Self-Definition in the Age of Cell Phones

Dean Kissick
Photo credit: Rob Engvall
Photo credit: Rob Engvall

From CR Fashion Book

Photo credit: Rob Engvall
Photo credit: Rob Engvall

On the evening of February 10, 1968, high up in the Moderna Museet, overlooking Stockholm and the glimmering Lake Mälaren, Andy Warhol suggested for the first time that in the future, which has now become the present, everybody would be world-famous for 15 minutes; and with that, the dogma of modern life was established. Society was in some ways doomed and in other ways set completely free by a new cult of individualism.

The 2010s have been one hell of a decade. Social networks have turned the order of things on its head. Smartphones and photo-sharing apps have created powerful new ways of picturing ourselves and everything around us. The iPhone 4, which was the first model to have a forward-facing camera, was released on June 24, 2010. Instagram was launched on October 26 of the same year. In 2013, “selfie” was named Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. In 2015, Kim Kardashian published Selfish, her rather beautiful coffee table book of selfies, with Rizzoli. We’ve only been taking selfies for less than a decade. Before that, they didn’t exist. Doesn’t that seem crazy?

Photo credit: Charley Gallay - Getty Images
Photo credit: Charley Gallay - Getty Images

But time’s hard to keep track of now that our attention spans are shot to pieces and we’re caught in endless social media streams that loop back upon themselves. We’re at the centers of our own universes, watching the days go by in never-ending flows of self-portraiture and opinion. Everything’s happening so quickly, and yet time often feels like it’s stopped, as was predicted by the psychologist and psychedelic visionary Timothy Leary, who once said that the 21st century would “be timeless, in the sense of the enormous spectrum of information that the world will be sharing.” And it’s true—this decade seems to have lasted forever.

Photo credit: Dominique Charriau - Getty Images
Photo credit: Dominique Charriau - Getty Images

Fashion, in particular, has been transformed by Instagram. The front few rows of runway shows are now composed of hundreds of people taking the same picture for different accounts. Karl Lagerfeld, even in his 80s, was one of the first to realize that 21st-century fashion “moments” wouldn’t come from particular collections so much as from spectacular, gleefully ridiculous images circulated around the world. And so in 2014, just as Instagram was coming to dominate the industry, he staged surely the most shareable runway set in fashion history in Paris’ Grand Palais: a grand Chanel grocery store complete with Chanel-brand bubbly, cookies, and charcuterie. Today, a much-larger audience can enjoy high-fashion productions, major art events, and celebrities’ love lives than before, and that’s no bad thing. Doors that were previously closed to us are now open.

Photo credit: Stephane Cardinale - Corbis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Stephane Cardinale - Corbis - Getty Images

Furthermore, it’s now much easier to connect with like-minded folk the whole world over. These days we know one another before we’ve ever met. For the art and fashion crowds, and probably every other community, too, there’s now a huge online diaspora that reaches across oceans from city to city, and it’s changed my life, and hopefully most of our lives, in every way: socially, romantically, professionally, and creatively. And, going beyond friendship, the fact that thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands, or more) of people can sometimes see and hear what we say is a beautiful thing. As much as I wish I had more followers, it’s thrilling that I have any at all.

Today’s models and personalities are often paid according to how many followers they have, and the most-popular ones have more followers—far more—than the magazines and advertising campaigns they’re featured in. This power dynamic has switched in the space of less than a decade. Style magazines, though more resilient than most other kinds of magazines, have changed a lot, too. Many brands are now less interested in editorials than in cool, grammable content that they can repost on their own accounts, and this leads to demands that their clothes can only be shot as full looks, as well as to a preponderance of short-run, “special edition” covers. I’ve worked on issues of magazines with a dozen different covers. I’ve worked on limited-edition covers that were never sold anywhere, just sent straight to the brand that’s paying for them; because it’s what appears online that really matters, not what’s on newsstands or in the shops.

The same could be said of fashion brands themselves. This decade’s great success stories—Balenciaga, Gucci, Supreme, Off-White—produce bold, often drily humorous designs that look good on phones and demand to be shared; it’s the viral logomania of the 90s with an added knowing, ironic twist. These houses have adopted a meme aesthetic: just think of Virgil Abloh’s Nike collaboration, with sneakers that say “AIR” and swoosh hoodies that say “LOGO” (quotation marks the designer’s own). In fact, Abloh, who says a “fully charged iPhone” is his most important tool, really does design his clothes in a virtual, extremely online studio staffed by collaborators all over the world. “We all work through WhatsApp, because we work fast and we can’t wait five hours, eight hours for answers,” explains Davide De Giglio, cofounder of the New Guards Group, the production and distribution holding company behind Off-White, Palm Angels, Heron Preston, Marcelo Burlon, and more. “We design collections through WhatsApp. Has Virgil showed you before? It’s much faster.” Nobody has any time anymore, and yet things feel like they last forever.

Photo credit: Nike
Photo credit: Nike

Look at rap, which has grown into the dominant form of pop over the course of the decade. It’s kind of stagnated musically since the rise of trap some years ago, but that doesn’t really matter because rappers mostly communicate through their insane, round-the-clock broadcasting of content rather than through their lyrics, production, or videos. That’s their message. Some have put their entourages to work, filming them and posting for them constantly, beaming out their own twisted versions of the American dream. Others, like Lil Peep, take care of it themselves, live-posting their own deaths. And just as fashion designers have optimized their designs for the screen, a new generation of rappers have optimized themselves for the screen.

Photo credit: Rob Engvall
Photo credit: Rob Engvall

In SoundCloud Rap (a genre that takes its name from a music-sharing social network, but could more correctly be called Instagram Rap), artists took that approach to its logical conclusion by transforming themselves into mumbling, stumbling, provocative walking memes with rainbows in their hair and tattoos around their eyes. We now have real people dissembling themselves into simulations. The internet keeps leaking back into the real world.

Tekashi 6ix9ine, for instance, began his career as an image. Before he’d even started rapping, a photo of him in a homemade outfit featuring the indubitably catchy slogan “Pussy Eater 69” was widely shared online. He was only a boy. Nothing more than a picture, with a dream of going viral. He’d stroll through Bushwick praying to himself, “Please, God, change my life. Please, God, make me famous.” Soon he was acting out performatively for likes and attention and not just starting feuds with other rappers, but hanging out with real gangsters while committing pointless, meaningless felonies and posting about them online. There’s a telling moment in his post-imprisonment Rolling Stone profile where his old friend Andrew Green is asked what the hell was going on with him lately:

“Why on Earth would a platinum-selling recording artist stick up some kid on the street for a backpack? ‘The internet,’ Andrew says.”

Photo credit: Zachary Mazur - Getty Images
Photo credit: Zachary Mazur - Getty Images

In his most famous, most heartbreakingly sentimental pitch from Mad Men, Don Draper, cycling through old pictures of his family from happier days, says of Kodak’s new carousel, “This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine…it takes us to a place where we ache to go again…to a place where we know we are loved.” And while Instagram rarely takes us to that place, it does show us something just as important: not where we ache to return to, but who or what we yearn to be. The great weirding of rap, as such, was just one small part of a gigantic unleashing of divergent identities online.


The 2010s were a decade of the self like no other, but beneath all the showing off and self-indulgence, the thirst traps (fantastic as they are), and the false images of our lives projected across mobile networks lies a deeper, more vastly complicated process of self-definition and what a person can be.

Photo credit: Apple
Photo credit: Apple

How has social media changed our relationship with our bodies? Today we can really play with our identities by using face-swapping, body-warping, gender-switching, transmogrifying, animalizing apps and see that we’re more than the body we were born into. Many now see a truer reflection of themselves in their phone than the mirror. Our identity resides in all kinds of places today: pictures, bodies, words, expressions, and multiple psyches dispersed across many parts on the internet.

I wish I was less addicted to my phone and notification highs. I wish I didn’t judge myself against others, and their representations of themselves and their lives, and their numbers. I’ve plenty of complaints and regrets about social media; and yet, looking back across the last decade, it’s been so good, and so many of the meaningful events of my life have happened there, so much love and companionship and laughter and lust and inspiration, and I don’t ever want to go back to whatever life was like before. Not that I can remember what that was like anymore.

CR MEN Issue 9 is now available on newsstands alongside CR Fashion Book Issue 15. To order a copy click here, and sign up for our newsletter for exclusive stories from the new issues.