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Pope, President, Pop Stars: 2013, Year of the Selfie

<p>In shopping malls and remote hillside farms, from the White House to the Vatican, selfies made it big this year.</p>
Pope Francis poses with youths during a meeting with the Piacenza diocese in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in this August 28, 2013 picture provided by Osservatore Romano.
Pope Francis poses with youths during a meeting with the Piacenza diocese in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in this August 28, 2013 picture provided by Osservatore Romano.L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters

In shopping malls and remote hillside farms, in the hands of millennials and their moms, from the White House to the Vatican, selfies made it big this year.

In November, the Oxford Dictionaries selected "selfie" as the word of the year, after formally including the term in their online collection in August. The institution even generously noted a few of the selfie's derivatives: "helfie (a picture of one's hair) and belfie (a picture of one's posterior); a particular activity – welfie (workout selfie) and drelfie (drunken selfie), and even items of furniture –shelfie and bookshelfie."

When people aren't snapping photos of their food, or fashion, they're composing #selfies, Instagram, the world's unofficial source of digital self portraits, revealed in November. Even Google's been keeping track: and the selfie has never been more popular.

The art of self-portraiture has been around for centuries, and selfies on social media have been around since the time of MySpace. But in the last two years, rising to popularity via the social media accounts of Rihanna, Justin Beiber, Tyra, Madonna, Gaga and Kim Kardashian — pro selfie takers — selfies have made themselves at home in our hearts, in our social feeds, and even in our video games.

Actor and writer James Franco recently offered one interpretation of the celebrity selfie.

"I just look at the number of likes," Franco told TODAY's Savannah Guthrie. If he posts a picture of a book he's reading, he might get a few likes, but "If I put a stupid selfie, it's ten times that number." Bottom line: "If I try to get attention for something else, I put a selfie." he said.

The selfie made a solid showing this year, but there's no doubt that a few moments last year fed its rise to domination. Among the better ones, the Curiosity Rover sent back a composite self portrait all the way from Mars, and, floating about by the ISS, astronaut Aki Hoshide added to years of astronaut selfies when he snapped a quick self-portrait in space.

This year, world leaders have eagerly boarded the bandwagon.

In June, backstage at the annual Clinton Global Initiative conference, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton posed for a selfie, which the younger Clinton then tweeted.

At the Vatican in August, Pope Frances huddled with a group of tweens for a photo inside Saint Peter's Basilica, proving that when it comes to aiming a selfie, even the Pope needs practice.

Three world leaders brought their heads together this December and caused a media stir when they took a selfie at Nelson Mandela's memorial service in Soweto, near Johannesburg. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt whipped out what looks like an iPhone 5 to take a selfie with the two men sitting beside her: President Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, to inadvertently join a somewhat unsettling global phenomenon now recognized as the "funeral selfie."

Jason Feifer, Fast Company senior editor and founder of the "Selfies at Funerals" Tumblr, wrote about the phenomenon in an op-ed for Britain's The Guardian newspaper. "This isn't the nature of kids today; it's just the nature of kids," he explained. "When a teen tweets out a funeral selfie, their friends don't castigate them. They understand that their friend, in their own way, is expressing an emotion they may not have words for. It's a visual language that older people — even those like me, in their 30s — simply don't speak."

Though selfie trends and impacts have yet to be seriously studied using statistical techniques, some media scholars have been pondering their place in our conversations.

"A photograph offers some sort of evidence that something has happened in way that's more credible," Catalina Toma, a communications researcher at the University of Wisconsin told NBC News.

Has 2013 been the year of the selfie? She is not sure, but "it is for sure a phenomenon."

"In general, we're seeing images move from being a source of pure documentation to being a mechanism of communication," said danah boyd, a researcher at Microsoft Research and author of the upcoming book "It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens." "In other words, why send a text when you can send a pic?" she wrote to NBC News in an email.

Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and MIT professor of social studies of science and technology, believes that our appreciation of selfies has matured. "The past year, people are becoming much more expectant of seeing the selfie," she previously told NBC News. "There's been a definite shift ... now people no longer think it's narcissistic to get that picture."

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.