Mercury reporter Sphelele Ngubane takes a selfie. Picture: Jacques Naude

Durban - Who could forget the mobile network branding campaign with the tagline: Cell C. For yourself?

Or the more recent move by Coca-Cola to personalise cans?

Both sum up the zeitgeist; we live in the age of individualism.

In a recent Flux Trend report, analyst Dion Chang said recession and natural disasters were among the causes of a “me” mentality that encouraged people to live for the moment and indeed, for themselves.

Aided and abetted by cellphone cameras and social media networks, the narcissistic wave is epitomised by the selfie.

So prevalent is the social phenomenon that the selfie was last year named the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. It is defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”.

And according to global fact tank, the Pew Research Center, which published a paper in March titled Millennials in Adulthood – Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends, Millennials (also known as Generation Y) lead the way on photo sharing.

“About eight in 10 Millennials (81 percent) know what a selfie is, and 55 percent have shared a selfie on a photo sharing or social networking site such as Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat … Among Millennials, women are more likely than men to have posted a selfie (68 percent vs 42 percent) … Younger Millennials (ages 18 to 25) are more likely than Millennials ages 26 to 33 to have posted a selfie (62 percent vs 46 percent). While they may like to post pictures of themselves online, Millennials agree with adults from other generations that, in general, people share too much information about themselves on the internet.”

Taken casually or staged, a picture of you, posted by you, is always done deliberately.

There is control and essentially the opportunity to present “Me, through my eyes”.

Durban theatre personality Rory Booth says the few selfies he’s taken have left him “embarrassed” and “regretful”.

“I understand wanting to share moments you have with the people around you with the rest of the world. However, the majority of selfies I have seen, just smack of self-obsession,” he says.

“For example, the other day I saw a selfie of someone who posted a picture hashtagged ‘vulnerable’.

A few minutes later the same person posted a selfie with the hashtag ‘model’. How did this person get from vulnerable to model in a matter of seconds?

“I guess people are looking for validation in society. In which cases selfies must boost one’s confidence.

“Selfies can be a form of expressing oneself – and some people paint beautiful pictures – but solo selfies are just not for me.”

Booth’s sentiment is the core of another solid argument: that selfies are an extension of art and may even have cultural reference in the way art, such as Van Gogh’s self-portraits, do today.

We’ve all done them at some stage, the issue is with those who do them too often and inappropriately.

I won’t even go into the porno or near porno pictures of flexing muscles and pouting guises that flood the internet.

But take it from US President Barack Obama, who was caught participating in a “selfie” at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, that there is a time and place for everything.

Perhaps taking selfies is far more innocent than labels such as “narcissism” allow.

One woman we’re all happy to see selfies of is model Shashi Naidoo. Her last selfie was taken about a week ago on a helicopter flip in Mozambique.

Naidoo says she posts selfies “spontaneously”.

“Taking selfies is not something I usually plan. Sometimes it’s spur of the moment, sometimes after I get my hair done, before a shoot or after getting my make-up done.

“Instagram has created a whole new culture where we can share pictures in real time. I don’t always have make-up on, I am as real as the next girl,” she says.

Another celebrity, somewhat more articulate about what social media has done for his brand, is Hollywood heartthrob James Franco.

Franco wrote a letter to the New York Times last December making an argument for the power of attention.

Selfies, he says, “are tools of communication more than marks of vanity … Mini-Mes that we send out to give others a sense of who we are”.

Maybe you should be worried if you aren’t a celebrity and aren’t confident enough to be posting like one anyway.

A recent BBC report revealed research linking selfies to body image.

It suggests spending lots of time on Facebook looking at pictures of friends could make women insecure about their body image.

Researchers at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, and the University of Iowa in the US surveyed 881 US female college students and found a link between time spent on social networks and negative comparisons about body image.

In the report Petya Eckler of the University of Strathclyde said, “The attention to physical attributes may be even more dangerous on social media than on traditional media because participants in social media are people we know.

“These comparisons are much more relevant and hit closer to home. Yet they may be just as unrealistic as the images we see on traditional media.” - The Mercury

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