Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sharing your shelfie

Social media's latest craze puts a refined twist on the narcissistic selfie

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It's no surprise that by the time the Oxford Dictionaries declared "selfie" the 2013 word of the year, the kids had already moved on.

The new selfie seems to be the shelfie, which involves images of exquisitely curated objects. Forget about using social media to show the world your pouting duckface or your raised eyebrow: You can now express yourself through your collection of ironic Victorian taxidermy.

The shelfie initially seems like a step up from the look-at-me, look-at-me narcissism of the classic bathroom-mirror selfie. It's not shallow like the helfie (the hair selfie), or low-rent like the belfie (the butt selfie) or sweaty like the welfie (the workout selfie). It's certainly classier than the oversharing "aftersex#" selfie.

But is the shelfie the antidote to the selfie, or is it just a more refined way of showing off, a more rarefied form of self-involvement?


The concept of the shelfie seems to have started, innocently enough, with pictures of people's bookshelves. There was a certain amount of sniping from the get-go, however. On the one side, there were bookish types prone to brainiac boasting, who made it seem as if they had a hard time tearing themselves away from Finnegans Wake in order to snap their pictures. On the other side, there were the books-as-accessories people, prone to preciously arranging their books in colour-blocked reading rainbows or pale spine-in clusters that matched their all-white decor.

The shelfie phenomenon soon moved beyond books to include any artfully arranged selection of things on a flat surface, often a bookshelf but sometimes a coffee table or a desk or a ledge. Alongside those casually strewn vintage Penguins, you might find Mason jars full of dead branches, scary antique children's toys, Buddhist prayer beads or artisanal toast. (Because, yes, that's a thing now.)

Some practitioners have tried to position the shelfie as "the intellectual's selfie," making it seem like some digital form of 17th-century Dutch still-life painting. But while avoiding many of the Kardashian-like excesses of the selfie, the shelfie has its own pitfalls. Using one's stuff as a form of self-portraiture can lead to all sorts of weird contradictions.

The most visually striking shelfies are often the most disingenuous, with selection and placement of objects calibrated to the millimetre even as the overall image is supposed to feel spontaneous and slightly off-kilter, maybe even a bit whimsical. Avoiding the appearance of over-thinking, it seems, requires even more over-thinking.

And like any trend that involves social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, the speed with which shelfies move from cutting-edge to cliché is punishing. The wonderfully snarky Tumblr F*** Your Noguchi Coffee Table, which goes after overused design tropes found on decor blogs and online home magazines, has absolutely no patience with many shelfie staples, including antlers, terrariums, glass cloches, and "stacks of books with a thing on top."

"F*** your charmingly eclectic, sparsely populated shelves," reads the tag under one image.

Our actual coffee tables might hold TV remotes and pop cans and piled-up newspapers, but our shelfie coffee tables are more likely to showcase adorably mismatched teacups or poignantly small animal skulls or unworkable vintage shoemaking tools. Going beyond the beautiful and the useful to the tortuously contrived, many shelfies seem less like genuine self-expression and more like stage sets of unlived lives.

Finally, while the shelfie seems to dodge the show-offy vibe of the selfie, it ends up sneaking in egotism through the side door, elegantly diffusing it through all those carefully chosen objects. A selfie is you, but a shelfie can be seen as a "a museum of you," says one practitioner. And, wow, when you put it that way, the whole shelfie project sounds pretty self-obsessed.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2014 D11

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