ourselves, and Instagram helps us to position selfies as the center of our universe.” As Wendt reminds us several times throughout The Allure of the Selfie, we have become more than narcissists. We have become complacently obsessed with ourselves and the instant gratification of showcasing ourselves to the world on the platforms of social media.
Wendt continues her exploration of the selfie through a detailed analysis of Instagram photos, hashtags, filters, photobombing and our need to garner ‘likes’ to have our images, and thus our identifies, validated. At times, her theories made me slightly uncomfortable and most definitely self-conscious, which I think should be considered an achievement. While reading “Aesthetic: The Filter Function and Identity,” I had the nagging urge to check my own Instagram to see what sort of message I was sending out to the world. Are my pictures engaging in an aesthetic dialogue about my identity or are they just endless photos of my dogs? What do all the close-ups of my chi-wienie and terriers really say about me? What are people thinking?!
In all seriousness, though, I found most of Wendt’s assertions both interesting and correct. I am a high school teacher and so am surrounded by selfie-taking teenagers all day, all the time. I have to tell them to quick taking selfies of themselves while they write essays, for God’s sake. (#stupidessay #englishclasssucks) When Wendt writes, “The notion of becoming greater through images may explain our need to document and then stylize every second of our being: we want to appear significant, and we look to our image to signify this fact to us,” I have to think she is right. We seem to have become the shadow of our selfies, not the other way around. (October 2014)
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Reviewer bio: Steph Post is the author of the debut novel A Tree Born Crooked. Her short fiction has most recently appeared in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, The Round-Up and Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics. She currently lives, writes and teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida.