See also: 7 Tips For Great Selfies

It’s official: 2013 is the year that the selfie came into its own. The self-taken mobile photo now boasts its own art exhibition as well as a new linguistic status—Oxford Dictionaries just added the word in August, making it a legitimate part of the English language. (Update: Oxford has made named it the word of the year for 2013.) Selfies are already big enough to spark a backlash, about which more in a moment. 

Selfies, of course, aren’t really anything new. But it took the advent of broadly available photography—thanks, smartphones!—to turn image capture into a mainstream obsession. And our favorite subject, it turns out, is ourselves. 

Keep Feeling Fascination … About Yourself

World’s first photo selfie: Robert Cornelius in Philadelphia, 1839

We’ve come a long way since Robert Cornelius took the world’s first photographic self-portrait. When he captured the daguerrotype ‎(colloidal wet plate) photo on a Philadelphia street in 1839, he had no idea of the phenomenon that would follow more than a century and a half later.

Yet he might have had he given it some thought. People have shown a fascination with their own visage throughout human history—from caveman drawings to oil paintings and marble sculpture. Dutch master Jan van Eyck may have painted the first panel self-portrait in 1433. Rembrandt was a prolific self-portrait artist, as was Van Gogh, whose works included more than 30 paintings of his own face. 

Those early self-portraits were themselves spurred in equal part by new technology—especially inexpensive, high-quality mirrors—and human self-curiosity, though of course you had to be an artist to actually create one. Photography lowered the barrier to self-portraiture further, eventually to the point where kids could irritate their parents by turning Polaroid cameras on themselves and blowing through entire cartridges of expensive self-developing film.

And what was the automated photo booth, anyway, but an ahead-of-its-time selfie machine?

Along the way, people began to use self-portraits not just to capture moments of their own lives, but to refocus the way they viewed themselves—for better or worse. In 1924, the author D. H. Lawrence fretted:

As vision developed toward the Kodak, man’s idea of himself developed toward the snapshot. Primitive man didn’t know what he was: he was always half in the dark. But we have learned to see, and each of us has a complete Kodak image of himself….

The identifying of ourselves with the visual image of ourselves has become an instinct; the habit is already old. The picture of me, the me that is seen, is me.

The Selfie-Centered Generation

It’s easier than ever to capture and share “the me that is seen.” No more fussing with mirrors or toxic chemicals or unwieldy tripods or imperfectly timed booth cameras just to immortalize our mugs.

In 2010, the modern selfie came into its own thanks to the introduction of the front-facing camera in Apple’s iPhone and the birth of Instagram. Digital selfies existed before, of course, in places like Flickr and MySpace, but the iPhone 4’s “FaceTime camera” and Instagram mobile sharing and photo filters let users put their best faces forward with a minimum of effort, inspiring legions of people to capture themselves in pixels.

By last year, keyword searches for “selfies” started growing and have since exploded across Google. And not just in the U.S.—we may think of ourselves as image-driven and self-obsessed, but our Internet interest in selfies is dwarfed by a tidal surge of selfiedom in the Philippines and Australia.

Down Under, in fact, selfies were the centerpiece of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s push for the youth vote. Koreans are busy offering YouTube advice on how to take selfies. And Chinese maker Huawei is making a push for the selfie market with its Ascend P6 smartphone, which offers a 5-megapixel front-facing camera and “instant facial beauty support” image software designed to reduce wrinkles and blend skin tones.

Pope Francis even got in on the act with the very first papal selfie in Rome last August. NASA’s Curiosity rover did likewise last November—on Mars.

All this suggests that the selfie habit isn’t unique to any one culture. Rather, it’s a universal human proclivity to preserve, document, record and share ourselves. 

I Selfie, Therefore I Am

Which, of course, hasn’t slowed down the backlash. Article after article takes aim at the craze (or defends it), while anti-selfie sentiment grows on Twitter (#uglyselfie) and Instagram (#antiselfie).

A seemingly unending parade of insipid glamour shots, bathroom photos and innumerable “skin” pics make it easy for critics to write them off as a narcissistic enterprise by an intensely self-absorbed, self-indulgent digital generation. Kim Kardashian’s infamous “butt selfie” and the controversial “funeral selfie“—a so-far minor trendlet in which youngsters snap selfies at, well, funerals—do seem to suggest that denizens of the Internet are vain, inappropriately self-centered creatures. 

But slapping the word “narcissist” across the forehead of humanity is just a bit too easy.

Among the most frequent selfie photogs are younger users. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 91% of teens post a photo of themselves on social media. That’s an increase of 79% since 2006. That funeral selfie trend? Judging by the primary Tumblr blog for it, its primary fuel seems to be teen angst. 

But that’s normal, suggests Andrea Letamendi, a clinical psychologist and research fellow at UCLA. “Self captured images allow young adults and teens to express their mood states and share important experiences,” she told Time. That seems to give selfies some legitimacy as a developmental tool, particularly as youngsters reach that critical stage when they’re discovering who they are and fashioning their identities.

And what about adults? After all, teens may be prolific selfie photographers, but they are far from alone. Google searches, Instagram searches, Flickr browsing and Facebook feeds, among other things, reveal that users of all ages have the selfie habit. 

Perhaps the reason why stems from a combination of things—the child in all of us wanting to express how we’re feeling, along with a very grown-up need to control every aspect of how that’s projected. 

See also: #Me: Instagram Narcissism And The Scourge Of The Selfie

At this point, the selfie has all the hardware, software, social networks and cloud services it needs to mature and possibly evolve into its own dedicated, technologically driven art form—a universal one that allows people everywhere to express how they see themselves. Or perhaps wish to be seen. 

Image of Robert Cornelius courtesy of the Library of Congress; image of the Mars rover Curiosity courtesy of NASA.