UCI class looks at the history behind selfies

Many see the presence of the "selfie" in social media as a sign of a rising narcissism in today's youth, but a UC Irvine professor is challenging that assumption in her classroom this spring quarter.

Professor Catherine Liu's goal is to study the selfie as a way for young people to express themselves online. She noticed early on that most of the dialogue about selfies today is negative.

"The thing we have come to realize is a lot of the myth between selfies, women and narcissism have come to resemble other reactions to new technology and moral panic about radio, television, photography and even film," she said. "Every time there is a new technology people freak out."

But Liu sees the selfie phenomenon as something more than self-obsession, and she's on a mission to teach students a broader perspective and understanding of this technological and cultural craze.

A professor in the film and media studies department, Liu takes a historical approach to understanding selfies. She analyzes the history of young people and the ways in which members of every generation have tried to find their identities within an ever-changing society.

Liu believes that since World War II, young people have developed new ways of self-discovery through new technologies and innovation. As an example, she contends that they use selfies today the same way the youths used rock music of the past — for identity formation.

"They are trying to understand themselves and their place in the world," she said. "This is just as other generations have done, and they have different technologies from which to do so."

But just as the older generation rejected the countercultural rockers from the 1960s, the older generation of today dismisses selfie-takers.

An Ohio State University study links the posting of selfies to male narcissism and psychopathy. A Google search of the words "selfie" and "narcissism" will bring up a number of articles on how people see the two as related.

Liu exposes her students to this side of the argument. In an assigned reading titled "Why do people risk their lives — or the lives of others — for the perfect selfie?," students learn how peoples' obsessions with the perfect selfie can lead to horrible consequences.

In March, a swan died when it was dragged out of a lake in Macedonia for a quick snapshot, according to various news sources. And in 2015, Russian authorities launched a campaign with the slogan, "A cool selfie could cost you your life," in response to the nearly 100 Russians who died or were injured in selfie-inflicted scenarios.

But Liu will return to her theme that despite the widely accepted view that the selfie is driven by ego and vanity, she believes that the primary function of the photo is for people to present themselves to the world.

In one of her 80-minute classes, Liu lectured some 20 students about how the "new communalism" hippie movement of the 1960s defined modern social media as an abstract landscape where people can share ideas and develop personalities through interaction with others.

The communalism movement saw groups of peace-loving adults abandon their homes and venture into nature to build communal, egalitarian societies with one another. Liu believes that this sentiment helped fuel the development of our modern-day social media.

In other words, the communities of Twitter and Facebook are much like the communalistic societies of old. Rather than being narcissistic, selfies serve as a means for young people to communicate and express themselves with one another within these online communities.

Students have been receptive to Liu's arguments during the semester.

"The most important thing I have learned so far is the deeper context of what we have learned of the history about it," student Garrett Niida said. "We are going over different autobiographies, and we are learning the history about it and how it incorporates into different social medias. I disagree that a selfie is narcissistic."

Other students appreciate Liu's intentions but have a different interpretation.

"My perception of the selfie has changed a little bit," student Jonathan Workanah said. "I have seen so many different kinds of selfies now in the class. I believed it was a vain act to begin with. It's crazy how much attention people want."

Workanah described how the class has been reviewing the photos of activists who take selfies to further their causes. He believes that even when people take selfies for activist reasons, the desire and need for attention is still involved.

"If it's how you feel, then just do it," he said. "There's no reason to have people seeing you do it."

While Liu realizes that not all students are going to be receptive, she hopes everyone will take away from the class the deeper lesson that social media is a powerful platform that can be used for legitimate reasons in the development of today's young people.

She said the higher-ups at the school have been receptive to the course — a 4-unit elective — and are generally open to abstract kinds of classes as long as they follow protocol, in this case Liu's historical approach to the study of selfies.

Another course, for instance, focuses on how post-civil-rights policing is displayed in cinema.

The course description reads: "According to a 2006 report by Human Rights Watch: 'For years, the United States has held the dubious distinction of incarcerating more people and at a higher rate than any other peacetime nation in the world,' a fact that has prompted leading scholars to term the U.S. the first genuine 'prison society' in modern history. Our task is to develop a conceptual framework that enables us to discuss adequately how this state of affairs has come to be and what role the cinema has played in accommodating or criticizing these developments."

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