How Emo Kids Invented Selfies
Open your Instagram feed, and chances are you’ll see a perfectly crafted selfie staring right back at you.
The hair is perfectly waved, the makeup expertly contoured, and the eyebrows on fleek. For added flawlessness, it’s FaceTuned to a T. You may pause and notice how hot said person is, but you probably won’t stop for more than 30 seconds. Why? Because everybody takes selfies these days, even your grandmother.
But if you searched the internet for selfies in 2006, you wouldn’t be greeted by influencers hawking teeth whitening products or gushing about their latest lip kit purchase. Instead, you would’ve been greeted by this:
“Selfie” wasn’t recognized as a word until 2013, but that didn’t mean people weren’t craning their arms to take photos of themselves before then. In fact, self portraits have existed forever, but technology didn’t bless us with the capability to take a full-blown selfie until the early 2000s.
The pioneers of this movement were the emo kids.
The definition of emo is kind of fuzzy, and while some will claim it’s only a very specific cluster of bands and styles, we’d argue that emo is now used to describe the entire scene kid/pop-punk/Warped tour aesthetic, which is how we’ll be using it in this story.
“I don’t know [when I started taking selfies], I just remember it was such a big deal,” Jeffrey Czum, guitarist for Cute Is What We Aim For, told Galore. “[In] the early AOL days, you would add a picture of you, [and then] you were like a celebrity online. Like age, sex, location, pic, everyone wanted to see what you looked like.”
Hanna Beth, arguably one of the most famous “scene queens” from the era, also remembers the beginning of photo-sharing.
“[The alternative scene] is really when the whole selfie thing started,” says Hanna.
But whereas today you can snap a quick selfie with your iPhone, throw a filter on it, and upload it, back then it was a process. First, you had to find decent lighting–because editing wasn’t really a thing. Then, you had whip out your digital camera and either snap into a mirror, or twist your arm around to shoot a photo of your face head-on. You had to take about 30 photos, contorting your body along the way, and pray that at least one of them had a good face-to-arm ratio instead of just being a closeup of your hairy forearm.
Lastly, you had to find that constantly lost camera cord of yours and physically plug it into your mom’s computer, praying she didn’t walk by and see the “edgy” pics you took of yourself on the screen.
Today’s selfies are all about showing off your lit highlight and makeup skills, with maybe a trendy choker for added effect, and they’re also about showing off your perfect body. But the selfies of the emo era had less of an emphasis on flawlessness. They were more about displaying your scene-queen trucker hat and studded belt.
Face pics were posted with no makeup at all, save for maybe some ill-placed glitter around the eyes. And half the time, your entire face didn’t even make it into the picture. Outfits consisted of ill-fitting band tees, so a waist-trainer was not necessary. The guys in the bands you were listening to didn’t have great bodies, so why should you feel pressure to have one?
“[I remember when] you had to scan a photo of yourself to get it online,” Jeffrey recalls. “That’s when people started going out with their cameras, not phones, because phones were still shitty. It really took off.”
Thankfully, Macbook Pros came out in 2006, the same year the Cute Is What We Aim For released their debut album, which made it a little easier to achieve peak Myspace profile. Hanna credits the MacBook’s PhotoBooth app for being a big player in the phenomenon, and anyone who made pilgrimages to the Apple store with their friends to take cool Myspace pics surely agrees.
Most former emo kids will agree that the culture was at its peak around this time.
“In 2006, I really feel like the whole scene kid thing was just so huge and MySpace kind of like, made it happen because you always knew what shows were coming and [who] the cool scene kids [were],” says Hanna.
But the seeds that grew into the Myspace emo outburst were sown 14 years ago, in the summer 2003.
Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” was dominating the Billboard charts, and Canon was busy launching the Digital Rebel, otherwise known as the first affordable digital camera. The employees of a company called eUniverse were busy creating something they called Myspace, which would launch to the public in early 2004. And later that summer, My Chemical Romance would release “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.”
If you took a shot for every kid who captioned their default picture on Myspace, “I’m not okay (I promise),” you’d be blacked out before you could even get through the first song off the album.
Juliet Simms, the former lead singer of Automatic Loveletter, thinks the selfie originated from emo kids having no friends nearby.
“If you don’t have friends, who can take pictures of you? You have to take pictures of yourself,” said Juliet. “I’m not going to ask my mom because it’s going to turn into some weird photo shoot, and so [I just ended] up either in the mirror or just the cliche Myspace pose where you put it over your head and take a picture.”
But while emo kids didn’t have IRL friends to take photos of them, they started making friends through Myspace. You may have been the only emo kid at your school, but through social media, you could easily find another emo kid from the next school over. And maybe, just maybe, you could meet each other at a show.
“MySpace was so cool, especially in the beginning,” recalls Hanna “You could literally meet people that were in LA and be like ‘oh, wow, this person likes all the same music as me, their style is kinda similar,’ and that’s kind of how it started, where it was just finding people that you could relate with.”
Like Juliet, Hanna also turned to Myspace to escape.
“I was the weird girl in school, and I would use [Myspace and LiveJournal] as a place to vent,” says Hanna. “I would just post about my life and I would put pictures. Through that, I was able to get followers and meet people from other places and I kinda felt like I fit in. I was like, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of people out there like me.'”
But the photos girls like Hanna posted to Myspace weren’t about having the most fleeky makeup or most insane hourglass figure, they were about being the “coolest.”
“I remember taking [selfies] not because I wanted the ones that looked the best, but because I wanted to show off my new hair with crazy layers or my newest band tee,” says Hayley, former emo-kid, now 22. “Honestly, you couldn’t even see my face in half of the selfies I took because of the angles I had to take them at. Back then, selfies were more about looking like a cool, down to earth person who likes the same music/things, whereas now I just want people to see them and go ‘oh, she’s so pretty.'”
Hanna, who continues to have a large social media following, says the way she thinks about posting pictures has completely changed from the Myspace days. She now thinks about if a post is going to do well, if it’ll look right next to her previous post, and what time she should post it to get the post likes.
“I try not to overthink, I’m like whatever, if that post doesn’t do well, then fuck it, but it is something you really have to think about,” says Hanna. “Like a photo of me with a group of friends, obviously I would’ve posted a bunch of stuff like that on my MySpace, now those photos won’t do as well. If there’s a selfie on me with full makeup, that’ll obviously do better.”
Back in the day, even though she did gain fame from her Myspace profile, Hanna says it wasn’t intentional.
“It wasn’t like, a photo shoot picture, it wasn’t anything staged,” she says. “It was just like, ‘hey, this is me right now, this is what I’m doing.'”
And while some of the more skilled scene kids added song lyrics to their photos or added crazy colors from a Macbook Photobooth feature, they weren’t performing the extreme edits people go for today.
“People weren’t really overly Photoshopping or like, FaceTuning, or anything like that, ‘cuz that wasn’t really around back then,” says Hanna.
Story continues below…
Instead of downloading apps to slim their waists or smooth out their faces, scene kids relied on their favorite angle.
“I don’t think that [emo kids] invented the selfie, but they definitely took it to a whole other level,” says Jeffrey. “Especially that downward angle, anyone who listened to emo music knows exactly what you’re talking about.”
That downward angle was one of the only ways to get your whole Hot Topic-purchased outfit into a pic, unless you wanted to spend 30 minutes taking a mirror selfie and trying to not let the camera flash obscure your “Just Surrender” t-shirt.
“I definitely don’t do the cliche Myspace pose [anymore], where you held your phone like crazy over your head and you look like a stick figure because it makes you look so skinny,” says Juliet.
Instead of a contour kit, it was all about the hair straightener.
“I thought I looked so cool with straight hair because I have curly hair and I could never do anything with it. My friend [CIWWAF’s Bass Player at the time] was using a hair straightener [the chi] and I was like ‘damn, okay.'”
Hanna also recalled some questionable fashion moments.
“I look back at photos from those days and I’m like, ‘what the hell was I wearing?’ It’s horrifying,” says Hanna. “Some of my hairstyles…and I would wear tutus out, and a bra, just like the craziest shit.”
And just like today, many of us adopted certain styles from scene queens and stayed more “basic” with the rest of our outfit. It was in these instances that you saw “Motion City Soundtrack” tees paired with Abercrombie jean skirts, or skinny jeans (which were still relatively edgy in 2006) paired with a popped collar.
For many of us, we only felt comfortable going full-out emo when we were in our homes, posing for the camera.
“A lot of kids probably couldn’t go to school dressed [emo] and if they did, they would be either bullied or told, ‘you can’t wear this to school,'” says Juiet. “That’s why I feel Myspace got so popular and why it did so well. It was such an outlet to basically broadcast who you were as a person.”
But girls like Hanna went all out, because in Myspace’s glory days they were internet celebrities. And while they had the chance to date the band members every teen girl had a crush on, it didn’t come with the thousand-dollar influencer deals that social media famous girls see today.
“You weren’t getting companies [asking], ‘Oh, can you put this on your Myspace page?’ And you weren’t booking campaigns off of social media,” says Hanna.
But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been able to use her Myspace popularity to translate into her 2017 career.
“I’ve basically been doing this for ten years or so, cause you know MySpace is basically the same thing,” says Hanna. “The updating, the taking photos, just doing all of that, it wasn’t a career like it is now, but it’s very similar.”
She thinks part of the reason for this was because Myspace was about music, whereas Instagram focuses on fashion, beauty, and fitness.
“I mean, the makeup in the scene world was fucking horrible,” says Hanna. “I look at photos and I’m like, why was it okay for hot pink scene makeup all over my eyes? It was so bad but of course, I thought at the time, ‘This is amazing.'”
But will we look back at our Instagram photos in the same way we look back at our old Myspace photos one day? In 20 years, will we cringe at our over-contoured face the same way we’re currently cringing at our teased hair and raccoon eye makeup? Only time will tell.
But selfies used to be uncool, and were just another scapegoat for the older generation claiming millennials sucked and were obsessed with themselves. After Myspace’s popularity faded in 2009, selfies were extremely embarrassing. News stories like this one written in 2013 claimed selfies were a desperate cry for help. Ironically, if you look up the author today, the first thing you see on her Instagram profile is in fact, a selfie.
“There was a point in time when selfies were considered embarrassing, and reeked of desperation,” recalls Sara, 24. “They are acceptable again now, and I think a lot of it has to do with celebrities on social media participating. It’s like they are telling us it’s okay to do it because they are.”
Sara brings up a good point, while emo kids invented the selfie, celebrities posting selfies with no shame solidified the acceptability of selfies in society. Considering how easy it is now to take a selfie and how many things selfies are used for — the latest iPhone is rumored to be unlocked with facial recognition — we think selfies are finally in for the long haul.