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"Selfies," Or Why I'm Worried About Our Youth

Deb Amlen

We’re a lot alike, you and I. Most of us live our lives online these days, yet no one understands the technology we use to get there, not really. If we’re going to be perfectly honest with ourselves, we’re not entirely sure why, when we pull our earbud plugs out of our iPods, the music doesn’t come dribbling out.

That’s for David Pogue to explain, of course. I’m here to talk to you about online culture, the weird stuff we encounter as we lurch enthusiastically down the information superhighway. My job is to hunt these things down, explain them as best I can and, if the humor gods are working with me, make things much, much worse better.

Because if you are like me, you’re curious about what people are doing with their time online. We’re the cyber version of golden retrievers: We spend our days careening around the Internet, our heads out the window and our tongues hanging out, loving the cyberwind in our faces, until a concept like “planking” hits us square in the mush. Those of us over the age of 25 have no earthly idea why anyone would want to lie facedown, across two objects, as stiff as a plank, and be photographed doing it. But it was a thing, by God, and if you weren’t au courant on what “planking” or even “owling” was (don’t ask), you were looked down upon at cocktail parties (“Hey, everyone! Muffy doesn’t know what planking is. Ha ha, what a cretin!”)


In our not-too-distant past, it was considered quite the rage to commemorate special occasions — birthdays, family reunions, the Invasion of Normandy — by having your photograph taken by a professional photographer. In those days, it was not really possible to photograph yourself, what with the large amount of equipment needed. Plus there was probably some etiquette involved that said that, if you were going to be the one holding the camera, it would be a little on the self-absorbed side to point it at yourself. It would have been hard for our forefathers to imagine who would even think of doing something like that. Hitler, maybe.

This is why I’m so worried about our youth. Those little niceties of days past have fallen to the wayside and given birth to taking “selfies,” an activity that has grown so popular that the word itself actually made it into the dictionary as the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013, narrowly beating out “twerk,” for which we are all supremely thankful.

The first known use of the word “selfie” was in 2002 in an Australian online forum, when a young man — exercising his own free will, mind you — took a picture of himself bleeding on the floor after falling down drunk and opening his lip on some stairs. So right away you know the word has a solid pedigree.

From what I can tell, selfies are apparently a way to convince the alien overlords who will eventually take over our planet that we are actually a race of weird-looking birds who would be totally useless as slaves. Selfies are created when young people point their smartphone cameras at themselves or their reflections and take a picture while posing alluringly. Those photos are immediately uploaded to social media, like Instagram or Snapchat for the presumed enjoyment of the whole, entire world. It will probably not surprise you to learn that one of the most commonly used hashtags when uploading a selfie is “#me.”

For reasons that are not clear, the poses adopted while doing this are named after birds. You might have seen some of these avian poses and, if you’re like me, probably wondered what in God’s name those poor kids were suffering from and where you could send money so it would stop. “Chicken wing” is when you bend your arm with your hand placed on your hip, much the same way your mom does when she’s angry with you, except only using the non-camera-holding hand. It’s usually accompanied by an arched back. While you’re arching your back and holding onto your hip for dear life, I’m told, you should also make what’s called “duckface.” That’s when you suck in your cheeks and purse your lips in a way that middle schoolers probably think is seductive or badass. Either that or their braces hurt.


The duckface.

These avian poses sounded like a slippery slope to scoliosis and lip wrinkles to me, so I took the liberty of talking to some young women about why they do it. The first thing they did was to assure me that they never, ever take selfies. Well, almost never. Once in a while, maybe, when no one is looking. And, by the way, girls who photograph themselves all the time are, like, SO out of it.

And the arched back?

“Oh, that’s totally to make your chest look bigger,” said one.

“And the ‘chicken wing’ hand makes you look thinner. It hides your love handles,” said another.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I say. There are mature adults with a lot of gravitas who agree. Michelle Obama has taken a selfie with her dog, Bo. Hillary Clinton tweeted a selfie taken with her daughter, Chelsea. Even Pope Francis, who has a Twitter account, has posed with his flock in a selfie.

So I’m practicing my selfies, too, but at my age I definitely need more arms to help cover up the flaws. At this point, I’m less concerned about the chicken wing than I am about my neck’s turkey wattle. But I’m definitely not doing duckface. That’s just asking for lip wrinkles.