A selfie here, a selfie there: Understanding the Indonesian selfie culture

By Sarani Pitor Pakan, Shauma Lannakita, Fajri Siregar
Translated by Dwiputri Pertiwi
This looks familiar, right?
This looks familiar right? Photo credit: Fajri Siregar

My mother and I were walking across the Alte Brücke, in the heart of Heidelberg. At one point, she stopped to ask for a selfie. “Let’s take a selfie,” she insisted. I took out the phone, tapped on the touch screen, and with a click, our smiles were transformed into digital archives. Clearly it was not the first selfie my mother wanted to take while we were in Heidelberg. I often wonder how selfies became such a normal thing for her. In a broader context: how did the normalization of selfies contribute to their popular appeal in Indonesia? How does a person simply stop for a selfie when they’re on a stroll, or in the middle of a conversation with friends?

I revisit fragments of the past to look for scattered memories about the culture of taking self-portraits, long before “selfie” became Oxford Dictionary’s most popular word in 2013. Before smartphones made their way into our daily socio-material reality, and prior to the ubiquity of the front camera, selfies were already practiced solemnly among teens. The bathroom mirror selfie was probably the coolest of its kind back in the day. Besides that, when I was in high school, a classmate of mine even took selfies with the back camera of their phone (Who needs a front camera, huh?).

In short, selfies are not that new. We have always closely lived with them. It just so happens that smartphones and social media gave them a spotlight in 21st century civilization. Selfies have become so mundane that we often forget to try to understand them.

This essay is based on our small research that aimed to unpack the selfie culture in Indonesia. We focused on 1) the habit of taking selfies with Caucasians (bule), and 2) the question “Are we overdoing selfies?” We tackled these points through online surveys, observations, and written interviews. Based on the online survey that was initially distributed via the Indonesian Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP) mailing list, we had a total of 96 respondents, the majority of whom 1) are women, 2) are aged 25–31, and 3) have a Master’s degree. For obvious reasons, the data does not represent the Indonesian population in its entirety. We have also included our personal reflections in this analysis.

After Narcissism

In the beginning there was narcissism. Since the early days of its popularity, the selfie was often associated with narcissistic traits and behaviors. In 2014, I wrote, “the ancient desire of narcissism, along with the absurd push from social media, have turned the selfie into a phenomenon.” Ismanto (2018, 75) suggests that the selfie — which not only involves the act of taking a self-portrait, but also of sharing it on social media — is a form of “digital narcissism.” The end goal is self-existence. Raditya (2014) comes to a similar conclusion in his study on selfie habits observed at an art exhibition in Yogyakarta. According to him, self-existence is what compels people to carry the selfie stick to art galleries. Perhaps the selfie can be linked to narcissism, and selfie sticks are its clearest manifestation.

However, I believe that it is best to sever the ties between the selfie and narcissism as this narrative has become outdated. Even if the two were connected, the selfie is more than what they seem. It contains a plethora of complex socio-anthropological realities. Lumping it together with concepts of narcissism and self-existence will not take the discussion beyond the front gate of a far more enthralling labyrinth. So what comes after narcissism?

Besides the narcissism narrative, there have been numerous attempts at writing about the Indonesian-style selfie. An article on the Guardian (2018), for instance, details the act of taking selfies right after a natural catastrophe, namely the 2018 Banten tsunami. A group of people is seen smiling for a selfie (or wefie) against a backdrop of post-disaster ruin. What could have possibly inspired them to take a selfie there? “Pictures of destruction will get more likes. Maybe it’s because it reminds people to be grateful,” said an informant. At the same location, other informants admitted that they had taken lots of selfies for social media.

Another uniquely Indonesian phenomenon is the act of taking selfies with bule, or Caucasians. I once experienced it first-hand when I was accompanying two of my Dutch friends to Monas. Just as we were about to go inside, a man with a smartphone in his hand stopped us. He said that he and his friends wanted to snap a selfie with the pair of bule. I told him that they are my friends — not tourists — and the three of us went into the Monas gallery.

Sudi (2018), Hasan (2018), and Lavinia (2020) also noticed similar occurrences. Without pulling any punches, they framed their analysis within the structure of post-colonialism, noting that the desire to take selfies with bule are rooted in an “inferiority complex” and a “colonial (inlander) mentality.”

The habit of taking selfies with bule and its postcolonial analysis serve as an alternative entry point to comprehending the Indonesian selfie culture. We should then ask: in what ways can selfies reproduce (post)colonial relations in Indonesia? What does it mean to take a selfie with bule? Is it a manifestation of our colonial mentality and inferiority complex as Indonesians? From a psychological standpoint, the inferiority complex argument is intriguing, but it is dangerous to come to such a conclusion based on data that merely scratches the surface.

Bule as object

It was a blazing hot weekend afternoon in Jakarta’s Old Town. All sorts of people were there, going about their own business. In the middle of the hustle and bustle, a few teenagers approached some bule who happened to be there. They stopped the bule, struck up a conversation with them, and eventually tried to convince them to take a selfie together. Some of the teens got their trophy selfie; others failed. We observed five similar instances that afternoon, prompting us to bombard those teens with questions.

Their reasons varied. Some asked for a selfie for a school or college assignment, while others did it for popularity, or because the target bule was “handsome.” One answer from a young man from Tangerang stood out. “We rarely get to see those kinds of people in Indonesia, in Jakarta. It’s kind of anti-mainstream […] You don’t see bule that often, not like we see Indonesians every single day.” The bule has been othered by “us” — transformed into an object. We do not need to know anything about the bule, including their character or personality — all that matters is that they are “those kinds of people” who we do not encounter on a daily basis.

Maybe that explains my annoyance at the man who wanted to take a selfie with my foreign friends at Monas. He had absolutely no interest in their names, where they came from, or what they were doing in Indonesia. That man only wanted the bule to grace the walls of his digital smartphone gallery, as photographic objects to be shared on social media. The bule are without names, stories, personalities. Their fair skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair are what earned them a spot in the man’s photo collection. Maybe that is why I rejected the man’s request. He didn’t appreciate my friends as fellow human beings – “only as objects that represent their culture” (Jemisin, 2012).

Such examples resonated with Sebastiaan, who is from The Netherlands. In Indonesia, locals’ asking for a selfie with him makes him feel like an “attraction.” “Actually, it is not about me, it is about the body that I have. My body is part of the tourist experience,” he said, highlighting the fact that he gets the most requests at tourist destinations. The “body” to which he referred is clearly his whiteness — which makes him feel much like “a rarity.” He added, “They may have seen white people on television, but they definitely don’t see white people in their daily lives.” Nuno, another Dutch national, agreed that bule have become selfie objects because they are  “foreign” and “not Indonesian.”

We might be tempted to call the objectification of bule through selfies as reversed exoticization or even as a reversal of orientalism. However, Coronil (1996) has rightly emphasized that the reversal of orientalism is impossible in the context of asymmetrical relations between the West and the Non-West. To assume that orientalism can be so easily reversed is to ignore the long history of colonialism, which still leaves a stench until this very day.

Getting drunk on selfies: The Indonesian way

The invasion of selfies in Indonesian contemporary urban life implies that our obsession with them has gone overboard. Results of our online survey show that 66 percent of 96 respondents feel that Indonesians love selfies more than other nationalities do, while 60 percent believe that the selfie habit among Indonesians is excessive.

Why did such a perception rise to the surface? Generally speaking, in Indonesia, selfies are taken in many different temporal and spatial contexts by a diverse set of demographic groups. Daya, from Jakarta said that selfies “are present in almost all formal and informal events.” She compared it to her experience in several European countries, where selfies are more often taken at tourist locations rather than in formal settings. Meanwhile, Nuno was impressed by the fact that: “It’s not just kids or teenagers that like to take selfies: even adults enjoy taking them. There doesn’t seem to be a specific demographic; I’ve seen rich Jakartans and kaki lima sellers take selfies.”

Other reasons are connected to appropriateness, or lack thereof. A respondent wrote, “Sometimes people simply fail to read the room.” This solidifies the self-perception towards Indonesians’ tendency of being drunk on selfies. Another respondent recalled B. J. Habibie’s funeral, where “mourners had their phones in their hands,” whereas yet another respondent came across the act of taking selfies at the site of an accident, which in their opinion is “an inappropriate (selfie) object.”

Even so, comparing the selfie habits of Indonesians to non-Indonesians have their own complications. “How do you compare them?” goes a rhetorical question posed by Sindhunata, a Jakarta native. Sebastiaan was equally skeptical, stating that nationality “is not an accurate tool to analyze this phenomenon” since people the world over take selfies. And even if nation states could be used as a category for comparison, it would depend on which countries are willing to participate. “Compared to other Asian – such as Korean and Chinese – women, Indonesian women take far fewer selfies. But compared to European women, Indonesian women take far more selfies,” explained Adiska, from Jakarta.

Personally, I don’t mind if Indonesians are more selfie-obsessed compared to people from other countries. At the end of the day, by absorbing the selfie into our lifestyle, leisure activities, or even our daily routines, we are already reproducing its meaning regardless of our nationalities. Some people tend to take selfies when they go for a new hairstyle, when they dress up, or when the lighting is ideal. Others prefer taking selfies to cherish a moment during a trip, share quality time with friends or family, or for no reason at all.

Other entry points: A non-conclusion

This little research on selfies was sparked by our curiosity towards the ubiquity of selfies and why taking selfies with bule are so commonplace. What we initially sought out to do was to have a deeper understanding of the selfie culture, the motivations behind selfies, and how this culture is practiced on a day-to-day basis. We may have even been unknowingly practicing participant observation in our own daily lives. But something is still missing.

First, it is obviously impossible to generalize roughly 260 million Indonesians, meaning that the term “Indonesian people” used in this research should be read critically. Second, observation and written interviews are limited in chronicling the internal motivations of each respondent as to why, how, when, and where they take selfies. In-depth interviews and auto-ethnography might be more effective. Third, which is related to the previous point, the method of ‘ethnography by walking’ in Instragammable places was suggested by Sindhunata, who happens to be doctoral student in anthropology. He also thought that visual methods such as recording a stroll with informants with a non-intrusive camera (e.g. GoPro) and “going full Oppenheimer” might be worth trying.

The numerous limitations detailed above have allowed us to merely scratch the surface of the selfie behaviour among Indonesians. The wefie (group selfie) deserves further investigation as it may reveal a possible link to Indonesian collectivity and the sel/wefie as a public, rather than private, archive. Results of the online survey show that 92 percent of the respondents prefer taking group selfies over individual ones, which led to the aforementioned assumption. In addition, Nuno was impressed by the wefie phenomenon in Indonesia because group selfies are not common in his country of origin, The Netherlands. He also noted that in Indonesia, selfies are typically shared in the “public” sphere via social media, whereas in the Dutch context, selfies are usually reserved for personal consumption.

As it comes down to it, there is nothing that needs to be summarized and concluded here. The Indonesian-style selfie, whether it is taken with or without bule, or whether or not it is excessive, is inseparable from our daily reality. Too many things exist within our selfies: smartphone technology, social media, long-distance interhuman relationships, self-existence, narcissistic desires, postcolonial relations, and many more — posing a real challenge to our full understanding of them. It would do us good to keep taking notes after this, be it through selfies or other media.

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