When is a “selfie” not a “selfie?” When it’s taken by someone else. Then, it’s … er, an elsey?
It’s a seemingly innocuous distinction, but with the selfie – essentially a photo you take of yourself – evolving from a simple expression of narcissism to an increasingly used method of verifying one’s identity, it’s taking on more than just a superficial measure of importance.
The issue came to the fore last week when a British man shared a photo on social media of himself posing with a plane hijacker. It was a goofy lad-ish prank, he explained to news reporters afterward.
“I’m not sure why I did it – I just threw caution to the wind while trying to stay cheerful in the face of adversity,” said Ben Innes of his photo with Seif Eldin Mustafa, a Cypriot who threatened to blow up a domestic EgyptAir flight.
Mr Innes said the photo, which was widely reported on by mainstream news outlets and went viral on social media, was the “best selfie ever”. The only problem was, it technically wasn’t one since it was taken by a member of the cabin crew.
The safety of passengers aboard the plane was obviously the paramount concern, but once the situation was resolved peacefully without violence language, custodians were left to argue about the brazenness of Mr. Innes’ actions. And there was also the issue of whether it was appropriate to refer to his photo as a selfie.
The Oxford dictionary, which officially added the word in 2013, defines a selfie as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media”.
The official word thus stresses the need for the subject of the photo to be taking it him- or herself. It’s not just pedantic, it’s logical. Self-portraits existed before selfies, but it was only when the actual self-taking of pictures was made possible by smartphones that the new word arose.
At its very root, a selfie therefore requires the person in the picture to be taking the photo. Otherwise, it’s just a portrait.
Language evolves and it’s good not to be too precious about such things, but as many commenters pointed out on Twitter, maintaining the purity of word meanings is important for preserving the sanctity of language and discourse in general.
One commenter hit the nail exactly on the head: “If you allow words to mean the opposite of what they actually mean you are literally Hitler.” Ha.
It’s more than just an academic concern, however, as e-commerce and finance companies are increasingly adopting selfies as identity verification measures.
MasterCard, for example, is going to allow customers in Europe and North America to make payments via selfies starting this summer, with a global expansion planned for 2017.
Amazon has also filed a patent application in the United States for a pay-by-selfie system. Amazon’s China counterpart Alibaba is, for its part, developing facial recognition payment methods as well.
In each case, customers would use a photo of themselves rather than a password to log in and make transactions. But a simple photo won’t do, since those can be easily acquired and used nefariously by third parties.
Rather, such apps will incorporate two-step authentication systems that also ask the user to perform a certain action or gesture in a secondary photo – winking one eye or smiling – to prove it’s them, and that they’re alive and a real person.
The companies believe such biometric measures are more secure than simple text passwords, which be forgotten or cracked, and they say that customers prefer them. MasterCard, for one, says 92 per cent of people who have tried selfie pay in tests like it better than passwords.
All of these systems are predicated on the photo subject in question using them, not passing control off to a third-party. While it’s technically possible to have someone else take your picture and relay an app’s gesture instructions in the process, who wants to have someone else holding their phone while paying off a credit card bill?
The point of both selfies and the authentication systems that will incorporate them are found in the very root of the word – they are expressions of and verifications of the self. Neither really works when someone else is involved.
Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter