How the selfie predates Instagram, and dates from at least 1914 in Russia

How the selfie predates Instagram, and dates from at least 1914 in Russia

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There is a danger of thinking that social media tools and platforms are making us act in completely new ways – that we do things we have never done before. However, it is often the case that the behaviours we exhibit online are just reflections of the way we have behaved offline for many years. In fact, it may be fair to say that many social media tools are just allowing technology to catch up with the way that we, as humans, naturally communicate. The selfie is a good example of this.

There is a temptation to think that tools like Instagram, and photos on Twitter or Facebook have invented the selfie (or indeed the legsie). That people taking photos of themselves in slightly awkwardly posed positions is completely new to us. However, this is not the case. We have long wanted to find ways to capture our own face, and have been doing so since photography started to develop.

The introduction of a relatively cheap camera by Kodak in 1900 – the Brownie – allowed photography to be taken at home. And with this came people experimenting with taking photos of themselves – a private self-portrait. The same behaviours that people exhibited over 100 years ago are being exhibited today by people – an attempt to capture the image of yourself that you want to share with the world. Unlike portraits, or even informal snaps taken by others, this is not you as a third party captures you, rather it is your own interpretation of what you look like.

Perhaps one of the earliest extant selfies comes from 1914 when the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna who used a mirror and a handheld camera to capture an image of herself to share with her father. She wrote in the accompanying letter:

“I took this picture of myself looking at the mirror. It was very hard as my hands were trembling.”

You could imagine a similar caption for many an Instagram photograph taken almost 100 years later.

With social media and new technologies, the temptation is to think that the behaviours we observe there are new. But all too often they are very old.