From Barack Obama to the Pope to Geraldo Rivera, this year the “selfie” took the world by storm. Whether your friends in the world of social media wanted to show you how much fun they were having at the Ke$ha concert or how “dedicated” they are to their new workout regime (or perhaps just their new workout wardrobe) there is one thing that the year of the selfie has reinforced: We are hyper-communicative creatures, and we carnivorously crave the ability to form our own self-image.
The “selfie” phenomenon has often been discounted as a trivial fad instigated primarily by millenials. The harshest critics see them as a visual (or rather millions of visuals) representing the narcissism of the generation made up of digital natives. But there is much more to the selfie than that. Don’t take it from me, as you may have guessed, I am in fact a millennial, take it from the folks at the Oxford Dictionary, who named it the word of the year. If we decide to take it seriously in the world of communication, as they have, it’s also important to look at what implications “The Selfie Phenomenon” has not just within the worlds of Twitter and Instagram but also within the world of Corporate Communications.
When you walk into your office Monday through Friday, you are presenting a very different version of yourself than you do when you walk into, say, a bar during happy hour, or your family Christmas party. This is what psychologists have been referring to as the “looking-glass self” for over a century. To put it simply, people shape the way they see themselves based on their understanding of how others perceive them. The formation of our looking-glass selves is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, we think others see us in a certain way, we form our self-concept and act in said way, and others continue to see us in that way. Or so we have thought, until now.
The “selfie” has empowered individuals to redefine their self-concept. It is not necessarily narcissism or deception that drives us to want to change the way we are perceived, it is the innately human awareness of others’ expectations of us, and our drive to fulfill those roles.
For instance, the twenty-something associate that just started in your office may perceive his “work-self” to be inexperienced, relatively invaluable and naïve. Maybe these aren’t accurate descriptions and maybe no one actually sees him that way. But what if at the last brainstorming session he had an incredible idea, or a unique perspective, and he didn’t offer it up because he was striving to fulfill a pre-determined role.
So, your “work-self” is based on how you believe your boss and co-workers see you. If you, or a co-worker or even your boss isn’t happy with their self-concept in the workplace, isn’t it possible that the self-fulfilling prophesy of our work-selves could be altered by the selfie, an ultimate tool of self-presentation? This is what I have so affectionately termed the “selfie-fulfilling prophecy”, or the ability to use social media and self-presentation to change what kind of worker you believe you’re perceived to be and therefore the way you act.
So, that’s enough psychobabble for one blog post.
What I’m suggesting is not that you add your boss on Instagram and immediately upload 15 selfies of you at home on a Friday night poring over a corporate memo. Please, for the sake of the entire internet, do not do that. But, what I am suggesting, is that as our professional environments become ever-increasingly interwoven with technologies similar to those we use in our social lives, utilizing this newfound ability to redefine ourselves will be crucial for some. Namely for those who are quieter, more intimidated by the traditional boardroom brainstorm or those who are insecure in the role of their perceived work-self.
LinkedIn, the foremost professional social networking site, has allowed people to represent themselves to their co-workers since 2009. This year, FLIRT kicked off an internal corporate campaign that was based entirely in an online social media platform, and people responded with incredible support. The more we use Facebook and Twitter and the more we snap selfies and share them with our social networks, the more this technology becomes relevant in all channels of communication.
So, while the “selfie” can be chalked down to the most base form of “digital vanity” touted proudly by the likes of Miley Cyrus, the Kardashians and any teenager with a smartphone, maybe it’s time to start thinking about it in a different context, one that could potentially empower you and your co-workers.
[Editor’s note: The day after this blog post was published, actor James Franco wrote an article in the New York Times discussing the selfie, arguing that attention is the “name of the game” in social media. We thought it made an interesting parralel line of thought that we’ve included a link to it here: The Meanings of the Selfie.]