Feature

The Second Selfie: Unfettered narcissists or masters of their own identity?

Masters of their own identity or unfettered narcissism on a global scale? Nicola Kemp asks if the selfie bubble will ever burst.

We are in the midst of a new kind of devotion; a generation of digital natives are collectively worshipping at the altar of themselves. Those who form today's army of young consumers, simultaneously empowered and enslaved by the smartphone, are sharing images of themselves on an unprecedented scale, and brands are jumping on the bandwagon. Trend forecasting and analysis firm WGSN estimates that selfies now account for almost a third of all photographs taken by consumers between the ages of 18 and 24.

The selfie phenomenon has caused a certain sense of loss.

This is not life through a lens, but one tinted by the warm glow of an Instagram filter. A life being lived here, but elsewhere; where the sensory thrill of living in the moment is being abandoned in the quest to stop, record and share every aspect of their lives. An era in which the demands of keeping up appearances can become all-encompassing, offering brands a substantial opportunity to amplify their message.

James Whatley, social media director at Ogilvy & Mather London, says that, from a generational standpoint, the selfie phenomenon has caused a certain sense of loss. "They present a picture of what fun they are having and that creates a sense of expectation; in contrast, reality can be a come-down - there is a reality gap," he explains.

The Selfie Bubble

"The selfie is one of the best brandings of a behaviour that has existed for years. What is different is that everyone has a camera in their pocket now and is sharing these pictures online," says Ben Shaw, head of social strategy at BBH.

Dr Mariann Hardey, lecturer in marketing at Durham University, sees the selfie phenomenon as an evolution of existing human behaviours. In perhaps the most infamous art commission in British history, in 1539 Henry VIII sent Hans Holbein to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves, a prospective bride; on meeting her, however, the ageing king apparently felt that her appearance did not live up to the artwork. A similar disappointment is manifesting itself on a global scale among online dating-site users, who complain that potential suitors bear little resemblance to their photos due to their over-reliance on flattering filters.

In the digital arena the obsession with self-image predates the selfie. "Facebook brought in the profile picture in 2004; now it's the selfie, the focus on the face is the same. There is an innate subterfuge in how the software constrains us. Instagram has a certain level of filters, and we can be who we want to be," explains Hardey.

Apps allow you to take a picture of yourself taking a picture.

There is no doubt that current behaviour will be shifted by technology. Paolo Nieddu, managing partner of social-media agency Holler, describes a colleague's disbelief at wandering into a toilet at Luton Airport at 2am to find three girls in the midst of taking a group selfie. The desire for constant connection and sharing among digital natives is creating compulsive behaviours and a kind of panic that marketers are struggling to comprehend.

Nieddu believes the selfie fascination will dissipate eventually, but with Facebook and Instagram being such an important part of consumers' lives, there is still an opportunity to capitalise. "The technology is always evolving - the iPhone 6 might provide another layer and we have already seen apps that enable users to take two-sided pictures," he notes. In essence, these allow the user to take a photo of themselves taking a picture. The selfie has jumped the shark.

Identity Sharding: Myself, My Selfie and I 

Among young consumers, crafting and editing their social image has become a well-honed skill with significant implications for brands and society. This friction point, between what is real and what is imagined, curated and edited, will be a key sticking point for marketers in the years ahead.

Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology academic and the first to describe the computer as "the second self", a mirror of the mind, believes this metaphor no longer goes far enough. "Our new devices provide space for the emergence of a new state of self, itself split between the screen and the physical 'real', wired into existence through technology," she says.

In effect, the proliferation of social networks offers the illusion of one-to-one communication. Even so, marketers would be wise to remember that these personas remain, in essence, an avatar.  

The disconnect between reality and social networks could be a big issue for brands

In ID: the Quest for Meaning in the 21st Century, neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield writes: "Now we have a way of subsuming individual identity, or perhaps of developing a false persona, or maybe of even losing one's identity altogether.

Information technology, nanotechnology and biotechnology are already transforming our lives and they will be pervasive and invasive in unprecedented ways."

Media agencies report that there is a lot of concern that people's digital lives do not reflect real life. "With the advent of technology such as Oculus Rift and Google Glass, everything is moving away from organic experiences," explains Sabrina Francis, digital strategist at Arena Media.

The evolution of this is that, in 10 to 15 years' time, consumers will share images of themselves in virtual surroundings, rather than feeling a need to do something exciting in the real world.

Nieddu suggests that the disconnection between reality and social networks could become a big issue for brands. "Just one individual has a plethora of social identities," he warns. "Consumers craft their profiles so carefully they have become, in many ways, avatars of themselves."

From Media Fragmentation to Me Fragmentation 

This "identity sharding" presents brands with several challenges - not least the misleading idea that the selfie can offer marketers a window into their consumers' souls.

Julian Smith, head of strategy and innovation at mobile agency Fetch, says that although teenagers aren't abandoning Facebook, they disseminate their identity across different platforms. Just as LinkedIn is a professional rather than a personal space, Facebook is becoming a broadcast network. This means that digital natives are shifting their attention to closed networks such as WhatsApp and SnapChat, posing a challenge to agencies that have developed an unhealthy reliance on Facebook as a shortcut to connect with digital natives. While social-media agencies have long trumpeted the growth of niche networks, the scale of apps such as WhatsApp reveal the path from niche to mainstream is getting shorter.

"The younger generation start with one Facebook profile and expand from there. Facebook is a centralised hub, but one they are splintering off from. They increasingly recognise the importance of closed networks," adds Smith.

Digital Narcissism: A movement of me 

"I'll have what she's having", a longstanding linchpin of marketing, is now being stretched to its limits. The selfie phenomenon has ushered in a new era of conspicuous consumption on a global scale. The self-styled "Rich Kids of Instagram" (#rkoi) are a high-profile example of the trend.

Mainstream media channels have been simultaneously enthralled and repulsed by the level of extravagance on show. In turn, the Rich Kids of Instagram appear complicit in this exchange; with the implication being that their extravagance is somehow semi-satirical. The recently launched RichKidSnaps on Snapchat suggests this narrative of pure consumption is on the rise, presenting further opportunities for brands.

Marketers have always jumped on the bandwagon when it comes to social trends

However, marketers must beware of believing this is a "community" they can easily tap into. This is, at its core, a disparate group of super-consumers seeking to flaunt their wealth, real or imagined, in the pursuit of fame. Although one of the prolific posters claims he "couldn't care less of the opinion of someone I don't know" (sic), the very act of uploading images displaying their lifestyle jars with this sentiment.

Ultimately these emerging behaviours present both an opportunity and a challenge for brands, which have no control over the integrity, or lack thereof, of the imagery in which they appear. "We could dwell on the fact that this is an incredibly self-indulgent moment in time; but marketers have always jumped on the bandwagon when it comes to social trends," says Francis.

Brand Bandwagon

Thousands of brands have already leapt on the selfie train and some of the best examples of successful campaigns can be found in the fashion sphere.

For its spring/summer 2014 underwear campaign Calvin Klein invited consumers to post pictures of themselves posing in their "Calvins", using the hashtag #mycalvins. Crucially, it also signed up a range of celebrities and brand ambassadors, from actress Vanessa Hudgens to fashion blogger Leandra Medine, to give the campaign that all-important cut-through.

Selfie Fatigue

The rise of the selfie has come hand-in-hand with a growing self-awareness, which brands have been quick to capitalise on. Dell, with its "Art of the selfie" campaign, provides a gentle ribbing of consumers over their unhealthy obsession with documenting the minutiae of their daily lives and features a "rehab" for those suffering from "selfie arm" due to taking too many pictures.

Nonetheless, for every Calvin Klein there is an array of brands attempting to ride the selfie wave and falling flat. DIY chain B&Q's campaign, featuring a cardboard cut-out inviting consumers to post pictures of themselves using the less-than-catchy hashtag #unleashyourbandq, poses the question: why bother? B&Q is far from alone in this respect.

Indeed, there is a Tumblr - yourselfieideaisnotoriginal - that is devoted to admonishing a wide range of brands for their weak creative thinking in trying to tap into the selfie trend without any insight.
However, brands are not the only ones struggling with the appropriate use of selfies. "Techiquette" may have entered the vernacular, but the speed of technology advancement appears to be outpacing the evolution of modern manners. Even US President Barack Obama has fallen victim to the inappropriate selfie opportunity, posing for a picture at the memorial service for the late South African president Nelson Mandela, alongside Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and the UK's David Cameron, last December.

Authenticity under threat

Marketers are operating in unprecedented times; there are more than 125m images on Instagram tagged with the word "selfie", with the Oxford English Dictionary declaring it its word of the year in 2013.

A year on, though, and marketers are still struggling to determine how best to turn these millions of images of their customers into something more tangible than a splash of PR.

Preserving memories taking photos actually stops us from making real memories.

A year on, though, and marketers are still struggling to determine how best to turn these millions of images of their customers into something more tangible than a splash of PR.

Beyond the selfie bandwagon, this virtual vault of visual data offers marketers an unprecedented research tool. However, this carries with it the risk of confusing their consumers with the flattened-out avatars of their social-media profiles.

The selfie is changing not only how consumers view themselves, but also the very fabric of our visual history. Research has shown that, far from preserving memories, taking photos actually stops the photographer from forming their own memories of the event.

The study, from Fairfield University in the US, revealed that those who took snaps of museum exhibits remembered less about them the next day than those who had walked around camera-free. Researcher Linda Henkel explains: "When people rely on technology to remember for them, it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences."

This chasm between authentic experience and digital performance is poised to become a huge issue. As MIT's Turkle explains: "In our culture of simulation, the notion of authenticity is for us what sex was for the Victorians - threat and obsession, taboo and fascination."

The selfie phenomenon may at some point run out of steam, but the friction between consumers' real and virtual lives will remain.