Selfie indulgence: The meaning of photos in the age of social media

The first partially successful photograph was taken in 1816. Back then, as you've probably seen in period films and super old photos, the camera was a rather large and cumbersome contraption. Getting your photo taken was expensive and a novelty. The first roll of film was patented some 65 years later. The first Kodak camera went on sale in 1888.

From then until the early 2000s (yeah, like 120 years), photographs became a way of freezing memories so that we could make them last forever. We'd put them in albums, frame them, and slap our kids' hands when they'd get fingerprints on the glossy paper.

But the photograph has taken on an entirely new meaning with the advent of social media. For one, "graph" is long gone from the word. With digitization has come convenience beyond our wildest dreams. With convenience has come a sharp decline in value.

The way we were

I grew up in the 90s. We had photo albums galore around the house — my mom had a baby album for me and one for my sister, an album of old photos of her parents and their parents, an album of all the moves we made, and a few more just because. Photos were somewhat sacred — heaven help you if you smudged, bent, or ripped one. They encapsulated memories and they were really all we had of those fleeting moments. The act of taking photos — loading the camera up with film, getting everyone to pose — and then going and getting them developed was ritualistic and meaningful. We conserved film for those truly special moments and to wildly snap photos was a no-no (and got pretty expensive). Hell, we bought cheap cameras and then threw them out just for the film inside.

Point is, photos were tangible, lasting, real things that many of us valued above some of our most prized possessions. It's almost as if pieces of the loved ones in those pictures were physically carried with the photograph. To lose them was to almost lose the ones we loved.

On a commercial level, photographers once made quite the living (my wife's aunt saw the world and had her photos printed in National Geographic). The greatest photos were dubbed "iconic" and printed in textbooks and on posters and used to educate, encourage, or remind us of human history.


Now that everyone's walking around with a super computer in their pocket, with some of the best cameras available today, the meaning of the photo has done a 180. The pictures we take are no longer everlasting reminders of days gone by. They're now ephemeral blips of life in action, but not any action in particular. We'll take photos of just about every meal we eat, Starbucks latte we buy, funny cloud we see, and stupid expression into which we can distort our face.

Photo sharing apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook have taken what was once glorified and sucked all the value out of it. You can open Instagram on your phone and swipe through thousands of photos, most of which you actually won't even take the time to look at. And so a photo is no longer intrinsically valuable, rather its value must be judged and categorized before being deemed worthy of a passing glance.

And our attitude toward taking pictures is expressly "millennial" for lack of a better term. I mean, with the storage capacity of today's smartphones, we can use the burst setting indiscriminately. Yesterday I took four photos of my cat in the same position, just to make sure I got the focus right and to nail the framing. And I haven't shown that photo to anyone. Look at my Instagram profile and it's really nothing but pictures of my pets in various sleeping positions. How completely pointless and meaningless is that? Even more so, why do I feel compelled to share? Because it's cute and cute does well online? Because it's just what you do with photos on your phone? Who knows anymore.

My Gallery app from the last two weeks... smdh.

As for a profession? Sure, there's still money in photography; I have friends who make solid livings as photographers, but once their photos make it online, their value is snuffed out in an instant. People will use just about any picture they find on the internet because it essentially "belongs to the internet," or so the mentality seems to be. And that attitude is pervasive.

Is it really so bad, ya f#*kin' luddite?

No, no it isn't. Sharing photos has become a part of our culture. Memes abound, funny dog videos pop up all the time, and "food porn" is just as good as regular porn. It's just fascinating to take a look at what humanity once deemed valuable and track its journey into ubiquity and routine.

I suppose you could argue that, since those with millions of Instagram followers can make a living off of that alone that their photos hold value, but if I asked you what your favorite Instagrammer posted last week, would you remember?

That being said, our own Daniel Bader argues something different:

"My thing with digital photos is that instead of a picture tells a thousand words it's now a thousand photos tell a single photo. As in we expect scale and use it to construct a montage of our lives for other people. Photos are more important than ever as a cohesive idea, but more worthless than ever on their own."

Do you agree? I agree.

So what's the point?

Perhaps there is no point. Maybe this is just commentary. Maybe I wish people would more heavily consider their everyday, humdrum posts. Maybe I'm congratulating the folks who put time and effort into anything they post. Maybe I should stop being a hypocrite and get off Instagram.

I just felt like pointing out the paradigm shift. As the value is sucked out of more and more of our culture (don't even get me started on words and language), it seems like we drift further and further from what tethers us to one another. We experience each other's lives through glass and capacitive touch. I suppose we once did the same through glossy card stock, so have we really changed that much or just improved upon an idea?

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below or jump into our forums and discuss!

Mick Symons

Mick is a staff writer who's as frugal as they come, so he always does extensive research (much to the exhaustion of his wife) before making a purchase. If it's not worth the price, Mick ain't buying.