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Penkava: Smile…You’re on Selfie Camera!

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I learned a new word the other day. The word is “selfie.” A “selfie” is self-portrait photograph, most often taken by a camera phone. It is very popular on social networking sites and the word has gained such universal usage that the publishers of the Oxford Dictionary have declared “selfie” as the “Word of the Year” for 2013. Apparently I have obliviously communicated throughout this year without a single usage of this indispensable word until recently. I feel so fatuous.

This word now joins previous 2012 “Word of the Year” winner, “omnishambles.” (Definition: a situation that has been horribly mismanaged, as in, “This column is a complete omnishambles because the copy editors changed my title.”) And we cannot forget Sarah Palin’s inventive blend of “refute” and “repudiate” to come up with “refudiate,” which claimed most popular word in 2010. (“I pressed an F instead of a P and people freaked out,” she replied, as a nation of keyboard users keenly observed that the F and P keys are not nearly as close as Alaska is to Russia.)

But, back to the word “selfie.” When I shared it and its definition with my wife, she observed, “Michael, you have been taking selfies since I met you.” That prompted us to take a tour of our photograph albums, and, sure enough, I discovered that a multitude of selfies I took were sprinkled throughout our photos.

Now, a selfie can include one person or several, depending upon the length of one’s arm. I have a selfie of myself as a teenager sporting my Beatle hairdo as I looked, I must say, very Paul McCartney-like. There’s a selfie of my wife and me on one of our first dates as we hung out at a ’60s coffee house sharing a bottle of RC Cola. And, of course, there are several selfies of our four kids and me, much to their usual utter embarrassment.

So, sure, I have taken my share of selfies. But there’s something different about the selfies of today. Our selfies are nestled discreetly in our family photo albums. Today’s selfies are posted on the Internet for the whole world to see. Some psychologists suggest that chronic selfie-snappers are simply a reflection of today’s self-absorbed culture. And I think they may have a point.

You see, back in the day, there was less attention and interest in self. For example, someone once made interesting observations about the evolution of magazines. Years ago Life magazine was the most popular periodical because that’s what we were interested in: life. Whether plant or animal or human, show us glimpses of the life around us and we loved it.

But as times changed, so did our interests. Life magazine gave way to People magazine. No longer did we want to see life, we just wanted to see people. Then came Us magazine. Sure, we still were interested in people, but only in us, not them. Years later Self magazine hit the shelves. Forget about other people, we just want ourselves.

Watching the change of cultural focus from life to people to us to self may well help explain why selfies are now the rage. It makes you wonder when they’ll publish a magazine that simply contains a mirror, so when you open it, all you see is yourself. Then you can take a selfie of your reflection and post it on Facebook.

So I guess selfies are here to stay. By the way, just to let you know, the photo of me for my column was actually a selfie I took long before I even knew it was a selfie. However, as a disclaimer, I must tell you that any striking resemblance to Paul McCartney is purely unintentional.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He recently submitted another seflie for his column photo, but his editor rejected it because evidently you can’t Photoshop Hugh Jackman’s head onto your shoulders. Geesh. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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