It was barely into my second year of being on Instagram when a friend of mine began posting quotes with her selfies. Instead of the usual laid-back caption (‘lazy day today’ or ‘school sucks!’), this was a quote from Susan Sontag: “Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present and future.”
This was a girl who once scoffed in my face that reading was for nerds. Yet here she was quoting Susan Sontag. Not something universal like Beauty & the Beast but Susan Sontag—someone whose work would fall comfortably under “Art, Politics, and Literature.” As for that selfie, it was one of her posing with her then boyfriend at a wedding dinner (not theirs).
She wasn’t the first to do this, and she wasn’t the last either. Over time, the introspective selfie has evolved to take on varied but often similar displays. They endeavour to portray their subjects as being at ease or deep in thought, unaware they are being photographed. They are meant to speak for the self’s inner life rather than its outer appearance. And for a time this was what they were—pictures taken on the sly by friends or romantic partners.
Today, most of these selfies are posed and professionally edited. I still don’t know where some of these literary and art-house quotes are coming from, but I recognise the Hypebae when I spot him looking down at the ground, hanging his head in shame while he flings his Adidas jacket outwards away from him, channeling his inner Jay Chou. I snigger when I spot the well-contoured face that rests pensively on an open palm, looking out onto the street from the air-conditioned comfort of a hipster café while an untouched cappuccino sits next to a delicate elbow.
It is a way to get out of having to describe, in your own words, how you feel. It negates the risk of the world knowing that you are not someone who can express yourself eloquently.
The introspective selfie recalls both the early days of Twitter and contemporary Tumblr, where posting quotes was a way to say what you wanted to say by saying what someone else had already said. On Twitter and Tumblr, this is nearly always spontaneous. The idea is to post something you came across by accident, or to re-blog what someone else posted. These are the unspoken rules.
This changes when curation enters the picture. And it’s especially annoying with people who quote widely and incoherently, from sources they obviously have no actual interest in. From Rilke and Kanye West to Robert Moses and Richard Hamilton, these are the people whose choices are consciously crafted to reflect their alleged cultural tastes.
And I say this because I once sat through an entire conversation (I was eavesdropping) between a couple, one of whom was apparently an influencer. She had lifted a quote from Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless for a selfie, all while saying that she really didn’t get this whole “indie French new wave crap.” She went on to talk about how Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was so amazing, and asked her boyfriend, “What other artsy person can I quote next ah? Can you check your Tumblr please?”
My theory is that for influencers at least, who have built their appeal on the foundation of the luck of the genetic draw, this is a subtle and sometimes sub-conscious attempt to push back against the notion that they are nothing but pretty faces. It’s the same reason why they take selfies at book fairs and art exhibitions, and talk about the books they read like it’s part of their brand rather than who they really are. Because when books do appear on these social media feeds, they are always artfully poised next to a glass of wine or a diptyque candle. The light also tends to fall just right on the page as the book nestles on bare, freshly shaved legs. Sunday afternoon vibes, yo. Or was it weekend vibes? I get confused sometimes. Just don’t forget to throw in that quote from Thich Nhat Hanh about mindfulness. You know the one.
Quoting is so powerful because it doesn’t just tell people that you feel sad. It tells them that you feel sad in this specific way, like how this other famous person once felt sad.
It is also a way to get out of having to do the work of describing, in your own words, how you feel. It negates the risk of the world knowing that really, you are not someone who can express yourself eloquently. “Look how cultured I am by quoting E.E. Cummings!” the act of quoting says, hoping that no one will notice that you have never written a single meaningful, poetic caption in your entire life.
For social media at least, this is almost always good enough.
If there’s anyone I blame for the phenomenon of the introspective selfie, it would be Lang Leav and an entire era of Tumblr poets more concerned with fluff and cadence than real meaning. I blame the fabulously facile article Date A Girl Who Reads, which debuted on Thought Catalog some years back, turning every book-averse teenage girl into Sylvia Plath wannabes.
This aspiration has pretty much trailed us into the age of social media. Because social media is all about subjective positioning and partial, mediated glimpses into who you really are, it’s the perfect medium for deception. Introspective selfies facilitate connections through the empathy that quotes evoke, without ever having to deliver on this promise.
With #weekendgrind, everyone now believes that you spend every day of the week in a coffee shop hustling, even though they’ll never be able to verify this fact.
With a wistful glance thrown back over your shoulder and the company of a quote from Winona Ryder, any unsuspecting person already captivated by your good looks can be hoodwinked into believing that you are complex, sophisticated, misunderstood, and mysterious. It inspires the ignorant viewer to think, “I feel this way too. We must be so alike.”
Social media is pretty much that moment before someone with an incredible back view turns around to reveal only a single nostril and three eyes. Except on Instagram, the illusion lasts forever.
When I was still on Tinder, I trusted, with all the naivety of my early twenties, that people were exactly who they said they were. “Indie films” listed as an interest made my spine tingle, descriptions of how a perfect night was a bottle of wine and a good book sent my literary libido into overdrive. It was only after months of disappointing dates and feeble “deep conversation” that I realised how “liking indie films” was often code for having once seen Before Sunset or In the Mood for Love by accident.
One such girl spent an entire date talking about how she once couldn’t get over a guy because of how he looked at her—“It was just so magical you know?”—and despite how they had nothing in common and his favourite pastime was playing video games. I learned that when someone’s favourite novel is Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, chances are he or she’s not actually a book person.
At this age, I know that people who are actually capable of deep conversation don’t need to tell you that they are. People who experience complex emotions don’t try to mask their selfies with the words of writers they barely even know to make their personalities seem larger than they actually are. They don’t need to impose small fictions on their own lives in order to believe that they are misunderstood when they’re really just being an entitled little brat.
Today, the introspective selfie has become a tool we use to seduce and delude both ourselves and others about who we really are. Sometimes, it still turns my stomach to know that we live in a world where influencers get away with quoting Simone de Beauvoir in sponsored posts for make-up and jewellery.
Despite all this, chances are that most of us don’t really think about what we’re doing when we do this. Few of us are really trying to dupe anyone with our quote sharing and heavily edited selfies. Even if we are, one has to admit that we enjoy the mystery. If I had it my way though, I’d rather we all just stuck to long captions instead of appropriating the words of writers I actually respect. But that’s just me being a snob.
Joshua Lee: firstname.lastname@example.org