The Word of the Year

Every year Oxford Dictionaries announces a Word of the Year. This is a word, or expression, that has attracted a great deal of interest that year. Throughout the year the Dictionary staff track words using all kinds of interesting means and in November they narrow in on a few for special consideration. A final selection team is made up of lexicographers and consultants to the dictionary team, and editorial, marketing, and publicity staff. This year, all of that effort led to this word: Selfie.

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A selfie is a photograph of yourself taken with a mobile phone or other handheld device, and uploaded to social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any of the others. The Dictionary team found that the word was first used in 2002 by an inebriated Australian:

Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.

It has been in use ever since. However, in 2013 the word reached a kind of tipping point in popularity when both individuals and media began to refer to it with increased regularity and decreased shame. Over the year it increased in usage by 17,000%.

I find this word fascinating on two levels. First, I love words, so am always eager to learn new ones, to see how they have come into use, and to see how they’ve become popularized. Selfie is just such a word.

But of greater interest to me is the selfie and ourselves. I keep an eye on the digital world and find that selfie has some special interest here. I have often looked for a word that will aptly summarize life in this digital world, and this may be it. We are the selfie generation.

When our handheld devices first came along, they offered us very little variety. We took what the companies offered and used them as they were created. But it didn’t take long for Nokia, and then other manufacturers, to allow us to personalize them. We could buy different colors of phone, or change our ringtone, or, on some models even change the vibration patterns or the flashing light patterns. We demanded the ability to customize our mass-marketed devices. Don’t miss the irony and the salesmanship. Even as we all embraced the same things, we wanted to feel like we embraced them as individuals rather than as a herd. And so it was that our devices became a means of personal expression.

And then a second thing happened. It did not take long for the manufacturers to figure out that we wanted cameras in our phones. It is obvious in retrospect, and a great addition to a handheld device. I remember the first time I saw a mobile phone that had a little mirror on the back, a tiny mirror meant to give you a view of yourself as you took a photo of yourself for the benefit of yourself.

And then a third thing happened. When social media came along, we suddenly had the perfect means of personal expression, the perfect means of building a completely customized view of self. We could use our customized phones to take customized photos for our customized online profiles.

When we combine mobility with cameras and social media, we have not only the ability, but also the desire, to be constantly in one another’s view. We carry our phones and use social media and snap selfies not for others, but for ourselves. No one really wants to see your face superimposed in front of the Statue of Liberty; you want people to see you there! We feel this great desire to keep ourselves in other people’s consciousness. But even as we constantly elevate ourselves into one another’s gaze, we want to make sure we control what they see of us. The selfie is the inevitable result of a world of customization, a world of self, a world of carefully crafting an online identity in which we are sovereign, in which we are our own gatekeepers.

The selfie isn’t bad. It just is. It’s a fact of life in this digital world. But amidst the selfie’s ubiquity, don’t miss what it tells us about ourselves and about the way we present ourselves to the world. The selfie is not a photo of your face as much as it is a snapshot of your heart.