The Language of Selfies

woman uses a smartphone“Selfies are pretty popular right now” might just be the understatement of 2014. Everyone has posted them — from President Barack Obama to astronaut Steve Swanson to Pope Francis to Miley Cyrus to your friends. The Oxford English Dictionary named “selfie” the word of the year in 2013. Over half of all people ages 18 to 33 have taken a selfie and shared it online, according to a poll from the Pew Researcher Center. Images that feature a person’s face are 38% more likely to get liked, and are 32% more likely to get commented on. The song “#Selfie” by The Chainsmokers was a smash hit.

How did this viral meme infect our culture? Why is it that so many people are snapping selfies all of a sudden? Is it some kind of zeitgeist, or something more?

It all began with a shift in technology. Digital cameras made photography easier in the 90s. Then Internet connections not only got faster, but became more prevalent. The first mainstream social networks, like MySpace, eventually appeared, and began popularizing self-photography. Then in 2007, Steve Jobs gave the world the iPhone, and soon after everyone had a camera in their pocket and a way to instantly share photos.

Technological advancements and innovations explain how the selfie became so popular, but it’s psychology that might explain why they’re so popular.

According to Nathaniel Herr, a professor of psychology at American University in Washington, it’s all about communication and self expression.

“I think a lot of people link it to their identity that a selfie is capturing something that they can show to the world that represents themselves,” explains Herr. “They’re more comfortable with seeing themselves and thinking about themselves than previous generations were.”

As the old adage says, a picture is worth 1,000 words. Selfies are helping people to succinctly articulate complicated messages without having to say anything at all. Selfies are more than some kind of cultural phenomena — they’re a new way to communicate.

Case in point, when a small plane crashed off the coast of Hawaii last December, Ferdinand Puentes snapped a selfie of himself bobbing in the water, with the downed plane’s tail in the background. As Fortune writer Jessi Hempel put it, “Terror screamed across his eyebrows, his photo announcing, ‘I was here, and this is how it felt.'”