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UCL Festival of Culture: Me and My Selfie

By utnvlru, on 1 June 2016

2015_White_House_Astronomy_Night_by_Harrison_Jones_03_(cropped_to_Ahmed_Mohamed)As part of the UCL Festival of Culture, Professor Lucy O’Brien (UCL Philosophy) delivered a talk entitled ‘Feeling self-conscious: Me and My Selfie’ on Friday 27th May.

The title of the lecture might have implied we were going to take a look at the popular current discourse that our current obsession with taking  ‘selfies’ – using smartphones to take images of ourselves to share online – is a sign that social media is damaging our psyches and turning us all into self-obsessed narcissists.

However, in her talk Professor O’Brien gave an overview of the philosophy of self-consciousness and self-image and tied this in with the implications of our use of smart phones, without making a judgement about whether or not our increasing desire to take and post images of ourselves is necessarily a negative thing.

The lecture gave us definitions of different forms of ‘self-consciousness’, such as ‘ordinary self-consciousness’ – which is being aware of oneself, perhaps if we are giving a talk or speech and people are therefore looking at us, but not necessarily in an uncomfortable or painful way.

“Human beings have different ways of being self-conscious” explained Professor O’Brien. “We can be self-conscious from the inside in an introspective way, or from the outside, aware of ourselves in an ‘objectual’ sense in relation to material things, or experience ‘interpersonal self-consciousness’ in relation to other people”.

People are of course self-conscious to different degrees – some may be more aware of themselves and how they feel others are perceiving them than others. What’s significant about the age we now live in is that “the props that enable us to become self-conscious from the outside have multiplied”.

Photographs, portraits, self-portraits, film, and audio-recordings all enable the reproduction of self-representations. With a self-portrait, an individual becomes the observer as well as the subject – evaluating themselves as another person might.

When we share a ‘selfie’ on social media, it is an image of ourselves that we have produced for the consumption of others and ourselves at a later time – for ‘future history’. Those who view this see a photo that they know we had control over and wanted to make available for future consumption and evaluation. This makes it a complex and multi-layered type of self-consciousness – there are forms of this emotion “we don’t have names for”.

Some people argue that being able to take images of ourselves and control how we appear in these is ‘liberating’ said Professor O’Brien. She emphasised that while she isn’t making a judgement about whether or not taking ‘selfies’ is a bad thing, it is important for us to ask questions about the impact of this culture on our psyches, and we should track our use of smartphones and cameras to observe the affect they have on us.

“Human animals are complex psychological beings”. We are all built differently and for some individuals it will be more problematic than for others. Now that the opportunities and occurrences for taking these images have multiplied, could it detrimental to our emotional well-being? “Can a life be too painful?” asked Professor O’Brien – can we exceed our capacity to deal with feelings of self-consciousness, and when does it become troubling and costly to experience a high-level of this emotion?

They are an “attention resource” and do use up our attention; those who are more inclined towards self-consciousness may initially find them to be some kind of self-escape, but conversely this can lead to a form of “addictive and risky behaviour”.

Professor O’Brien said ‘selfies’ are a “funnel of human evaluation”; even if you are not particularly self-conscious your emotional equilibrium could be disrupted and diminished by criticism of some aspect of your appearance, even if  it was something you weren’t previously troubled about. By putting these images of ourselves out there we are giving power to others to affect out self-esteem.

“For a lot of humans, self-esteem is dependent on good social relations. You can be left with very little power to be happy if those around you are making you conscious of yourself in a bad way.”


Image via Wikimedia Commons:

Texas student Ahmed Mohamed taking a selfie photograph at the 2015 White House Astronomy Night. Photo by Harrison Jones of hjonesphotography at 2015 White House Astronomy Night. Photo not from Flickr, flickr link simply provided for more information on photograph. Photo provided by email to uploader, along with statement of permission via license CC-BY-SA.4.0.

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