Oxford's word of the year for 2013 was "selfie." That was even before U.S. President Barack Obama took his famous snapshot alongside the leaders of Britain and Denmark at the memorial for Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
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The selfie says a lot about the culture of our time. Many people think it is indicative of a narcissism and shallowness present in our modern society. I disagree. It’s not all bad. In fact, a lot of it is actually good.
Typically, people snap a selfie whenever they want to document a time or place in their lives. Then the selfie is shared with their social media peers via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp or other social networks. People see the photo. It gets Likes, Faves, and comments. Life goes on.
Critics say this is all an exercise in narcissism. Only a self-absorbed generation can delude itself into thinking that anyone else cares about their lives enough to see their portraits, landscapes, and "foodscapes." To these critics, the Internet is becoming cluttered with self-promotion and driving an addictive need for the approval of online peers. This lack of self-awareness, they say, is encapsulated by the selfie.
Judaism is meant to encourage a healthy self-image, counterbalanced by a healthy dose of humility. Maimonides famously writes about the golden mean. We are told that the path of Godliness is the middle path, and that extremes of nearly all character traits are considered harmful and ungodly.
Many people are of the opinion that the selfie is to the narcissistic extreme, but I think this is a misreading of modern communication trends. The key to understanding the selfie, in fact, lies right there: in understanding modern communication.
The crux of the issue is social media. To some people, social media is a form of self publication. They use the medium the way newspapers, radio, books, journals, television, and letters are used. If someone were to publish articles in the newspaper, or broadcast on the radio and television pithy self portraits we would rightly call them narcissists, likely delusional, and possibly insane. Similarly, people often suggest that posts on social media must be weighed heavily with intense forethought before they are made public. Such criticism is reasonable if one sees social media in this manner. In this metaphor for social media, some photos and words are often seen as inappropriate for publication.
However, I don’t think this is the proper metaphor for social media. A more suitable metaphor is that of conversation taking place over dinner or in a bar. In conversations we often say things to provoke thought or discussion without proper analysis. Sometimes we share things with others that are merely meant to give a glimpse into our lives. Using this metaphor, the selfie is not narcissism as much as it is part of an ongoing conversation.
Another criticism of the selfie is that it seems to indicate that the person taking the selfie is not present or appreciating the moment and is instead preoccupied with sharing the moment. But the selfie is a form of documentation, a modern diary. There is nothing inherently wrong or negative about documenting one’s life. Doing so can be a great tool and catalyst for introspection. A more appropriate reaction to this new form of documentation is to attempt to maximize it and use every selfie as an opportunity for self-reflection.
Judaism rarely thinks in absolutes of right and wrong – most things in life fall somewhere between the two extremes. Selfies are an excellent example of this kind of moderate thinking. Certainly, there are potential problems that can be exacerbated or highlighted by oversharing. But I think it’s much more valuable to see the potential for good in modern developments than to be apocalyptic about the evolution of communication.
The word of the year in 2013 was selfie. In 2014 let’s endeavor to make the selfie a valuable part of our culture. Let’s not let the vapid selfie overcome the thoughtful and meaningful selfie.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D., is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice, CA. Connect with Rabbi Fink through Facebook, Twitter or email. He blogs at http://finkorswim.com.