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CONTAGION—How the “selfie” became a social epidemic

Aug 22, 2014

What do President Obama, Ellen Degeneres and Pope Francis have in common? They’ve all snapped selfies in the last year. So has Miley Cyrus (she’s posted 121 of them on Twitter). Plane-crash survivor Ferdinand Puentes. And astronaut Steve Swanson. And so, I’m nearly positive, have you.

The selfie, of course, isn’t new—it has been around since the advent of photography, when chemist-turned-photographer Robert Cornelius captured one in 1839. But in the past two years, it has become explosively popular—the sort of meme that scales, seemingly overnight, from mere trend to phenomenon to something your Aunt Edna talks about in her crocheting circle. The Oxford English Dictionary called out “selfie” as the 2013 word of the year. More than half of all millennials (age 18-33) have taken a selfie and shared it online, according to a March 2014 Pew Research Center poll. ABC is debuting a new primetime sitcom called Selfie in late September. (Seriously.) Indie band The Chainsmokers produced a music video called #Selfie that became a viral hit (and was awful!). How the heck did these hastily snapped-and-shared self-portraits become le dernier cri of smartphone society?

08.15.14.Selfie chart.BCultural Contagion—How the ‘selfie’ went from narcissistic kids’ play to a new visual language overnight. Data Source—Google Trends / Cyrus Photo: Jeff Kravitz—Getty Images

In a new Fortune series on Contagion, my colleagues and I have set out to explore how things spread—from the frightening MERS-coV virus (here and here) to M&A rumors, from market panics to book sales to how studying Twitter itself became a go-to discipline on American campuses. In probing this strange viral process, we wondered, was there something to be learned from studying the history of a social epidemic? Well, maybe so.

Like so many social changes, the rise of the selfie begins with a shift in technology. For most of the twentieth century, photography was expensive and the gratification of capturing a moment was subject to lengthy delay. That was back when amateur photographers purchased roles of film, and sent those roles to labs for processing. In the late ’90s, digital cameras changed the economics of photography, making it easy to click, review and erase images. Then broadband replaced dial-up Internet service in homes, allowing people a faster online experience. The first mainstream social networks began to take off. MySpace popularized the profile pic, and by 2004, images tagged #selfie began to appear on Flickr.

In 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone; for the first time, we began carrying cameras around in our pockets. Pictures were easily snapped and shared, either privately by text message and email, or by uploading them to social networks. Then in 2010, in an effort to support video chatting services like Skype and Apple’s own Facetime, Apple released a new version of the iPhone 4 with a front-facing camera. Apple’s users began snapping photos of themselves.

To understand why, consider how these tools have changed the nature of the photograph itself. They’ve created an abundance of images. Five years ago, we shared somewhere close to 50 million photos daily, mostly on Facebook, according to Mary Meeker’s 2014 Internet Trends Report. Today, we share 1.8 billion photos daily. As I recently wrote in the opening to my series of the Future of the Image, photos have taken on a disposable quality. Much like written language, they are pieced together and used to communicate.

The modern selfie is the perfect vehicle for a message—facial expression, after all, is the most critical element to verbal communication. In December, for example, when the small plane carrying Ferdinand Puentes and eight others crashed into the sea off the coast of Hawaii, Puentes flipped on his GoPro camera, and as he bobbed in the water, captured a photo of himself as the tail of the plane rose out of the sea above his right shoulder. Terror screamed across his eyebrows, his photo announcing, “I was here, and this is how it felt.”

Another boon for the selfie explosion: In the past year, an emerging group of apps have offered more temporary vehicles for photo-sharing. The most popular is Snapchat, the disappearing photo app that lets its users—mostly teens—send photos to each other, setting a timer for them so that they (ostensibly) disappear in less than ten seconds. Snapchat users, who are mostly teens, currently upload more than 700 million photos to the service each day.

To be sure, the word itself is a bit of a fad. Like high-rise jeans and shoulder pads, this early form of the genre—camera positioned 45 degrees above our heads, pouty lips, the hint of an outstretched arm in the foreground—may look as dated to our future selves as the tools we use to take and share them. Cameras will creep into glasses, watches, cars, and just about everything else you can imagine. Snapchat and Instagram may give way to Whatsapp and Wechat. But the act of capturing ourselves visually as a way to communicate will only grow. “It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing,” wrote the critic Susan Sontag in her seminal 1977 work, On Photography, adding, “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” Everything, and also, everyone.

contagion-Selfie

For more inside the world of contagion, see

• CONTAGION—How things spread. Introducing a new Fortune series

• Part 1: How a bat virus became a human killer

• Part 2: How the MERS virus made it to Munster, Indiana

• Part 3: How M&A rumors spread

• Part 4: How market selloffs happen

• Part 5: How Americans fell in love with a 685-page economics treatise

• Part 6: How the "selfie" became a social epidemic

• Part 7: How studying Twitter became an academic craze

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