Selfie world: Do smartphones make us vainer?
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Selfie world: Do smartphones make us vainer?

“You have your smartphone camera set to beauty level five,” said my friend Nick smirking gleefully and almost dancing the handset in the air in front of my face.

“It defaults to beauty level five,” I responded quite snippily, naturally irked at the insinuation that I might be self-snapping for fun… and doctoring the results.

There is something truly bizarre about the ‘beauty’ feature on my new smartphone. It seems to be squarely aimed at the weird new world of self-photography – offers a scale from zero to 10 – and even if you stick it on zero it bumps you back you back to five the moment your back is turned.

You can’t polish a turd. And no virtual ‘beauty’ feature can actually really make someone more beautiful. That’s what makes the trend so peculiar – ‘beauty’ mode just gives skin a strange plastic hue – which seems an odd thing to aspire to. Especially as people will probably meet you in real-life.

Yet all this is part and parcel of the escalating trend of people photographing themselves, upgrading the results digitally then slapping their beautified image on social media…

And it is all perfectly normal. As Abby Francis, Mobile Phones Expert for online mobile phone retailer Mobiles.co.uk puts it “the front-facing camera is now a key selling point” for any new smartphone release. “[But] people have been taking selfies for as long as they've had a lens in their hand,” she adds.

The true game changer has been the role of social media, and its ability to place metrics against our pictures, she continues. “A collection of selfies is just that, but it’s when they’re uploaded online, voted and commented on by friends and family that they become something more and have the potential to either boost or dent our self-confidence.”

This is precisely why selfies get such a lot of media attention. In an interesting Gadgette article entitled, “People are really getting cosmetic surgery to look better in selfies”, Lucy Wimmer, Director of Corporate Communications DataSift, investigated this problem.

As Wimmer explains when we contacted her: “I thought it was fascinating that something that started out as a bit of fun, resulting from advances in smartphone technology, has become so consuming for people – particularly teenagers.”

It easy to see how all this can quickly hit the nation’s moral panic button. And like its other virtual counterparts, such as sexting or cyberbullying, elicit a massive wave of overblown shrillness from publications like The Daily Mail. Yet digital anthropologist, Nik Pollinger, is suspicious.

“In a word - hype,” he says. When you do some cultural-historical digging you realise the practice of taking selfies is the latest excuse for moralisers to harp on about “our self-regard as a species”. And even if you do some real-life observing, he notes, you realise the number of selfies that contain other people are pretty plentiful, so aren’t all just narcissistic headshots of the person with the phone.

Selfie was voted word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary 2013. And as Pollinger points out, during that time we gradually saw it becoming an entirely “normal practice”. It began with a wave of outrage at kids taking selfies at funerals but came full circle with Barack Obama doing a selfie at Nelson Mandela's funeral.

In the public world of real-life celebrities this type of photograph certainly suggests no more vanity than any regular snap. But it does really annoy people. And as Wimmer says a “backlash against selfies has already started”.

This has seen “narcissticks” banned from many big sporting events, museums, galleries and music venues globally. And as the Reddit thread “Why is there so [much] hatred directed at selfie sticks?” attests, these do elicit a very strong reaction indeed.

Yet there is also money to be made. As Wimmer puts it: “Many brands have realised the selfie’s potential when it comes to marketing campaigns.” This can be seen in fashion house Marc Jacobs’ online casting call #castmemarc. And perhaps more interesting, in the way the organic #nomakeupselfie trend was commandeered by Cancer Research to become a huge fundraiser.

But does all this make ordinary people vainer? I think it probably does. If you walked into an average chemist 10 years ago you’d notice fewer tooth whitening products and other general cosmetics aimed at both sexes, than you do now. We just see more images of ourselves than we used to. And I really can’t help wondering about today’s children who will grow up taking millions of photos of themselves… and end up watching their own aging process in unprecedented, lurid deal.

“Selfie addiction is still so new,” says Wimmer “there’s very little known about it so it will be a while before we see the extent of its impact and have to seriously consider how to deal with it.”

So, what next as this definitely seems here to stay? “3D selfies and holograms,” says Wimmer. And in fact, this is already becoming mainstream with Asda offering this technology in store within the UK. It can also be seen both in the eerie and disturbing mini-me I was given as a gift on a recent press trip to China. And this hilariously awful video [YouTube video] created by Shapify to promote its service.

In the end though, there is probably no point worrying about it. The world tends to tick along in its usual manner. And while things do change, they never change all that much. This means if you’re inclined to make yourself look a bit too plastic before shoving yourself up the web, people will probably laugh. Which is not ideal, unless you’re promoting a meant-to-be-comedy plastic replica of yourself… and that frankly, is a whole other story-of-strange.

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Kathryn Cave

Editor at IDG Connect

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