The Selfie: Making sense of the “Masturbation of Self-Image” and the “Virtual Mini-Me”

These are notes about an article by Alise Tifentale, The Graduate Centre, City University of New York

Selfie City and the Networked Camera (intro)

Selfiecity is a research project led by Dr Lev Manovich as an attempt to make sense of a multitude of selfies posted on Instagram.

What could a group of selfies taken in a specific city say about that city? Could they also help in defining social media for the future? Selfies suggest new approaches to studies of vernacular photography.

A selfie is a form of self expression as well as a communal and social practice.

The study looked at selfies taken in Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York and Sao Paulo.

640 selfies were studied from each city.

Why do Selfies Matter?

By posting selfies, people keep their image in other people’s minds. They are used to post a specific impression of oneself (seeking social rewards). We now all behave as brands and the selfie is simply brand advertising. It is an opportunity to position ourselves. Trying to sell the best version of #me. Positive, happy, accomplished, proud, well-dressed, seductive or sexy.

So, selfies are a means of self expression, a construction of a positive image, a tool of self promotion, a cry for attention or love, a way to express a sense of belonging to a community.

These are the majority and then there are the oddballs but it is rare that selfies contain pictures of couch potatoes or people in ugly leggings.

On Instagram, selfies are not everything. Only approximately 4% of all photographs posted are selfies.

Selfie of old and new genre of photography

The selfie can be describes as an emerging sub-genre of self portraiture. The first acclaimed example of an artistic self portrait was Hippolyte Bayard’s Self-Portrait of a Drowned Man (1840). Traditionally self portraits outdoors were taken next to a classical or Egyptian ruin. Indoors a mirror was often used or with a plain (studio) background. For today’s self portraits, the background choices are endless.

Why Instagram Matters

In 2013 there were 150 million Instagram users. the population of the world was 7.1 billion so Instagram users are a fairly small percentage. Mainly smartphone users and average age 23. But Instagram automatically adds geospacial information and time stamps which are important for this study. All pictures are square. 612×612 and we can view it as an archive in the process of becoming. Unfinished, live and living.

Art of the Masses

The selfie is the vernacular of the 21st century. It has already entered the museum and the art world. The video installation National #Selfie Portrait Gallery was a fine example. The artworks are often presented as large sets of images. This raises the question “Are all selfies art?” Perhaps they are to the masses if not to the conservatives.

Taking a snapshot of a paradigm shift

Since the connection of the smartphone to the internet, the practise and experience of everyday photography have become more important than the pictures themselves. Social media has created an enormous paradigm shift in what types of stories are considered “breaking news”. It may be the home video of a baby performing a particular trick. The simplicity of online sharing of images taken with smartphone is one of the factors that contributes to the shift.

Summary

Selfiecity reaches into different fields of enquiry. The project is about photography and self-portraiture. Yet it is as much about measuring the limits of the latest software designed to analyse large amounts of visual information. The project views social media as a vehicle of voluntary interpersonal communication, thus becoming a study of human behaviour.

note: The term #selfie was first used on Instagram on November 19 2013. The first hashtag was used on Instagram on January 27 2011.

 

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