Me, my selfie & I: narcissism or empowerment?

Sunday 19 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Cinema 2, Barbican Me, Me, Me Politics

The development and widespread adoption of camera phones has led to an explosion of imagery online. But while great claims are made for citizen journalism and user-generated content, the most significant trend recently has been the rise of self-portraits - ‘selfies’. What should we make of these developments and of the way that social media impacts on news and public debate more generally?

The rise of blogs and social media are often said to provide the ability for anyone from big-name celebrities to ordinary people to challenge politicians, journalists and TV producers on what they read, see and hear. Many believe the internet has proven itself as a powerful democratising force, an enabler of dissenting views and beliefs that previously could be ignored by Oxbridge-educated, London-based editors and journalists. In recent years, established newspapers have either modified or even removed an offending article due to a backlash on social media. It seems that far from being all-powerful and influential, increasingly big media corporations and politicians are held in check by ordinary citizens seeking redress for opinions and actions they find unacceptable or claims they believe are false.

Elsewhere, the rise of the citizen journalist and his or her roving camera phone provides instant reportage far quicker than a journalist stuck in a central London office. Increasingly, big stories are broken and covered, not by trained reporters for the BBC or Channel 4, but ordinary people who are in the right place at the right time and are tech-savvy enough to capture the moment. Digital technology, it is claimed, has demystified mass media and revitalised active citizenship in the process.

But has such easy accessibility of content and views necessarily led to a more enlightened and free civic life? For every blog offering considered opinion, there are considerably more Twitter users devoted to closing down debate rather than extending it further. Far from a new, democratising space emerging, social-media users are quick to take offence and quick to demand censorship, clampdowns and punishments for those who’ve transgressed ‘acceptable’ views. Far being a redress to oppressive, unpopular governments, social-media users are often keen to demand authoritarian action themselves.

Whereas political struggle in the past was mostly about ‘we’, digital activism is more likely to be about ‘me’ - a protection of individual identity and self-esteem above all else. Many of the Twitterstorm controversies often involve individuals who’ve been offended by someone who doesn’t respect their particular identity. Too often, it seems, individuals want redress and recognition for their damaged sense of self, identity and personal esteem. The current fad for the ‘selfie’ on social media shows that vanity outstrips serious contributions to discussion and debate. Even the citizen journalist could be encouraged to believe that the real story is their experience of an event rather than the event itself.

So has a narcissistic revolution accompanied the digital one or has clicktivism enabled a warts-and-all style of free expression previously unimaginable? Is the digital world merely a playground for aggrieved, attention-seeking individuals or a democratising redress for minorities in society? Has the empowering aspect of the internet only encouraged new forms of oppression? Are we simply logging on to demand ‘me’ speech over free speech?

Listen to the debate:

Neil Davenport
sociology and politics teacher; writer on culture; former music journalist

Joy Lo Dico
editor, Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary; contributing editor, Prospect

Lucy O’Brien
professor, University College London; author, Self-Knowing Agents; Honorary Director, Aristotelian Society, 2006-2014

John Waters
Irish newspaper columnist; author, Jiving at the Crossroads and Was It For This? Why Ireland Lost the Plot

Christopher Beckett
client and operations manager, Elite IB; former pastoral support worker, Wymondham College

Produced by
Neil Davenport sociology and politics teacher; writer on culture; former music journalist
Recommended readings
Is the selfie an act of narcissism?

'Byron scratched his name into the supreme temple at Sounion, and compared with that a selfie is quite harmless,’ says philosopher Simon Blackburn

Simon Blackburn, Irish Times, 4 July 2014

The selfie's screaming narcissism masks an urge to connect

The Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year, 'selfie' seems to be all about me, me, me. But its social nature reveals a desperate search for an us

Jonathan Freedland, Guardian, 19 November 2013

Selfies - how the world fell in love with itself

As the 'selfie’ officially becomes the word of the year according to Oxford Dictionaries, we look at the social media craze that has gripped pop stars, politicians and even the Pope

Harry Wallop, Telegraph, 19 November 2013

Social media as confusing as helpful in crisis situations

News misinformation often came from social media in Boston Marathon bombing

Alex Dingman, CJ Online, 22 April 2013

The rise of citizen photojournalism

The era of ubiquitous media creation is helping average people across the world make a real difference

Dan Gillmor, Al Jazeera, 15 March 2011

follow the Academy of Ideas


Keep up to date with Academy of Ideas news and events by joining our mailing list.