- To Dabble in the Deep End
316 Pages; Print, $24.99
One might expect a book about selfies written by a selfie-loving millennial to revel in the same sort of navel-gazing self-justification embodied by au courant members of the girls milieu, and Alicia Eler's The Selfie Generation does not disappoint in this regard. Where it surprises is in its ambition. Eler's self-stated focus is not the selfie but rather how the selfie is a porthole into the larger sea of social media, privacy, marketing, and pop culture. In this intersection of text, hypertext, and meta-text, the book alternately sinks and swims, offering, if not novel insight, then a least a burgeoning map for future social critics to follow.
As anyone with a smartphone and a modicum of interest in the world is well aware, social media in 2018 gives voice to both the gems and the dregs of our culture. At its best, it is a force for change, bringing together activists, journalists, educators, and the public to expose injustice and fight what many perceive as the retrograde course of American society. From #blacklivesmatter to #metoo and #neveragain, social media distills the voices of thousands into hashtags, which lead to connections, discussions, and (ideally) concrete action.
The flip side, of course, is that social media also exposes the ugly strains of racism, white supremacy, and misogyny that bubbled beneath the surface of mainstream media in the latter half of the twentieth century. Twitter exposes and bursts these bubbles, spewing their vile hatred into the virtual space we breathe. And while some innovators are attempting to create a safe space online—one that's free of hate (Adrian Jackson's recent #exodus project comes to mind)—ultimately, virtual walls can do only so much to address the deeper complexities of communication in a connected world.
Social media is the great equalizer, but it also serves as a mask, a way to, in Eler's parlance, hide our IRL self from the denizens of the URL space. The selves we present on Instagram may or may not be real, and indeed, after a decade of catfishing and Kardashian Photoshop fails, most have come to expect a veneer of falsehood when they are online, an expectation that has certainly played a part in creating that ultimate hashtag of distrust: #fakenews.
How do we begin to understand the fundamental changes in our culture wrought by the virulent nature of technology? Wrangling the disparate threads of authenticity, social justice, discrimination, privacy, and culture into a systemic narrative is a well-nigh impossible task, like expecting a blended family just to get along while the photographer snaps a photograph. And the photograph—the selfie, to be precise—is the lens through which Alicia Eler exposes the conflicting, contradictory narratives created by millennials' embrace of social media.
The Selfie Generation posits that millennials are fundamentally misunderstood by Gen-Xers and Boomers who, in her estimation, view selfies as the symptom of a much larger cultural disease: that of narcissistic vanity, embodied by the duckfaced young woman taking a selfie instead of taking herself and the world around her seriously. This perspective is inherently sexist (and ageist), and Eler tears down the stereotype rather brutally. She uses the selfie to explore notions of community, privacy, social justice, and the commercialization of the self, just to name a few, bouncing from neuropsychology to social-media user agreements to Kendall Jenner's derided Pepsi commercial. The ideas never really gel into one coherent point, though; it's a pastiche of ideas with a brittle foundation. The Selfie Generation is the proverbial bite-too-big, with readers unable to chew so many parallel discourses.
For instance, Eler rightfully ties selfie culture to contemporary social-justice activism, addressing Tumblr-friendly issues like the transgender community's struggles against cis-normative culture and against legal challenges like the seemingly ubiquitous bathroom bills. Her brief...