A SENSE OF SELFIE: IN DEFENSE OF THE SELF-PORTRAIT

A selfie I took this morning.

A selfie I took this morning. No shame!

Go on, admit it: you’re guilty of at least one selfie, aren’t you? Recently named word of the year, the selfie (photos taken by the photo subject him/herself, typically uploaded to a social network such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) is a polarizing topic these days, yet so many of us have uploaded them, including the Pope.

While certainly not a new phenomenon (I remember taking “selfies” back in the day of film cameras… crap, did I just admit to being old?), the self-portrait has come under scrutiny for being a self-absorbed, narcissistic form of communication–a vehicle by which the selfie-ee seeks approval and praise.

On the surface, that may be what’s going on. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll likely find the principles of identity management theory* at work.

Our identities are comprised of our own view of ourselves with a mash up of others’ views. During our formative years (often the teens and early 20s), our identities can shake and shift, perhaps causing an even greater need for checks and balances in figuring out who we are–and thus who we are not. But even beyond that, identity management never stops. It’s not like you suss out “This is me! This is who I am!” and the journey ends when you turn 26, 27, or even 30. Humans are ever-changing beings over the course of a lifetime, and so managing our identities becomes a lifelong process.

Selfies have become an acceptable way to communicate,” suggests psychologist Diana Parkinson. “Humans have always done this, whether it’s with cave paintings or self-portraiture – it reaffirms our identity. It’s a natural evolution.

Maybe the art of the selfie is about control, brand management, or a need to be loved. Or perhaps it’s about living out in the open, transparently, and out of context, for mass consumption. Or maybe selfies are a plea to be seen–by someone, anyone.

Some friends have noticed a change in me over the past few months. Where I didn’t post hardly any photos of myself (maybe 5 a year?), there is suddenly a flurry of selfies. “What’s going on with Ashley? She’s… different,” they ponder. At some point in my late 20s, I lost a part of myself. She retreated into the shadows, little by little, until I forgot she even existed. She had been missing for the better part of four years before some folks helped me realize she was gone. This epiphany occurred in October, and I’ve been a shameless selfie machine ever since. #SorryNotSorry

Why? Because I’m trying to regain a sense of my identity. It’s so bizarre to look at a photograph you took of yourself and think, “I don’t even know that girl.” (No, really, this happens pretty much every time.) That’s what the selfie is for me: a healing tool–a way to embrace my me-ness. And while that sounds entirely self-absorbed, think about that for a second. Imagine if the opposite were true–if you felt so incongruent in your own skin, like a stranger looking at yourself in the mirror as if your body had been switched or something. Imagine waking up one day, realizing that somewhere along the way, you lost that crucial sense of value in yourself. Imagine trying to see the qualities others say they see in you without even trying.

There’s that old adage about how the camera doesn’t lie. Sure, lighting tricks, positioning, and filters make everything better, but on the whole, the selfie is an attempt to see through an unbiased eye–to see ourselves for who we really are, reinforcing our sense of identity. The selfie is a way to explore that identity and express it to others. It facilitates understanding and allows us to control our own narratives. They’re a safe place to do all of this, too: if you don’t like a selfie you took, delete it. Zero pressure.

As Casey N. Cep eloquently points out, “Rarely a documentary genre, self-portraits have always allowed us to craft an argument about who we are, convincing not only others, but also ourselves.” So the next time you find yourself rolling your eyes at someone’s selfie, step back and realize that it may have nothing to do with showing off or accumulating praise. Instead, the person perfectly posed in that self-portrait might be engaged in an argument with him or herself, fighting for a sense of identity.

*Pardon my Wikipedia link. There are ample scholarly journals on the topic on Google Scholar, but I didn’t want to link to PDFs that readers may or may not have access to anyway. The Wikipedia article is a good starting point for the basics of IMT.

ENOUGH WITH THE -VERTS ALREADY

Love all the -verts!

Love all the -verts!

“Introvert” is one of the top buzzwords of 2013. The introvert/extrovert sensation rages across Buzzfeed, Forbes, Inc., etc. It sells books and moves magazines. It creates a divide of us vs. them, with accusations like “Well, of course you don’t get it. You’re an extrovert!” being thrown around carelessly.

The media has pushed us into thinking we are polarized as introverts or extroverts, forsaking middle ground. People across the globe had a “Ohhhhh, THAT’S what introverted really means?” moment when they discovered that it has nothing to do with being shy or disliking people. And maybe that’s where the trouble began: a deeply rooted misunderstanding (and sometimes mistreatment) of introverts. Introverts threw their fists into the air and shouted, “We will not go quietly into the night! We are not broken! Now leave us alone!” And thus the introvert reclamation was born.

Recently, the “ambivert” movement has been gaining traction as the key to life’s social interaction mysteries, some even claiming most of us are ambiverts. While I agree that many of us are “somewhere in the middle” of the -vert spectrum, the idea that we’re all so closely aligned to the middle of it that we can’t identify with either type doesn’t hold. Most of us, given the proper questions, scenarios, and testing, would show a preference for one mode of function over the other. Oh, and apparently ambiverts do it better.

Enough with the -verts, people.

Whatever your preferred -vert function, it’s only a fraction of your personality. One fourth, to be exact, according to Myers-Briggs. Your -vert is your energy locus. Introverts gain energy through alone/downtime; extroverts refuel their energy supplies through being around others; and ambiverts are somewhere in between. While our energy locus can color our personalities (some more than others), the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) points us to further distinguishing characteristics.

The MBTI is made up of four parts (or letters) creating a total of 16 different combinations (or types):

1) I/E: preference for introversion/extroversion – where we get energy
2) N/S: preference for iNtuition/sensing – how we gather information
3) F/T: preference for feeling/thinking – how we make decisions
4) J/P: preference for judging/perceiving – how we deal with and give structure to the world around us

Which of these seems more likely to influence the way we behave, if we understand each other, or even if we like one another? I’m betting you’re thinking of a number between 2 and 4 right now. Here’s a breakdown of keywords associated with each MBTI preference. (See bottom of post for more info on figuring out which type you are.)

MBTI preferences at a glance.

Your type is defined by which function you prefer the most–the one in the left column or the one on the right. For example, I am an Introvert who tends to trust iNtuition, value Feeling, and organizes through Judging. This makes INFJ my MBTI.

Personally, the MBTI marker that I get hung up on the most is the third one–the feeling/thinking preference. I have a difficult time understanding where a “T” is coming from, being that I strongly lean “F.” And while someone who is a strong extrovert will wear this (mostly) introvert down with prolonged interaction, I understand and get along quite well with my “E” counterparts. I’d even argue that the relationship between introverts and extroverts can be symbiotic, balancing each other out. I love going to parties with extroverts because they tend to enjoy doing all the talking, which frees me up to listen and process on the periphery.

As with any spectrum, there are varying degrees of polarity. Nothing will be one-size-fits-all, but that’s why I like the MBTI so much: rather than dividing people into two, three, or four categories like other personality inventories, the MBTI offers more flexibility and accuracy with 16 different types. It better accounts for the richness in our nature rather than pigeonholing us into narrow, diametrical terms.

So can we move on from the hype over introvert vs. extrovert vs. oh, by the way, what about ambiverts? Can we stop talking about them in terms of difference and focus instead on understanding one another? Further, can we celebrate each type–wherever it may fall on the -vert spectrum–for exactly what it is as opposed to suggesting how it can improve? That is, after all, the very basis of the MBTI: a tool for understanding others–not segregating them.

Whatever -vert you are, know that you are awesome in all your -verty glory. You “T” folks, however, I’ve got my doubts about you… ;)

P.S. This article from Scientific American puts forth an interesting question: is it sensitive introversion or narcissism? There’s a Likert-style inventory at the end to help you suss it out.


If you don’t already know your MBTI, the folks at SimilarMinds.com have a few good, easy, and free inventories to help you discover it. Here’s their quick and dirty test. There are several others under the “Jung” heading if that one does not satisfy you. And I prefer TypeLogic’s website for in-depth descriptions of each type if you’re curious about your MBTI as well as the other 15.

WHAT’S ALL THIS RUCKUS?

Social media was crucial when I moved to Fort Wayne in 2008. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and even MySpace helped me quickly get to know others in the area at the tap of a keyboard. I virtually shook hands with everyone I encountered, thrilled to meet so many new people. In high school, I was the type of person who flitted between several different social groups, able to talk to pretty much anyone (once I got to know them, albeit). The digital version of me was very much the same, perhaps even moreso.

But something happened along the way. My accepting, tolerant eye turned critical. As my social media feeds became more and more cluttered, my patience with irrelevant noise dwindled. My attention was scattered across so many entities–some of which didn’t even matter to me (or, worse, annoyed the hell out of me)–that the connections that did matter were starting to suffer.

Upon realizing this, I pulled back. I pruned my connections on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I set up filters for TweetDeck (my client of choice for Twitter). I stopped saying “yes” to every event invite or friend request. And I’m not the only one.

FROM A HUM TO A ROAR

photo credit: Steve and Sara via photopin cc

photo credit: Steve and Sara via photopin cc

There’s a backlash-type wave swelling on the horizon of people who have just simply had enough. When social media was shiny and new, they added people here, connected there without a discerning thought about why. And that worked until an election year rolled around, a friend experienced a major life change like having a baby, or someone refused to stop auto-linking their Pinterest and FourSquare accounts to their Facebook. The meaningless noise of irrelevant content started out as a hum at first, but it’s grown to a roar.

“I quit Facebook.” “Pinterest? I haven’t been on there in months!” “I had to hide him/her from my feed because of those annoying posts.” “Too many weirdos were requesting to add me on FourSquare so I deleted it.” These are common coping mechanisms to the overwhelming stimuli of social media.

Instead of a knee-jerk reaction to the noise, what if we refocused our antennas? Cut out the junk that no longer provides value and stop haphazardly making connections just for the sake of growing our networks?

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

A recent study from Princeton University and the School of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway revealed that Twitter contains cliques like high school, the workplace, or any other social stratum. The researchers analyzed language as indicators of group inclusion on the social media platform. The results indicated that we gravitate toward like-minded people–the folks with whom we share beliefs, interests, behavior, and cultural traits. We even form connections based on general mood: “Happy users tend to connect to happy users, whereas unhappy users tend to be predominantly connected to unhappy users.”

No big surprise, right? This is called homophily (or “love of the same”), and it’s ingrained in our nature. Similarity–on whatever level–facilitates connection, something the vast majority of human beings need for a healthy well-being.

Can you describe the ruckus, sir?

In high school, your homophilic connections were the kids you sat with everyday at lunch. You coordinated your electives to make sure you were in the same classes each year. You wouldn’t attend the school dance or go to a party if they weren’t going to be there, too. We naturally make similar connections on social media. Think about your interactions in a given week. Do you find yourself interacting with the same handful of people on a regular basis? Odds are good this is your circle of homophily.

This is not to say that homophilic connections are exactly the same or should be. In fact, difference often helps us grow as individuals. Friends with different perspectives can inspire us to see something in a new way, discover a favorite new band or book, or try sushi for the first time. If our connections are too similar to ourselves, we go unchallenged. But if they are too different, we struggle to find common ground.

So where’s the line that clearly defines the two?

In short, there isn’t one. Well, not one that works for everyone. That’s something you need to figure out for yourself. What qualities in others tend to make you cautious or uneasy? If someone racks up a lot of points on your deal-breaker list, you probably shouldn’t connect with them on social media unless you are practicing your patience skills.

A SOCIAL MEDIA (R)EVOLUTION

One of the cool things about social media is that it lets us interact with many different types of people. But that’s also what contributes to the noise.

As social media grows and evolves, there will be a shift away from arbitrary connecting. We’ll come full-circle with a return to socializing with people more like we do offline, based on similarities that provide an instant thread of familiarity.

We’re already seeing a rise in niche social media networks that allow users to connect with others based on homophily. One of my favorite niche networks is Ravelry–a social media site for knitters and crocheters. It was somewhat ahead of its time with a 2007 beta launch, and it has exploded over the past six years. Sites like Ravelry succeed because they cut down on extraneous noise, allowing users to focus on what really matters to them.

But you don’t have to shift to a niche social media network to silence some of the racket now. You can modify how you handle existing accounts to refocus your attention. Some suggestions:

1) Evaluate which social networks are providing value to you and get rid of the ones that aren’t. MySpace will always have a sentimental place in my heart for connecting me to some kickass people in my life, but I jumped that ship a few years ago. One less distraction; more bandwidth for what’s important.

2) If you’re constantly rolling your eyes at a specific person’s latest post or hiding/filtering them out altogether, ask yourself why you’re even connected in the first place. If you can’t come up with a good reason, quietly cut ties. It feels a little shitty at first, but 1) all that contempt isn’t healthy and 2) if you’ve filtered them out, I’m betting they suspect it due to the absence of interaction.

3) Before making new connections, ask yourself the same question as above: why am I friending/following this person? What value do we offer each other? If you’re connecting with a discerning eye to begin with, you’re less likely to encounter unwanted static later.

“What if I’m adding them to get to know them better?” you ask. I’ve made many a new Twitter friend this way, so I get it. But make sure you don’t get caught up in #2 either. My friend Anthony Juliano had a lot of noise going on in his LinkedIn feed–some of it from folks he had never even met. His solution was to categorize his connections based on likelihood of value for both parties. Those on the “Hmmm, there might be value here, but I’m just not sure…” list get the boot if they haven’t panned out in 6-12 months.

The bottom line is that we should make deliberate connections that seek to add or enrich meaning–for both sides of the connection. Some people treat our natural proclivity toward the familiar–the homophilous–like a bad habit that holds us back in some way. I argue that thoughtless, random connections are what truly stunt our potential. They distract us from what’s really important and can bring out our nasty, snarky side. If you can’t figure out the purpose of all the noise surrounding you on social media, then it’s just a meaningless ruckus.

NO ORDINARY LOVE

“The love you take / is equal to the love you make.” The Beatles “The End”

Here’s a secret I’m hoping most of you reading this post have figured out already: we all love in our own way. Called “love languages” by some, everyone has a different way of showing (and perceiving) affection. But even if we’re already in on this secret, it’s easy to forget it, leading to hurt feelings and misunderstandings.

The problem is that we each show our love differently and if you spend your time looking for those special signs of love and judging your relationships based on that, you may overlook what is right in front of your face and miss out on the most important thing of all—being loved.

Amy Przeworski goes on in her Psychology Today column to talk about the ways in which she overlooked her father’s affection for her while growing up. She reflects, “All of my attempts seemed to fail and after many anxiety-provoking years of trying to win his heart, eventually I gave up on it and accepted that he just didn’t care about me and never would.”

It wasn’t until after her father passed away that she came to realize his subtle way of telling her he loved her–one can of chicken broth at a time.

If only showing love were this easy... photo credit: aussiegall via photopin cc

photo credit: aussiegall via photopin cc

I’m fortunate to have a mother who speaks a similar love language as my own (words of affirmation followed closely by quality time). There was never a day in my life that I did not feel loved and supported by her. But I’ve struggled when it comes to interpreting the signs of affection from others.

My grandma’s way of caring for people is worrying over them, which can drive any family member mad. I have to remind myself to stop, take a breath, and remember that this is how she shows love for someone. Having a taciturn husband, I often get frustrated by his stoicism (a trait I’m also frequently thankful for). When the shit hits the fan, I have to remind myself to stop and ask him what he’s thinking or how he’s feeling.

It’s a work in progress, as any line of communication between two people is.

But did you notice the catalyst for change in each equation? Communication can be improved when we stop putting responsibility for our feelings on the other party and own up to a bit of it ourselves.

No love is ordinary. Be it between a father and daughter, grandmother and grandchild, husband and wife, or even between close friends. Each relationship has its unique language for showing appreciation, support, and love. Take the time to really listen to it: the syntax, vowel sounds, and accents. Then strive to become a fluent speaker.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

THE SOUND OF STEREOTYPES

photo credit: Stéfan via photopin cc

photo credit: Stéfan via photopin cc

One night while working a shift in the small-town gas station that supported me through my 20s, I was commiserating with a regular customer about the crappy oldies station mewling from the speakers.

“So what kind of music do you listen to anyway?” he asked.

Seeing an opportunity for an experiment, I replied, “Give it a guess.”

He eyed me and finally said, “I don’t know… You look like the kind of girl who listens to Britney Spears or something. So pop music, I guess?”

This happens to me often. And it’s always intrigued the hell out of me. (That was the wrong answer, by the way.)

Music is a huge part of identity. There’s ample research on stereotypes based on music preference (i.e. the “you are what you listen to” thought process), but what about perceived music preferences based on stereotypes? And what happens when these perceived music preferences don’t align with our stereotypes of others?

Music journalist and metal music enthusiast Laina Dawes poignantly illustrates this in her interview with NPR. As a fan of both metal and rap music, her words really hit home for me.

There’s still a lot of resistance in terms of who should be listening to what genre of music based on their gender and their ethnicity,” Dawes says, “which does not make any sense to me.

Dawes has been a discredited metalhead most of her life because she’s black and a woman. She has also been discredited as a black woman because she listens to metal, as if she is betraying her own (stereotyped) identity. Dawes likens this to having her “cultural legitimacy” questioned.

My own experiences are by no means on the same scale, but I have garnered my share of incredulous, amused looks when I profess my love of metal music. “You do that headbang stuff, dress in all black, and do the make-up?” they ask with a wry grin. And rap or hip-hop? Forget it. Those don’t even compute for many people.

The interesting thing is the locus of friction I’ve received regarding my preferences in music. It comes not from fellow metal or rap fans but from people who don’t even listen to those genres. I’ve been accused of trying to impress guys, going through “a phase,” and even straight up lying.

Yet 15 years later, my speakers are still bumping the same stuff. This has to be the longest “phase” ever!

Music is more accessible today than it’s ever been, meaning more people are finding new genres with which they identify. Genre mash-ups will become more prevalent (here’s an example of classical meets rap). As a result, perceived music stereotypes will start to become fuzzy and blurred, and we’ll eventually see less stories like Dawes’ or my own.

In the meantime, how about we focus less on what someone likes and more on the why behind it? Odds are conversations about music with that frame of mind will lead to the discovery of commonality rather than difference.