When Kim Kardashian posted a photo from John Legend's birthday party a few nights ago, the internet noticed that she had almost cropped Legend out of the photo, which focuses on her unsmiling face.
Minor internet controversies aside, the photo and Kim's Instagram prowess are far more important than porridge-brained, slobbering mortals like you and I will ever realize. Kim's a pioneer of what I'm calling the "birthday selfie": when you post a old photo of yourself with the birthday person on Instagram in order to wish them well on their special day.
The birthday selfie (I'm calling it that because it's a secretly a selfie, and "belfie" was already taken for butt selfies — humans are awful and we should all be sterilized) is new, and it's almost completely native to Instagram.
Additionally (and crucially), it's a guilt-free way of posting an old flattering photo of yourself. But is the birthday selfie a tool for megalomaniacs like Kim Kardashian? Or is it just a new adaptation of the Instagram medium to do the same thing we've been doing for our friends forever?
Like all things internet culture, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Regular selfies can be a display of confidence and self-empowerment because they're pretty clear and unabashed about what they are: a selfie. But these birthday wishes are a little sneakier — it's a selfie under false pretenses.
Though for celebrities, the group responsible for the popularization of the genre, the etiquette question is a little different. The Kardashians and other celebrities didn't invent the birthday selfie, but their eager adoption of the trend accelerated its popularity, just the same as other dubious trends like formal crop tops. However, for a celebrity on Instagram, a birthday selfie is perhaps more utilitarian. A-listers can pose next to other A-listers, thereby strengthening their status, or, better yet, next to lesser celebs and hometown friends, to amplify their stardom or demonstrate that they're in touch with their roots. It's a show of friendship, of course, but it's also a way to turn a friend's special day into a branding opportunity.
It's slightly different for regular Instagrammers. Emma Wills, 25, made a collage for her best friend's birthday. "I wanted a fun, quick way of sharing some memories with my friend, to remind her about all the good times we've had over the past year," she said in an email to BuzzFeed News. "I picked four photos from 2014 where we've had the best time together (our annual girls Christmas night out, Halloween, a festival in the UK called Bestival and a very drunk pic taken at my flatwarming party)."
There doesn't appear to be a statute of limitations on the year for birthday selfies. Mariann Kiss posted a photo with her and her friend in bikinis from two years ago. "Her birthday is today, however that photo was taken back in 2012 in the Caribbean," she said. "I chose that picture because it portrays what we love to do the most: travel! I wanted to send her something money can't buy, which is a memory."
Some birthday selfies may be a way to communicate within a friend group; after all, it's likely that the people who follow you on Instagram probably also know your best friend. Among friends, why wouldn't you want to post loving tributes to a friend on their special day?
But Kiss admitted that she purposely wants strangers to seek out it out (I found her photo by searching for "#birthday"). "I do it on Instagram because of the hashtags," she said. "They can show people all over the world this picture, and also because I want people who view my profile to know today's an awesome day!" Clearly, Kiss loves her friend and her intentions were good. Leveraging the birthday selfie to get more likes isn't necessarily at odds with the impulse to do something nice for your friend; it's a bit of icing on the birthday cake.
Like any discussion of the selfie form, there are plenty of critics. Tyler Gilidin wrote about the trend for Elite Daily ("What's With All These Goddamn Birthday Collages?") last year. He cynically identified it as a feminine vanity ploy ("This is the new, sneaky tactic most Gen-Y girls have implemented to help themselves get extra attention on their friends' birthdays."). Gilidin doesn't see the possibility that these are genuine displays of friendship, and that women aren't always in secret competition for attention with their friends.
Female friendships are intrinsically different than male friendships, and there have been various forms of performative friendship since long before social media — wearing matching outfits to school or a night out for fun, sharing a BFF 4EVA necklace, etc. Taylor Swift is a master of this on Instagram. To condemn birthday selfies as purely self-absorbed or an attempt to jealously steal another girl's birthday attention is a very callous misunderstanding of the ways women's healthy friendships play out.
Although a quick scan of the #birthday hashtag shows that the majority of these birthday selfies are between female friends, men are in on it as well. Lebron James wished his teammate Dwyane Wade a happy birthday via an elaborate birthday selfie; it's a friendship that sports fans breathlessly follow, just as Taylor Swift's fans pore over her friends.
Of course, the birthday selfie isn't without its dark side. A younger colleague told me when she was in college, getting left out of a birthday collage or your friend not posting one would lead to hurt and minor scandal. The birthday selfie signals status within a friend group: "This person matters enough to me to post on my own account, look at the time we spend together," and, therefore, is a powerful bit of social capital to wield.
But so is just about anything we do on social media! Mediums have their own native ways of social peacocking: Myspace had the Top 8, Twitter has #FFs and humblebrags. The birthday selfie is Instagram's own — people aren't doing this on Facebook or anywhere else, and it didn't really exist before.
Is the birthday selfie a sneaky way to post a cute photo of yourself under altruistic pretenses? Yes, partly. Can it be a shrewd way of social climbing by bragging about friendships? Yes, sometimes. But the well-wishes, for the most part, seem to be genuine.
And let's not forget: In real life, when you bake your friend a cake for their birthday, you get to eat a slice too.
Katie Notopoulos is a senior editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Notopoulos writes about tech and internet culture is cohost of the Internet Explorer podcast.
Contact Katie Notopoulos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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