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BOOK REVIEW: The Selfie Generation by Alicia Eler

| 7 March 2019 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Selfie Generation by Alicia Eler

Skyhorse Publishing
November 2017
Hardcover, $37.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Society & Social Sciences

60% Rocking

Selfies are a maligned subject because it’s easy to dismiss them as narcissistic rubbish. Alicia Eler knows this isn’t true and has written many articles about this social phenomena. In her debut book, The Selfie Generation, this selfie expert takes a deep dive into our online lives. In doing so, she adds to the selfie narrative and offers up some analysis about a topic that is so often criticised and rejected.

Originally when I started writing this book, I had three main questions in mind: How has the rise of social media changed notions of online privacy? Why do people selfie? How has social media created hyperpersonalized advertising based on the information we feed the network? I was also interested in how social media was portrayed in TV and pop culture, since so many Americans are influenced by these media images.

Even though Eler fits into the definition of a millennial, she writes about how she came of age before the invention of the selfie. While she admits to being initially against the idea, she is now an active selfie participant. She plays the role of advocate here, by arguing that selfies are more than self-absorbed narcissism. Eler even goes so far as to describe situations where the selfie has empowered marginalised groups and been used as a form of activism.

“Selfies are often referred to as a perfect metaphor for our increasingly narcissistic, oversharing, and personal-banding culture, but these self-portrait images are in fact enhancing the methods by which citizens communicate, connect, and respond to the local and global event,” says [assistant professor of digital media design at the University of Virginia, Mona] Kasra. Within a networked culture, people can communicate through images as well as text. Activism, she explained, can leverage this capacity to also bring personalities and faces into their message, which become a part of civic engagement.

Eler looks at some issues relating to selfies like privacy, consent, ownership, and authenticity. There are some moments where Eler writes in a dry and scholarly way. She skates over some issues all too briefly and at other times more trivial points are tackled in too much depth. Some of the ideas that Eler presents are direct quotes of other people’s ideas and could have done with extra analysis on her part:

“The same brain areas [that are activated for food and water] are activated for social stimuli,” says Mauricio Delgado, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University, in an interview for the American Marketing Association. “This can be a smile, someone telling you you’re doing a great job or you’re trustworthy, or you’re a nice person, or even merely cooperating with somebody. All of these social ‘reinforcers’ are abstract but show similarity in the reward centers of the brain. This suggests that, perhaps if you’re getting positive feedback on social media–‘likes’ and shares and retweets–it’s a positive ‘reinforcer’ of using social media, and one that allows you to a.) get the positive effects of it, and b.) return to it, seeking out more social reinforcement.”

One interesting point Eler makes is regarding the double standards affecting selfies. She describes how women have been encouraged to appeal to the male gaze yet they are also the ones criticised for taking too many selfies. This is also interesting when one learns that the two largest selfie-taking groups are in fact: teenage girls and middle-aged men.

The selfie is a photo taken of oneself and, often, though not necessarily always, posted to a social media site…
The selfie as an aesthetic is often, but not always, recognizable as such. Sometimes the person’s arm, holding the phone makes it into the photo. Other times the selfie is shot in front of the mirror so that the smartphone is visible. The selfie is a mirror; the shared selfie is then a shared mirror, reflecting the moment it is taken. Selfies are important though completely optional part of a person’s social media presence and of their digital communication.

The author also explores the furore that erupted when Hilary Clinton was on the campaign trail. A viral tweet depicted lots of young female fans craning their phones to get a selfie with the presidential candidate. The ensuing media coverage was negative and failed to mention that the pictures were encouraged to allow the large group access to a quick photo.

The selfie is an extremely polarizing topic. Everyone has an opinion on the selfie, with some claiming it is the downfall of the “kids today,” who live their lives online and have lost in-person social skills, while others laud it as a way to connect, to share a moment and a feeling, and to literally give face time. Because the selfie is still fairly new and technology is increasingly personalized to the ways individuals use it, the selfie triggers questions about what is socially acceptable to share, when, with whom, and why.

Eler reminds us through various case studies that there can be a lot more to selfies than what first meets the eye. She believes that the individuals taking and posting images feel like they are shaping their own personal brand or narrative. But she also reminds us how these can be misinterpreted or exploited in the Wild West of the Internet. For instance, there are some intriguing cases where artists have used selfies as inspiration. Amalia Ulman was accused of hoaxing followers when she created three Instagram profiles. They included common tropes like an Urban Outfitters-type, a sugar-baby ghetto girl, and the healthy girl next door.

In The Selfie Generation Eler intellectualises selfies for her readers. Sometimes this is done in a thoughtful way and sometimes this misses the mark. Eler does consider things from many angles but in some cases her most salient points are ones that have been made by other experts. Eler’s book reminds us that selfies may be aspirational and about exposure, but often there is a lot more to the story. The Selfie Generation challenges us to have a richer conversation about selfies and to reconsider our online lives.

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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