Selfie-aware: an open letter

This isn’t the kind of thing I normally post, and I’ve been hesitating all morning about it (not least because I don’t tend to use the internet to refer to mental health issues in terms that aren’t oblique, structured around readings of poems), but I’m sharing this because I think it might be helpful to other people who may have had similar experiences online.

Yesterday, I got an email from someone I know and respect as a writer, but don’t know especially well. It was a brief comment on my life based on my use of social media. I wanted to share my reply to him in a way that maintains his anonymity. I’d definitely recommend reading any of Anne Burns’ research, especially the paper on selfies mentioned below.

Here’s my response:


I spent a while reading and re-reading your email yesterday but I decided to wait until today before I replied so that I could gather my thoughts. I appreciate that what you’re saying probably comes from a good place but I’ve got to admit I found it really hurtful to get an unsolicited email making judgements about my life on the basis of one of my social media profiles.

At first, I wasn’t going to write back because I was just feeling down, but today, I realised it was important to address some of the things you said. I also wanted you to know that sometimes, things fired off into the strange void of the internet can have very real and personal implications. Like many people, I sometimes struggle with anxiety and depression (yes, you’re right – being a writer is often a lonely and strange experience for me) and yesterday, I had a panic attack for the first time in a long while. I’m not implying that you caused that by the way, I’m just trying to say that, behind the anonymity of e-mail and twitter and all the rest, words can have a resonance the author didn’t intend. That’s why we’re writers, isn’t it? We’re preoccupied with words and their interpretation.

I also wanted to address some of the things you wrote a bit more directly because I think there’s an important point at stake about how people represent themselves and how it gives other people a right to comment on their lives. You said that you’ve seen my life (via my Instagram profile I’m guessing):

‘….through that little-cracked glass window, and it appears quite schizo.  One swipe it’s full to the brim – running over – but one swipe on it’s empty and flat, that same old and all too common selfie loneliness.”

First off, it was the word ‘schizo’ that made me feel very uncomfortable. That’s quite a loaded term which I’d be very wary of throwing around outside of a clinical context. I found it really upsetting that somebody would try to summarise my own life for me in that particular way.

The most important point, I think, is that all forms of social media are indeed a ‘cracked glass window’ – that’s a really beautiful way of putting it. They give a very partial representation of somebody’s life. I left Facebook a few years ago because I found its warped mirror too much – not just the pressure to represent yourself in a certain manner, but the licence you give people to comment. I guess Instagram is the same. If you choose to share things with an audience, you’re inviting them to pass judgement on those things and you can’t really complain when they do. I’m definitely going to give better consideration to that in future, so thanks for making me more aware.

I wanted to pick up on the term ‘selfie-loneliness’ because I find it really interesting. There’s a researcher called Anne Burns who did her PhD at Sheffield and she looks at (amongst other things) perceptions of selfies (especially selfies taken by women) and social regulation. I’ve attached one of her papers which I think is really good. In it, she says:

“Emulating the degree to which women’s behaviors are marked within wider social discourse as being in need of guidance and modification, selfie taking is conceptualized as a practice that requires instruction in order to do it right. The rules for selfie taking—evident in the examples here and across social and print media—present the practice as a skill to be mastered, one that requires self-discipline in both the performance of femininity and in one’s moderate and controlled use of photography. The tone of instruction presents this specific form of photography as requiring an exceptional amount of guidance. This is not just a matter of reproducing the expected norms of feminine attractiveness—rather, these tips socialize young women into accepting regulation of their behavior and normalize society’s criticism of them.” 


I’m fascinated by that – she talks about how the ways we discuss and characterise selfies operates as a kind of social control. I’m not expecting you to read the paper because you didn’t ask for me to send you an entire text, but I think Anne’s work is really important in highlighting judgements made about selfies. She even talks about categorisation:You can’t take selfies without being a selfie taker, and selfie takers are different from—lesser than—other people”.  Sometimes, a picture is just posted…for fun. Or for the hell of it. It isn’t necessarily an expression of loneliness, self-obsession or any of the other things that get said periodically about selfies in particular.

I’m sorry for writing an essay back in response to a short email. But sometimes, a few words online can spill over into someone’s life and have quite a profound effect, so I thought it was worth trying to put that into words.

Helen x


Spot the difference: what counts as a ‘lonely’ selfie and what’s just…..a selfie?

2 thoughts on “Selfie-aware: an open letter

  1. Helen, my thoughts are with you and I have deep respect for what you wrote this person back. I really wonder what goes on in people’s mind who think they have the right to comment on other people’s life and behaviour just on the basis of some photographs.


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