Alicia Eler knows a lot about selfies.
Named a “selfie semiotician” in the November 2017 issue of Wired, Eler started writing about the cultural phenomenon in “The Selfie Column” for the arts publication Hyperallergic in 2013. Rather than join the deafening critical chorus condemning selfies and those who snap them as vapid or narcissistic, Eler asked contributors to include a sentence or two that contextualizes the images within the framework of personal experience.
The drive to understand #selfies and why people make them lead to Eler’s critique of the topic as a measure of overlapping issues including data mining and brokerage, online privacy, identity formation, and contemporary art practices. The product of that analysis is her new book, The Selfie Generation which was officially released on November 7th through Skyhorse Publishing. I spoke with Eler about selfies and the publication of her first book.
Interview by Roula Seikaly
Roula Seikaly: When did this project start? Did it begin with the Hyperallergic column and go from there?
Alicia Eler: It was 2013 and selfie was becoming a thing that was getting its own headlines, and I noted that these images were just like those I took when I was a teenager and I still take now. I started to question why people care so much, and how polarizing the topic is, particularly on the Internet. Of course, it is because of the publicness of these images that they are showing moments that otherwise wouldn’t be shared.
I was a staff writer at Hyperallergic at the time, and my editor and I were talking about what I could work on beyond exhibition reviews. He asked if there was any subject I'd like to work on in a column, and selfies seemed like a perfect fit. I have a background in photography, and considered that as my collegiate major before switching to art history. I've always been interested in portraiture, and we were thinking about the selfie in relation to self-portraiture. He suggested that I maintain a column dedicated to selfies, and that worked well because I love tracking cultural trends. I love that it's such a generative topic, trends popping up within trends.
I'd also been a tech reporter for about a year. I was covering social media for ReadWrite, which is based in the Bay Area. I'd been covering the culture of social media, and how it was changing communication and the way people thought about themselves. The selfie brought together all those interests in changing communication and the art angle of self-portraiture. I was thinking about where it all converges, and what it means as a cultural phenomenon.
I'm also interested in the way people are writing about selfies, and how the tone is so negative. I got really tired of that perspective. It's boring. I knew there had to be more to selfies than how other writers were approaching it, so the column was dedicated to contextualizing selfies within individual experience. I asked people to submit their selfies and include a sentence or two about why they took their picture. There is much more to these images than we give them credit for in aggregate. No one was willing to ask "what" or "why" about selfies, so I decided I would.
Seikaly: The way you write about selfies toggles between the "pure" aesthetic appreciation of the selfie within contemporary art practices and notions of self-representation across generational spans. Your first chapter considers selfies from a social science perspective, not a strictly cultural or artistic one. Why was it important to start there?
Eler: Originally the book was just about privacy, and eventually that became too narrow as an approach. In talking to activist Emi Kane, she noted that writing about privacy necessitates consideration of privilege regarding privacy - who has it and who doesn't. Another angle was Internet privacy, and that didn't appeal. The selfie is multifaceted. It rolls up social science, psychology, neuroscience, copyright, notions of authenticity in the current era, and millennial culture so compactly. I wanted to get into why selfies are rejected, and how misogyny - particularly directed at teenage girls as the producers of selfies - factors into our responses. I didn't think I could be comprehensive if I didn't approach it from multiple and intersecting angles.
Writing about this topic is such a heady experience. Checking in with friends who know who I am and how I talk and write - conversations and sharing drafts of chapters - was critically important. Of course, working with my primary editor Maxim Brown at Skyhorse Publishing was a great experience, and it helped to have input from those who know my writing. They pushed me to consider some of the harder questions or topics.
Seikaly: Could this book have been written without self-referentialism? Is it important to identify yourself in relation to selfie production, consumption, and analysis?
Eler: My first impulse was not to include myself, as I'm more an observer. Then I looked back at some of my earlier work and where personal experience informed that writing, and I think for those co-authored pieces writing in the first person was successful. I mean really, I am also a performer! So, I reasoned that if I'm writing about selfies and how much they reflect or shape self-identity, I had to insert my experience. My editor was really encouraging of that approach. Also, a lot of the pieces I've read about selfies are so negative, but the authors still engage in selfie culture as they condemn it. I wanted to avoid that hypocrisy. It's hard for people or readers to argue with subjective experience. I wanted to write about selfies as an insider, which would then consider the selfie as performance, and as performative.
Seikaly: You get into serious topics such as data mining and brokerage, and how much we're at the mercy of corporate and governmental machines where privacy and personal information shared online are concerned. I'm wondering if your online habits have changed as a result of this research and writing experience?
Eler: That's a good question. The experience brought up two concerns; online privacy doesn't really exist, and that's even more relevant for communities of color who are of course more surveilled for reasons relating to, all in quotations, "security," and "homeland security," when in reality it's fueled by racism, Islamophobia, anti-immigration, hyper nationalism, etc. The second - and still so weird as we approach the year anniversary of Trump's election - if changes to law regarding online privacy are enacted, it takes a while for that to happen. We leave a digital trail, and to one degree or another we all know that. The selfie brings that digital trail into focus because it's visual and it's immediate. The information is available anyway, and freaking out about it isn't useful in the end. To get to your question, my social media habits have changed mostly because of my job at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. I'm not a freelancer anymore, and I have to think about who I represent by extension. All of that said, I still try to keep it weird and funny.
Seikaly: Let's talk about the selfie in terms of contemporary art practice. You mention artists including Jennifer Moon, Julie Weitz, Ann Hirsch, Jillian Mayer, and others who use the selfie or similar visual components in their work. What do you think of an older artist like Cindy Sherman, whose recently debuted an Instagram, using selfie-adjacent processes in their work?
Eler: With Cindy Sherman, I think about it in terms of longevity. She's worked with photo for so long, and branched out into film, and now takes advantage of tech or social media platforms. I think it's cool that she held off and didn't jump on IG immediately. I like how thoughtful her approach to social media is. In terms of generation gaps and the argument I make about selfies representing social capital for teenagers and celebrities, I think it comes down to what the person posting the selfie is after. Is it validation? Is it connection to community? Is it something else? I wanted to understand both the why of taking selfies, and why and how we as a societal whole respond to them.
Seikaly: You mentioned that you like to take pictures and briefly considered photography as your college major, and that you thought through how objects that once felt so sacred and private could be shared digitally with friends and stranger alike. That reverie for the physical image and what it captures reminds me of Roland Barthes writing about the photograph of his mother and his overall relationship to images. I'm wondering if you maintain a photographic practice in which the images aren't loaded to social media? Do you produce or collect actual prints?
Eler: That's an interesting question. I don't have a camera other than my smartphone camera. There are some photos I take, but don't post. I am really interested in older photos that I took before. I usually run across them when I'm cleaning. Most recently, I found one from my days with About Face Theater in Chicago, which supports queer teens in theater. I took a backstage photo with another cast member, and I was really not interested in showing my face. If I'd taken that photo today, of course I would have posted it because it captures a social moment. After I took that photo, I probably showed copies of the photo to my peers. One of contemporary critiques of selfies is that teenagers are growing up in public, that they live and die by their phones like the majority of adults, and that a lot of the bullying that once took place after school in-person is now taking place online, and there’s a lot more at stake. Nancy Jo Sales writes about that in her book, and I agree that that's a lot to tackle. But it remains to be seen how it will affect the generation coming of age amidst technological ubiquity. For me, physical photos form more of an archive. I'm more interested in photography or the photograph as a communicative tool, as a mirror, or an account of what's going on, which is more in line with what the selfie is.
Seikaly: Finally, you mention in the introduction that the selfie is "contentious and controversial because its boundaries aren't known yet." Should there be boundaries, and if so, what should they be?
Eler: I think it comes down to personal preference. I don't post selfies that frequently because I don't want to be seen that often, and I’m not shaping my identity online like younger friends. I guess, that mostly happened for me offline. But I do have friends who post selfies all of the time, and it’s part of their social media presence. Other people I know do it for performative purposes. Or attention. Whatever. It all feels fine, but as with anyone, too many selfies in a row and it starts to get frankly a bit boring! When I talk about boundaries in the book, it's about personal comfort. But there's also the corporate and governmental aspects of privacy -- facial recognition technology and geotagging, which expose us more. The selfie, in that way, offers a lot of information or data and it is performative. I really love that Diane Arbus quote: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” But that is a photograph. A selfie is different. A selfie is a mirror.
The Selfie Generation was released on November 7, 2017.
*This interview was edited for length.