Taking selfies is becoming an all-too-common practice in today’s western society. Widely associated with selfish behavior, it is often seen as representative of the Generation Y‘s attitude towards life. As the genre rises, it seems to cross borders of generations and already took it’s place at the center of society. Why not take a step back and risk a closer look!
The Oxford Dictionaries had already announced the word of the year 2013: “selfie; noun, informal. A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”.
But there is much more to a selfie than this rather technical description: Actually a selfie embraces the same messages and meanings once related to self-portraits. Since the “artists” are in total control over the action it allows them to present their inner-self exactly the way they want. While some of these messages are pretty obvious to the audience, others are more ambiguous. More than 35 million of these hybrid self-portraits have been already uploaded on Instagram. Hidden meanings are getting in the focus of scientists from various fields, as self-manifestation in social networks is an open playground of data to them.
Is there something to learn from selfies?
The research project Selfiecity collected 656.000 selfies from 5 different cities: Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York and Sao Paulo. Analysis revealed different gender and age patterns for each city. Women in Sao Paulo strike more extreme poses than everywhere else (measured by head tilt) and people from Bangkok seem to be all happy and smiley compared to Muscovites. Other results can be seen on their website and in the interactive Selfiexploratory that allows you to navigate and explore a set of 3200 photos.
The aim of the project is to offer potential ways to discover and analyze this particular method of interaction and self-manifestation. In doing so it’s essential to consider the specific level of technological development and accessibility. Lev Manovich:
“The goals of digital humanities’ analysis of interactive media will be different – to understand how people construct meanings from their interactions, and how their social and cultural experiences are mediated by software.”¹
Does the contemporary social media sphere create a self-centered culture?
There’s evidence in scientific research suggesting that we are experiencing a shift towards self-centered behavior. What could support and accelerate this trend are social media networks which rely on the idea of creating personal profiles and share private information in order to create an image of the user to the outside world. It demands a self-focused perspective and leads to another important issue: social comparison – which is truly a mixed blessing!
The social comparison theory was established by Leon Feistinger in the midst of the 1950ies and is based on the assumption that people come to know themselves by evaluating their own status, believes and abilities in comparison with others. Needless to say, that those sharing selfies are mostly just trying to sell the funniest, sexiest, best and accomplished version of themselves. For the observer this can lead to a steady disaffection with himself. To social psychologists like Aronson Elliot, Timothy D. Wilson and Robin M. Akert both, a self-centered attitude and an ongoing state of social comparison, are strongly linked to depression and anxiety.²
Why selfies matter!
Images structure identity. J.A. Gonzales adopts to this established fact and adds: “identity structures image production, interpretation and acceptance”.³ Analyzes of the Selfiecity project mentioned earlier in the article showed, that especially young female adults (the median-age is estimated to be 23.7 years) are active selfie-makers. So called “duck faces” and pouty lips are still earmarks of female selfies. A new and emerging trend is the “belfie” (taking selfies of the butt). Those ways of representation underlie the deeply engrained idea that being a sex object is empowering. Caroline Heldman, a political professor and reviewer for the Associated Press points out why it is not.
Listen to her talk at TEDxYouth@SanDiego.
¹ Manovich, Lev. “The Algorithms of Our Lives.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 16, 2013. http://chronicle.com/article/The-Algorithms-of-Our-Lives/143557/
² Aronson Elliot, Timothy D. Wilson and Robin M. Akert, Social Psychology, Pearson, Boston, 2013; p. 110.
³ Gonzales, J.A., “Acontemporary Look At Pierre Bourdieu´s Photography: A Middle-Brow Art.” http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Review-Bourdieu-Photography-CS-1992.pdf