Selfie Summary and Review

by Will Storr
Has Selfie by Will Storr been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. As Shakespeare’s Iago says, wearing your heart on your sleeve isn’t recommended. Before long, the birds will begin pecking away at it. This is a bit of advice that seems to have been internalized by this selfie-addicted age. We’ve made a home for our “best selves” on our social media feeds. Slim, beautiful, and fueled by a diet of endless nutritious and photogenic brunches, social media is where we present ourselves to the world in the way we’d most like to be seen. There’s definitely a bit of narcissism that comes to play when it comes to these social media selves. And this is hardly surprising considering that we take a collective 100 billion selfies a year! However, there’s more to this phenomenon than just this. This image of the ideal self has a unique history. From the ancient Greeks’ image of the perfectly chiseled torso to the nineteenth-century obsession with self-improvement, to our own competitive society, culture has worked to mold our ideas of the self over time. In this summary of Selfie by Will Storr, you’ll learn
  • how it was possible for Californian politicians to help launch self esteem as a solution during the 80s;
  • why a banker driving his Ferrari probably does impress you, even if you don’t think it does; and
  • why fatness is actually a sign of success in many cultures.

Selfie Key Idea #1: The cultures we live in heavily influence how we perceive our own bodies.

What’s the quickest way to feel bad about yourself? For the author, all it takes is a look in the mirror. Each time he sees his own reflection, he finds himself judging his appearance. Why, he wonders, is his stomach so much bigger than it should be? But, come to think about it, why shouldn’t it be the size it is – where does the pressure to be slim and toned come from? Well, simply put, what we perceive as the ideal body is shaped by the culture we’ve grown up in. When it comes to weight, for instance, a slim physique is highly sought after in the West, but this isn’t the case everywhere in the world. In Tanzania, for example, the opposite is true. Fat is valued as a symbol of high status. This Western ideal body has a unique history, with roots stretching all the way back to the earliest European culture: ancient Greece. Picture the appearance of mythical figures such as Hercules or Adonis: they wouldn’t be out of place on the cover of Men’s Health with their chiseled muscles and perfect pelvic v-lines. This means, though, that the ideas of our perfect ideal bodies are still being influenced by the thoughts and beliefs of people living more than two thousand years ago! However, it’s not simply body image that culture influences. The very way we think – our cognition – is also determined by the environment around us. Many Western people receive a formal education, which teaches them to analyze and measure information, which leads them to view the world a certain, specific way. As a result, we think that everyone sees things this way, but that’s simply not the case. Consider the Himba people of Namibia: this culture lives a semi-nomadic lifestyle which is completely isolated from the modern world. Since they don’t receive a Western education, the Himba tend to look at information differently. When the neuroscientist Professor Sophie Scott asked the Himba to analyze the emotional connection to certain sounds, for example, they weren’t able to, as Himba culture doesn’t teach that form of thinking. When it comes down to it, the way we view the world is heavily influenced by the culture and society we live in.

Selfie Key Idea #2: We pay the most attention to, and therefore model ourselves after popular and successful individuals.

What do Jesus, Confucius, and Kim Kardashian have in common? Each of these people exerted a powerful influence on everyone around them. Whether it was disciples, countrymen, or Instagram followers, each of these people was surrounded by those who looked up to them. This is due to the fact that influential individuals don’t just help shape the culture they’re living in, but they also change the ideas of the kind of people we want to be when we live in that society amongst them. So how do they do that? Well, its based on the fact that our brains subconsciously pick out our society’s potential cultural leaders through seeking out “cues” that indicate their success. For example, it’s been shown through multiple studies that we often start imitating the pitch and intonation of the dominant person’s voice in any given social situation. It’s also been shown that we start this type of immitation when we’re as young as 14 months! That sets a pattern. As we begin to mature, we start to grow more and more attentive of these indicators of success, from designer clothes to fast cars. This means that status symbols matter, and they cause an automatic and unconscious process that we probably aren’t even aware of. We might believe that a banker’s flashy Ferrari impresses us, but likely, it does. Our past as a species is actually one of the main reasons we’re so receptive to indicators of success. Back when we were a society of hunter-gatherers, we had every reason to identify and mimic the most successful people. These people often wore jewelry made from the teeth of animals they’d killed, or clothing made from valuable hides, and these were potent symbols of their wearers’ success. However, we don’t simply rely on our own perceptions – it’s also important to note that we observe and take notice of who other people are mimicking. And if others are copying someone who seems successful, we’re likely to start doing the same. That’s known as the “Paris Hilton effect.” It’s essentially a snowball effect: attention generates more attention. If the media in general starts showing someone as newsworthy, then we start thinking of them as such. Once this happens, it actually leads to the media then paying even more attention to that person. This creates an endless feedback loop, through which someone’s status will be able to become hugely amplified.

Selfie Key Idea #3: The nineteenth century’s technical, scientific, and intellectual progress actually changed our idea of the ideal self.

When was it that our modern perception of the perfect self actually emerged? It turns out that the nineteenth century was actually incredibly important when it comes to how we started to value the things we do today. The nineteenth century was an age of incredible progress. Western civilization made massive technological, scientific, and intellectual strides, which did more than simply change the world around us, it changed the very way we think about ourselves. The arrival of steam power, railroads, electricity, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and greater social mobility for the lower classes came together to free us from our past dependence on the environment. In previous centuries, we were dependent on the physical world around us. This meant that our sense of self was almost entirely determined by where we lived and worked. Everything changed in the nineteenth century. The millions of men and women living in both the US and Europe didn’t need to rely on the land anymore to survive. This means the way we thought about ourselves actually changed. We stopped thinking of ourselves as dependent on the elements, but instead now thought about ourselves as masters of our own destinies. It was now the economy, rather than the environment, which shaped our sense of self. People were suddenly in a position to actually pursue their own paths, which allowed them to make their own futures. However, this type of self-determination wasn’t simply an economic reality – it also demanded a new social ideal. We’d now reimagined the perfect self. This is when the current ideal of the hardworking man who’s capable of self-improvement first appeared to society. This change actually resulted in a new literary genre – the self-help book. The first book of this kind to appear in Britain was simply titled Self Help. This book argued that individuals would be able to better themselves by taking advantage of the many opportunities that could be found in modern society. It was a milestone. This new self-help genre helped to create the image of the perfect self as it was presented to audiences, and they continue to shape our perceptions today.

Selfie Key Idea #4: Having high self-esteem makes us narcissistic, rather than better citizens.

It’s totally normal for parents to tell their kids how special they are. They tell you that if you believe in yourself, you’ll be able to achieve anything. After all, what parent wouldn’t want to boost their child’s self-esteem? However, the idea that high self-esteem is beneficial is a very new idea, with the notion only really gaining wider currency in the 1980s. While it may sound plausible, it actually isn’t supported at all in fact. In actuality, the earliest academic research on self-esteem found it to be doubtful that had a potential role as something good for society. For example, let’s look at a 1980s study by John Vasconcellos and other Californian politicians. Vasconcellos was convinced that low self-esteem was at the heart of virtually every social ill: from drug abuse to crime, poor school results, violence, and teenage pregnancy. This was also reflected in his own personal experience of therapy. However, the researchers who actually looked at this matter found that there was virtually no evidence supporting these claimes. The only connection they could find was between high self-esteem and better educational outcomes. The California commissioners of the study weren’t happy with this. So, shockingly, they whitewashed the results and continued championing the supposed social boost that came with high self-esteem. This means that they misrepresented the conclusions of the academics in charge of the study, and convinced the world and the media that they’d found the perfect, foolproof answer to society’s problems. Since then, there have been plenty of programs put out around the Western world meant to boost self-esteem, but the results of these programs are often disturbing. By the 1990s, the mainstream parenting method was to implement as much as they could in schools and society at large to improve their children’s self-esteem. In California, for example, there were programs put in place in about 86 percent of elementary schools to help improve self-esteem. However, a new problem spurred from this amount of praise: narcissism. The reality is, boosting people’s self-esteem can actually leave them feeling convinced of their superiority over others. And you’ll be surprised to know that this narcissism is on the rise. Numerous studies have shown that the level of narcissism in young people has skyrocketed since the 1970s.

Selfie Key Idea #5: The rise of the selfie has epitomized our already increasingly competitive, individualist, and internet driven society.

Whether we want to or not, we live in the age of the selfie. In 2014 alone, an estimated 93 billion selfies were taken. This means that every third picture in the average 18-24-year-old’s camera roll was a self-portrait. But isn’t it just all harmless fun? Well, as it turns out, no. Turning our cameras on ourselves without end does actually have a dark side. Our love of selfies epitomizes the way society has become increasingly neoliberal. Our world and society is now more individualistic and competitive than it’s ever been before, and posting selfies on our social media accounts is a great example of this shift. What happens when we post images like this is that we start to build up a personal brand. This commercialized version of everyday life leads to us becoming convinced that it’s necessary to constantly compete with one another. It’s built up this idea that if we want to become successful and wealthy, it’s necessary to ensure that we come in first. Selfies are one of these new ways of pushing ourselves over this invisible finish line. Getting more positive feedback, likes, and comments than other social media users means our brand is outperforming its competitors. This facet of internet culture isn’t a bug. In fact, it’s been a feature from the get-go. From its very origins as a hub of online innovation, Silicon Valley has been trying to use the internet to force individuals and society itself into being more competitive. “Disruptive” technology is a key player in this. Since the 2000s, Silicon Valley pioneers have championed this idea of the internet as something that would allow anyone and everyone to make money aside from traditional corporations Take platforms like Facebook and Instagram. They disrupt hierarchies by giving every “I” a voice and a presence. On top of this, anyone who has an Instagram account can monetize that “I.” The self has become a currency. People like Kim Kardashian are able to make tons of money by simply being themselves on an online platform – or rather, a carefully cultivated version of herself. From this, the upside is the personal freedom we’ve actually gained. But there’s also a downside. Because society has become increasingly internet-driven and hyper individualistic, we’ve also lost a large sense of collective solidarity. As we, as people, start to become personal brands, our worlds have also transformed into a huge pool of competition, pushing us to land our next jobs in the online gig economy – a labor market dominated by freelance work and short-term contracts. It’s a stark vision and philosophy. Here, there’s no collective “we,” just individuals.

Selfie Key Idea #6: The internet pile-on and shaming culture have taught kids that making mistakes is wrong.

If you were to scroll through any millennial’s Instagram feed, it will quickly become clear what characteristics are most sought after in today’s world. The ideal self is slim, beautiful, and has a pronounced taste for nutritious and photogenic brunches. However, there’s one more, less obvious trait belonging to the perfect internet self: we shouldn’t make mistakes. This is due to the idea that internet culture has turned people’s often blunt comments into strong tools of shame. Social media is an echo chamber. A single off-color remark can go viral and be seen by thousands if not millions of people within minutes. Other media amplify this. If a celebrity makes a snide comment about something, it won’t take long before online newspapers have covered the original post as well as the furious reaction. But why do even supposedly respectable outlets jump on this bandwagon? Well, the sad truth is that shaming someone publicly can make you a ton of money. If your brand depends on online advertisements to make some extra cash, posting stories that get clicks will be like posting gold. Moral outrage is the best lure when it comes to attracting readers – hence headlines based around clickbait are designed to provoke indignation. Online pile-ons and public shaming aren’t something to be taken lightly, however – they can have devastating consequences in the real world. Young people are particularly vulnerable. This means that younger audiences have been taught multiple times that the punishment for making mistakes is the instant judgement from their peers on the internet, and sometimes that’s simply too much for a young person to handle. Take a tragic case from Britain in 2016: A 16-year-old girl sent a photograph of herself to a group of friends. Although the photo was something personal, it ended up being openly shared on social media. Unaware of the original context, people around the world misconstrued the photograph as racist. The girl who sent the photo couldn’t stand the idea of being thought of as a bigot by millions of people she didn’t know, leading her to take her own life.

In Review: Selfie Book Summary

The key message in this book summary: While we probably would like to believe that the person we are is a product of our unique choices and experiences, the reality is, the type of person we actually strive to be isn’t simply up to our own free will – culture plays a massive part in molding our self-conception. We notice and use cues that are hidden in our surrounding world, and today’s selfie-driven age is no different. Our image of the perfect self is shaped by economic, technological, and intellectual influences and is a potent symbol of the type of hyper-individualistic, internet-addicted, and competitive societies we now live in.