Ambient intimacy and the rise of the selfie

Rise of the Selfie

SOURCE: Flickr user Andrew from Sydney

This month, the Oxford Dictonaries announced ‘selfie’ as their word of the year, noting that usage had increased 17,000% since January. A ‘selfie,’ as you know, is a photographic self-portrait, usually shared over social media, usually shot on a mobile phone (here’s a handy infographic). One poll in the UK found that 30 percent of ALL photos taken by 18- to 24-year-olds were selfies. And, of course, there’s already an anti-selfie movement.

So, what does this have to do with cultural management? Well, for one, it’s a cultural phenomenon. A selfie is an expressive act. And expressive acts are our business.

Alicia Eler in Hyperalleric suggests that selfies are both the call and echo of the social self. Says she:

The Selfie Theory posits that as we increasingly live in public, our selfies are our networked identities, connected, refracted, and devoid of context — and those who see us are our mirrors, reflecting how we look back to ourselves, and out to the internet world….Selfies are about connecting with others through mirroring processes, not about being alone in front of a static one-way mirror.

A counterpart to the self-focused selfie is the other-focused stew of little life details that simmers in our social networks, what Leisa Reichelt described as ambient intimacy. Through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat, we experience a river of routine and personal tidbits from our social network – what they’re eating, who they’re dating, where they’re standing, what they’re seeing. Some have disdain for this media minutia, but Reichelt finds it rather useful:

There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.

The selfie and ambient intimacy are two data points in a larger shift. How we know ourselves. How we share ourselves. How we know others. And how we connect the dots between those things.

If that’s not the stuff of cultural endeavor, it seems like it ought to be.



  1. says

    Could the rise of ambient intimacy in social media be related to Marshall McLuhan’s idea that digital media would make us tribal again–a world where people find new avenues to connectedness? He called this new type of tribalism the global village. Could these new concepts of intimacy and tribalism be related to the rise of smaller formats for presenting the performing arts like salons and house concerts?

    Throughout history, salons were a powerful force for the exploration of new ideas in the arts, philosophy, and politics so their return might be a positive development for our cultural lives. For those interested I explore that idea in this PowerPoint presentation:

    • says

      Interesting, but I have to question your definition of intimacy in relation to social media. In today’s age there there is nothing intimate about posting things onto the Internet. Despite certain social platforms that allow for privacy option.

      Although I am a part of the millennial demographic, there is nothing more exciting about the history of salons and how it was built upon exploring new ideas. But since the advent of the Internet, there are way too many people out there in the world who are unwilling to listen to others just because they have already chosen their own way to consume information. On top of that, the Internet has become an outlet for people to express their own thoughts and ideas but that are not necessarily always relevant. Take for example the rabbit hole of Tumblr. It has become a resource, that can easily be misused. For a while, I kept reading headlines that refer to Tumblr as source to promote anxiety, distorted body images that emphasize the beauty in anorexia, and the likes of cocaine chic hysteria.

      My point is, because of the Internet, the information age has become an open forum. No doubt, everyone wants to share their opinion and with social media this allows them to do so. But I truly believe the intimacy aspect has completely evaporated. The ‘Honor Code’ that was imposed within the salons, in the past, are no longer respected in today’s society let alone acknowledged. I’d like to think that there is still some sense of courtesy in all respects of conversations.

      But, we have the freedom to speak our mind without even thinking. As much as that seems like its a gift, a perfect display of personal expression, it has often been misguided and misused. For that, I do apologize on behalf of Gen-Z who will dramatically change the very nature of the Internet and social media usage. “Selfies” only became a thing that has changed the nature of real photography, vain self-promotion, and evokes a sense of transparency (unless you’re actually funny).

      Thats why journalism has had to face such hardships, particularly print journalism. Something that could’ve been, a form of intimate artistic expression is now lost amongst the cyber world. Today, people crave attention for all the wrong reasons. Social media or any blogging platforms have carved out a niche in “writing & expressing ideas” to the point where it has become mainstream (in the bad way).

      • says

        Thank you for the interesting thoughts. It’s interesting how the Internet has changed since I began using it in 1995. The most common forums back then were email discussion lists, which often had a genuine atmosphere of dialog and equality. Then blogs came along and the atmosphere became much more self-absorbed. They became a linguistic version of the selfie, even if others can comment in little boxes down below in slightly grayed out letters. This is very different from the traditional egalitarianism that presumably defined salons.

        From the very beginning, the Internet’s anarchy and freedom has in its aggregate form privileged a sort of libertarian, borderless, free market epistemology. What began as something tribal, quickly evolved to a wired, Darwinist, neo-liberal ethos that reinforces the ruling status quo of international capitalism. As a result, the financial and media interests of society have been given powerful new tools to shape cultural values on a global scale. A false sense of tribalism evolved into a powerful tool of social engineering.

        The fine arts might try to use the web for their niche communities, but in the anarchic world of the web’s free market ethos, they will still be dominated, if not devoured, by much larger media forces.

        Nevertheless, too many fine arts folks continue to think big. I think of the new AT&T Arts Center in Dallas (ah, the irony of corporate names on arts centers) and its new 2200 seat opera house that cost untold millions. How ironic that Dallas still ranks 257th in the world for opera performances per year. It had 28 evenings of opera last year. The other 337 nights the house sat empty or was used for something else. The 2300 seat opera house in Kennedy Center suffered a similar fate that remains to this day. D.C. ranks 185th in the world for opera performances per year. A couple years ago The National Opera essentially went belly up and was taken over by the Kennedy Center. Like dinosaurs, bigness will be our death. The little mammals able to survive the cultural ice age will remain. I doubt big reptiles were ever known for their intimacy…

        More and more, our future is to stand apart through smallness, lightness, economy, mobility, and intimacy – art in its guerilla forms – art for small tribes in the wasteland of a sort of post-cultural apocalypse. That’s why arts managers are a bit anachronistic. Only big institutions can afford to have them, and bigness is dying.

  2. Harmonia says

    As my high school boyfriend (who was 18 going on 60) always
    said, “It’s all b——t, Barbie.” Of “selfies” I know he would say the same.