Selfies aren’t about narcissism, they’re an identity crisis

At the Westfield retailer breakfast seminar, retail futurist Howard Saunders was the latest of many to have a dig at millennials over their enthusiasm for personalisation.

He started by talking about Coke’s unobtrusive ‘Share a Coke’ campaign, worked his way through a Burberry promotion where shoppers can get their names engraved on a bottle of perfume and then have the whole shebang put on a billboard, and wound up having a laugh at Nutella’s naming campaign.

“I’m sorry, it’s just… there’s a lot of things you can put your name on but Nutella?”

Saunders was probably right about Nutella’s campaign, but he was dead wrong about his later implication that the millennial focus on personalisation and selfie culture is based in shallow narcissism.

The broad opinion from the business community is that millennials like to take selfies, get their names written on products, broadcast their opinions far and wide with social media, because they’re simply in love with themselves. The thinking seems to be that they’re a generation of self-worshippers who, having grown up surrounded by strong branding and celebrity culture, have imprinted on companies like goslings to a microlite aircraft and are now growing up wanting to be a pair of Air Jordans.

Nobody’s going to get away with arguing that selfies don’t involve an element of external gratification. But the White House has also revealed that communities are exceptionally important to millennials, with study showing that millennials want make a contribution to society and be leaders in their communities, and they have a strong connection to their families.

In this context, it makes sense that fostering social networks with likes and supportive comments is a calming, enjoyable ritual to many. 

Let’s say a friend of yours posts a picture of herself online before she leaves for work in the morning – a candid, gleeful shot where she looks happy – and just seeing it makes you smile. You’re from a generation where it’s normal to be emotionally open, so you dash off a note that tells her how her picture made you feel, and she does the same for you when she sees your latest photo. Amplify this interchange and you get most of Instagram’s traffic.

On a deeper level, though, your friend’s selfie didn’t have much to do with you.

The line between real human opinion and commercial voices is becoming more and more blurred. If she’s not disciplined about giving out her contact details, your millennial friend will get Snapchats from her bank; tweets and Instagram likes from brands that chase her attention as assiduously as a crush; daily email newsletters from multiple companies claiming to know her tastes as intimately as her best friends do; and targeted advertisements that follow her around the internet begging her to buy some more.

Identities themselves have become commodified. Your millennial friend may identify as part of a particular subculture, and there’s a good chance a company will target her there with branding tailored to her tastes and interests. Across the board, brands attempt to meld with social groups and even be the glue that keeps communities together – Coca-Cola, in particular, juggles a number of different brand strategies which might be mistaken for human personas if you don’t think very hard about it. 

More viscerally, our millennial friend sees other people’s faces everywhere she goes – women’s faces in particular, more often than not with mouths open and eyes full of blank expectation. The women in advertisements are occasionally screaming with excitement over milk, the cinema, snacks, but more often they’re supernaturally ordinary-looking people with digitally erased wrinkles, divorced from history and context. That or they’re naked, with the essentials covered by brand collateral.

Your millennial friend is at least nominally a feminist and knows better than to directly compare herself to these branded women and their manipulated flesh, but their omnipresence subtly influences her relationship with her body. When she passes an Adshel, say, containing one of the standard-issue women, she feels boosted by her individual richness and sorry for the models, but when she sees herself standing naked, like the other lot, she can’t avoid noticing her own resemblance to somebody else’s unreal dream.

It’s difficult to maintain a firm conception of yourself when your identity is constantly challenged by companies who seek to define you by the products and services you consume. The commercial is now personal. Millennials have been raised around false personas but instead of taking to them like geese to water, selfie culture is evidence that they’re fighting back.

Selfies are a way millennials distinguish themselves from branded constructs so as to prove to themselves that they’re really real, coupled with a way to create media that they know to be genuine. It’s not self-portraiture but self-documentary, encompassing many different mediums – vlogging, tweets, Vines, snaps, and sure, why not Nutella? We’ve written our names on dumber things as a species and called it art.

It’s true that not every selfie is deep and important. The small number of kids who shoot themselves dead each year while posing with guns against their heads probably weren’t reaching for a higher truth at the time, and the celebrity-style selfies involving grooming rituals, elaborate poses and post-production editing undoubtedly move away from innocent self-reference and towards that old self-marketing idea that we started out with. Like most other parts of life, selfie culture is not clear-cut.

In a world where external sources of identity have become overwhelmingly saturated with opaque, untrustworthy commercial messages, millennials are abandoning outside inspiration and turning inwards for reassurance. Instead of engaging with icons from the world around them, they’re choosing to cultivate a fuller relationship with their own faces and names. Is that narcissism? I don’t know. Pressure can do funny things to people.

  • Sarah Dunn is the editor of NZ Retail magazine and The Register. 

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