The story of Selfie is long, arduous, and more than a little absurd. It culminates today in the release of Selfie, an iPhone app for posting video clips of up to 24 seconds of yourself talking about whatever you like, and replying publicly or privately to the clips of others. It’s a social network that recalls VYou, a website that allowed users to record themselves asking and answering questions on video. VYou shut down in 2013 after failing to get any traction. Will Selfie be any different?
The project that would become Selfie began four years ago, when Hugh Dornbush was working on an app called OMG ICU for reporting celebrity sightings — "a text-based citizen journalism project in the celebrity and entertainment space," as he puts it. Someone suggested he meet Alex Lasky, who had founded a couple of online video networks. Originally, they hoped to offer people a way to talk about celebrities using an app — "this idea that anyone could take out their phone and speak through their phone through a video window about something they thought about celebrity life and lifestyles," Dornbush says. So they built one, and then it turned out that most people did not want to talk about celebrities’ lives and lifestyles. They wanted to talk about all kinds of things.
So about two years ago, after raising $1.5 million from individual investors, Dornbush and Lasky partnered with chief technical officer T.C. Meggs to build that instead.
"Oh no," she said. "It's a selfie."
The name was coined in a New York City bar, where Lasky saw two young women attempting to take a picture of themselves. He offered to to take the picture for them, but she refused. "Oh no," she said, "it’s a selfie." There and then, a brand was born. "It resonated for what we already knew we wanted to build as the perfect name," Lasky says. "It’s an extension of yourself. So we jumped on that." This was long before "selfie" was added to the dictionary, or a terrible ABC sitcom. It was just a fun, useful word, and soon Dornbush and Lasky were able to wrangle the selfie.com domain from its previous owner.
They build the app without telling many people what they were doing, and they did not tell answer questions from the press. But as they were building, the duo put up a landing page at Selfie.com, drawing the attention of journalists and leading to much sarcastic tweeting. (Disclosure: I tweeted sarcastically about Selfie.com. Fourteen times.)
A year passed. An entire year! Enough time for Shots, a still-photo selfie app backed by Justin Bieber, to launch and encourage endless posing in front of the inferior of your phone’s cameras. In April, they opened Selfie to beta testers. "Really, we’ve just been working every day on it to get it where it is today," Dornbush says. "With these apps, to be successful they need to be very simple, very intuitive, and they just need to work. A lot of different types of talent and disciplines need to come together for an idea to come together."
The app consists of a feed of short videos from yourself and the people you have chosen to follow. The videos are represented by still images that come to life when you tap them. (You can choose the video cover by dragging your finger after you finish recording; #uglyselfiecover is among the more popular hashtags on the app so far.) When you reply to a public video, your reply is linked, and you can browse the chain of replies by swiping back and forth on the original video.
In beta testing, this has resulted in lively discussions among strangers, several of whom have decided to meet up offline afterwards. Users are answering questions seeking legal and medical help, flirting, and sharing random events from their lives. Lasky says the fact that you have to post a video of yourself in order to reply has led to more civil discussions than you would otherwise expect. "It’s a place where people treat each other with more respect," he says. "There’s a social responsibility to be nice to people, because you’re face to face. That’s what we thought was missing."
"There's a social responsibility to be nice to people."
Whether there’s truly anything missing in the world of selfies in the fall of 2014 is open to debate. In my limited testing, Selfie is novel and has a charming community of early adopters. If the company can attract celebrities onto the platform, they might find it a worthwhile channel for interacting with their fans. In the meantime, the company should build a way for people to share their video selfies outside the app — via Facebook, Twitter, and other social channels that people are already using.
If anything, Dornbush says, the cultural mania for selfies will only grow more intense. "We really think it’s the beginning of something that’s going to continue on into the future," he says. "I don’t think you have to stretch your imagination too much to take the concept of taking photos of yourself to making videos of yourself." Lasky chimes in to say the time is right for Selfie’s take on the selfie. "Things evolve," he says. "Why shouldn’t the selfie evolve?"
Update, October 1: This story has been updated to reflect the participation of a third co-founder, T.C. Meggs, in building the app.