The rise and rise of the meta-selfie
Just another irony-pilled Instagram trend or something more?
Images via Twitter and Instagram
In theory, the meta-selfie is simply a selfie that shows the act of taking a photo. In practice — as executed by various social media it-girls, including Dua Lipa, Bella Hadid and certified bad bleep Addison Rae — the concept manifests in a variety of ways. It can be a mirror selfie with the front camera’s interface visible, creating an infinite spiral of selfies; a photo of someone else’s iPhone capturing the shot (you get bonus points for being able to see their thumb tapping the shutter button). The meta-selfie can sometimes find power in its caption too, which often winks at the performance on display. If taking a selfie was ever considered “cringe”, the meta-selfie takes that shame and pushes it to the extreme, showing us the BTS mechanics of the act in a contrived act of artful nonchalance. The whole affair is, undeniably, quite chic.
“In the early 2010s, the word ‘selfie’ and its corresponding act carried a bit of a stigma, especially for regular, non-famous people,” i-D contributor and culture editor of creative agency The Digital Fairy Biz Sherbert says. “It was associated with controversial celebrities like Kim Kardashian and was generally considered to be a symbol of female vapidity. Because of this, the average selfie seemed to either be taken and posted with a bit more discretion, or as a kind of self-aware joke.”
Although the selfie found it footing on MySpace in the early 00s, it was the release of the iPhone 4 and its groundbreaking (for the era, high resolution) front-facing camera in 2010 that saw the concept go viral. Three years later, the Oxford English Dictionary crowned “selfie” word of the year, which the male-dominated media frequently held up as the ultimate emblem of millennial narcissism, as typified by an infamous 2013 TIME magazine cover with the headline “Me, Me, Me Generation”.
Of course, none of this stopped anyone from taking pictures of themselves. In fact, new digital economies sprung up around the micro-internet celebrities who went on to build lucrative careers off their image. In early 2019, Instagram’s algorithm began to noticeably skew away from text and towards faces, bodies, and Tavi Gevinson in a frog hat. Then the advent of TikTok, with its onslaught of endlessly scrollable front-facing camera content, brought fame to a fresh set of next-gen household names (or more accurately, their faces), making Bella Poarch, Charli D'Amelio and their symmetrically-featured peers into icons for the new age.
“We take selfies while we’re being broken up with, on the hospital bed, at our grandparents’ funerals,” Biz points out, noting also a decreasing reliance on “tools to build and enhance a selfie, from FaceTune to filters.” These softwares are synonymous with the mid-to-late 2010s ‘highlight reel’ iteration of Instagram, where carefully curated aesthetics reigned supreme. Think highly-edited, staged content: flat-lays of brunch food, portraits in front of millennial pink walls. However, there’s been a noticeable shift away from this (especially post-pandemic), as marked by ironic trends like the meta-selfie or even the currently surging “yassification” of the internet.
This referential and “relatable” pushback to traditional social media use (see also: photo dumps, crying selfies and toothbrush pictures) could be seen as an attempt to save the selfie from the ennui of the glossy influencer aesthetic. But when everyone is their own photographer, producing an endless flow of digital images, the suspicion lingers that vanity is perhaps now so deeply embedded into online culture that it is able to repackage itself as an aesthetic. For Mayanne Soret, the co-founder of the pop culture-art history crossover Twitter account @TabloidArtHistory, a selfie will always say something about the person taking it, but it tends to reveal much more about the structures and conditions that govern our lives.
The meta-selfie, for example, says a lot about the chokehold our smartphones have over our daily lives. “There is something uniquely fascinating about meta-selfies because they succinctly show the plural functions of the phone as an image-making technology: the phone is the camera you use to take a picture of yourself with, but it is also the medium you use to see the image and the medium you use to share it,” Mayanne says. The meta-selfie differs from simply holding up your phone or camera to a mirror because, “it shows more awareness of the value of the image as a mediated object within the social media space.”
The explosion of the trend, then, is less about entertainment and vanity; instead it’s symptomatic of a retreat from privacy rights, the increasingly casual commodification of the self, and the sacrifices we make in terms of corporate surveillance for the sake of ease and connection. “On some level, we’re aware that we’re always being watched — it’s the spirit of the times,” Biz adds, “so this idea of ‘surveillance chic’ is showing up in our selfies.” After all, unless your account is private, you post knowing that any of Instagram’s 1.3 billion users could view that photo. For many, they’re sharing in the hope that they will.
Grace, the 19-year-old admin of a popular moodboard account called @internetinspo, agrees that the trend “reflects the rise of a ‘surveillance chic’ aesthetic,” but that it also stems from the number of “self-shot fashion campaigns and magazine editorials that were taken on iPhone and Android phones” over (and continually beyond) the first coronavirus lockdown. “I noticed a lot of people experimenting more with their selfies, finding new and eccentric ways to take them,” Grace says. And that includes some major players. Lockdown gave us the “FaceTime shoot”, with Bella Hadid fronting the first major FaceTime campaign for Jacquemus in April 2020. The result was, in effect, an extremely expensive, extremely high fashion, front-facing camera selfie. This style of photography was later adopted by Vogue Italia, where Bella was shot and styled through a video call less than a month later.
But while the meta-selfie may seem to be rooted in new cultural conversations, it also consolidates existing narratives. In 1972, the art critic and Booker Prize-winning author John Berger articulated a sense of being surveilled — both externally and by oneself — as enduringly fundamental to paintings and pictures of women. “Men watch. Women watch themselves being watched,” he stated in his seminal text Ways of Seeing, arguing that every woman has to survey everything she is and does because how she appears to others — ultimately, how she appears to men — is of crucial importance. Or at least it’s what society deems to be her most important trait. It’s a mindset, he says, that’s been historically and socially conditioned via the various male-made artworks and texts, which would depict women being “aware of being seen by a male spectator”, often through an over-sexualised, objectifying lens.
“I do think it will always be true that being able to turn the camera on yourself is a means to regain your own narrative and question the messages you have received around who you are and are expected to be,” Mayanne says, acknowledging that the iPhone has very much democratised access to documentation, giving women the ability to explore their identities and how they would like to present themselves to the world. It’s the reason Petra Collins, one famed ‘female gaze’ photographer, has entire bodies of work in which she captures teenagers photographing themselves.
“In our society women are often reduced to their looks and attractiveness. Of course I try to look my best in every picture and selfie I post but I’m more than that,” says meta-selfie taker @anastasiashyk. “I’m more than a ‘pretty face’, more than a ‘fashionable outfit’, I’m an artist and I want to be a role model to other people.” For the Ukrainian content creator, the meta-selfie turned “a random selfie into some form of art”, as well as one of her best-performing posts on Instagram. While the image shows her watching herself pose for the ‘likes’ or approval of others, it also emphasises her agency and control over the situation.
Of course, Mayanne warns, these things aren’t always so simple. “There is no escaping the male gaze in a society and visual language built around it. It pervades every representation we have ever seen of ourselves, and is so deeply embedded in our visual language it is often difficult to even identify,” she says. “But using self-portraits as a way to explore yourself outside of the male gaze is very valuable, although it is also a lot of pressure to think that you can individually free yourself from it through self-perception alone.”
Mayanne’s not expecting that most people using meta-selfies are deeply thinking about these themes (“Neither should they, it would be exhausting!”) but, as a trend, “there is definitely something there about our changing relationship to both image production and image sharing.” That hard-to-define something may well be the dual nature to this trend: that it’s both an expression of concession to the dominant culture — a surrender to surveillance and patriarchy — as much as it is a striking reclamation of one’s image. Just something to consider the next time you snap a selfie within a selfie.