Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


5 Things Selfies Don't Say

They're all about the messenger. But what's the message?

Key points

  • Selfie culture has created and ubiquitized new types of smiles and gazes meant to convey nearly nothing.
  • Camera lenses formerly pointed outward; now they point inward — revealing a major change in focus and philosophy.
  • Studies show that the seeming self-confidence displayed in selfies often hides sad, secret truths.

Until quite recently, the vast majority of photographs were snapped through lenses pointing outward, away from their takers. Now the focus has reversed.

Old photos depict places, people, things, but almost never their chroniclers, the photographers. Old photos say: Here is the Colosseum. Look at Jane.

Selfies say: Look at me.

Selfies might also say, "Behind me is the Colosseum. But the main thing, occupying nearly this entire picture, commanding your notice in bright close-up, is myself."

This major shift accompanies the ascent of technology and the lasting effects of the controversial self-esteem craze.

Reducing everything in them besides the self to stagecraft — Angkor Wat and bathtubs become disempowered backdrops, borders, frames — selfies say not so much "I am here" as "I am": A message so primal and plain as to suggest deception, subterfuge. What aren't they showing and/or telling us — and why?

In an era when information is oceanic and instantaneous, selfies blithely deliver almost none — at least, at first glance. Astoundingly duplicative, each an imitation of a million imitations of a billion, often artificially retouched, they comprise their own universe, sliding successively and constantly down countless screens.

Selfies say, "I love how I look." One study showed that images of "people showing off their make-up, clothes, lips, etc." comprise the lion's share of selfies and are twice as popular with viewers as over a dozen other selfie categories, such as self-with-friends and self-with-pets. As studies show, selfies say, "Like me. Follow me. Subscribe to me."

But here is what they do not say:

1. Here's what I see, In front of me, around me, at my feet. Now see it with me! Welcome, viewer, to a panorama — a place and moment-in-time, resplendent in stories and histories — which we can share, now that I've captured it for you to enter and ponder as you please.

2. Here's what I think, beyond "Here's me." Snapshots have always featured fleeting "say-cheese" smiles. But selfie culture has created and ubiquitized new types of smiles, new gazes meant to evince nearly nothing. Nearly every selfie is a sphinx, a cypher, jubilantly merging mimicry and mystery.

3. I'm scared of being unlovable, lonely, ugly, or invisible. Seeming to signal sky-high self-esteem, selfies embody what early philosophers called vanity, which some called the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins. Yet such signaling often hides sad, secret truths: Studies link selfie-taking with anxiety, body dissatisfaction, and low confidence, even when takers can selectively edit their images to look as flattering as possible. What are selfies if not urgent requests for validation, permission, and praise?

4. I am at mental and physical risk. One study linked frequent selfie-taking with narcissistic traits, suggesting that the more time one spends creating selfies, the higher the risk. And a 2018 study examined 259 "selfie deaths" — a trend in fatal accidents occurring while victims attempt to photograph themselves posing on cliffs and railroad tracks and engaging in other dangerous behaviors. The list has grown exponentially since then.

5. Something might be more interesting than myself. Selfies don't say this because selfies are about not messages but messengers. Should this fact worry us? Imagine Dorothea Lange posing poutily in front of the Dust Bowl refugees she photographed. Imagine knowing more about how Adele looks than how she sounds.

More from S. Rufus
More from Psychology Today