Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Assignment 4: Five Selfies of Sean

I have selected 5 of my own selfies to critique for this assignment. On the one hand, this makes it more difficult, because I have to try to be dispassionate about these clearly personal items. Further, there are so many selfies of others to choose from, there seemed no critical link that naturally connected any other set of 5. That said, this assignment became an interesting way to process some abstract ideas about selfies, selfie culture, and to develop a broader sense of how selfies are central tools in modern social media narrative construction.

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This is my most recent selfie. I posted it to complete the collection that I offer for analysis in this post.

Creating this selfie is a deliberate act of posturing. On the one hand, this selfie is not part of the ‘home mode’ that Manovich (2016) explores in his article on Instagram subjects and styles. At once, that information is conveyed only in the meta-attribute of location (in this case, “Poolside @ The Beverly Hilton”). While such “‘ordinary’ moments being captured by Instagram users” may only be extraordinary in the context of one’s personal network, Manovich is claiming that this meaning-context is not “immediately obvious” (2016).

I think that this selfie, stripped of its meta-attributes, might be ordinary, even for those in my personal network: the tuxedo I am wearing is barely noticeable (only a sartorial expert could deduce it from my jacket collar), the setting is not particularly recognizable without explanation, and my caption is not descriptive or emotive. And yet, each of those characteristics provides a certain layer of meaning, unique deployed in this setting: Instagram. As Manovich points out: a “subject cut off by the frame may be unintentional” (2016), but it asserts the aesthetics of the snapshot.

There are some other meanings-contexts at play, in addition to my privilege as a white man, that include (1) the location which emphasizes social status; (2) my cavalier caption, that offers little additional information,  suggesting an overly casual demeanor, or (3) a demure description given the extraordinariness of the setting. These characteristics are only evident because of the social and digital context in which I choose to share this selfie: the meaning is shaped by the context itself, which itself is an expression of powerful/less representations of the subjects own self. In that sense, it is not merely the composition of the image, the subject’s particular framing, or the features that are foregrounded or backgrounded, but in fact the mix of all these that provide crucial layers to interpreting this selfie. Again, Manovich puts it succinctly: “[A photograph’s] content, their aesthetics and their larger context can’t be separated in life, and they should not be separated in analysis” (2016).

I’ve addressed some key characteristics of how I analyse and interpret this image, but have yet to explore how it is an extension of my own identity. Trying deliberately to share more common, everyday images of my life involves needing to post selfies that are from the activities I am doing. As XXXXX points out, by finding my way to this balcony to snap this selfie, events occur in order that I could capture it and share it.

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This was my first proper selfie on Instagram. Until this week, it only had one like. I have specifically captioned/described this photograph as “getting started” on Instagram. Again, the meaning-context that is found in this post announces itself in the metadata. At the time of posting, I must only have had a handful of followers, and thus the publicness of sharing this photograph was diluted, at least on a relative basis. This barely public post becomes, then, a more private endeavor, emphasized by my description (“Instagram - getting started). Furthermore, for those that joined Instagram after this post, and saw my posting date would know that I predated them on the platform--an early adoption the bestows a social status that emphasizes my privilege and access to these platforms and information about them. Producing this image for Instagram is a classic example of what Levin descibed as the “ontogenesis” of my own self-identity represented and mythologized through the networked space of Instagram (2014).

In this case, the composition of the photograph, featuring plant life and an old building in the background provide touchstones as to the identity of the subject. Indeed, this is compounded by the subject’s choice in clothing (black shirt) and the choice of sunglasses. This image is thus part of the identity creation, the becoming of a self, actualized through the capture of selfie and participation in said broader cultural phenomenon. In that way, whether the subject is scowling, smirking or grimacing matters greatly in perceiving the essential self captured in the snapshot. As Lacetti points out, “Selfies are changing the way people see themselves” (2015). As subject and creator of this particular selfie, I must embrace the outcome sufficiently to share it--and I have endless opportunity to remake this image or suppress it.

At once, this moment can not be recreated. This event and what I captured 238 weeks ago is entirely original; moreover, this selfie was not capturing the ordinary or the extraordinary, but rather the actual experience of trying something new -- of making myself in a different framework. This fact seems to underscore Miroiu’s echoing and recontextualizing of Sontag: “experiences would exist in order to end in a selfie” (2014). The point is that meaning-context and identity are merely moments and events themselves represented as selfies, essentially binding the act of creation and occurrence to capture. My first Instagram selfie was a moment, and it is represented and produced in the image I shared -- unleashing powerful and spectacular characteristics of my identity.
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I just like this selfie the most. Probably because it features my pet. This image features what Levin called “the isolated selfie” (2014); but, I will suggest that it is at least arguably a “group selfie.”

I think what makes this selfie distinct includes an additional subject (the dog), the glasses, and the closed eyes. A soft and warm filter add to the aesthetic. The notions of mask, addressed by Levin (2016), are prevalent as well--closed eyes and glasses both work together in this.

Of course, images of dogs are very common on social media, though not as widely shared as cat pictures. This selfie thus participates in a broader social experience of dog-owners and dog-lovers; setting aside the primary composition as a photo of myself. As a produced image featuring a dog, I could have--but, did not--participate in meta-features of Instagram that would have connected this image to others from around the world with hashtags like “dog,” “dogsofinstagram,” “dogstagram,” or “mansbestfriend.”

As a representation of the closeness of my dog-love, the proximity of faces in the image emphasizes a status of trust with the animal that, while not quite carnal, is intimate. At least, in this positioning of the subjects, “group-identification through [standard stylistic codes] of aesthetic assimilation” situates this selfie in both the group and the individual context of Instagram (Levin, 2016).  

More that the others I have offered up today, this selfie acts more as an extension of my identity. While those in my Instagram network are largely personal contacts who may know a bit about me, for the uninitiated, me as dog-lover is frontal. Furthermore, inasmuch as the choice of dog breed indicates something about the human identity, that is an additional layer of perception applied to my character as the subject.

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I only have two other proper selfies on Instagram, and this is one of them. There are several compositional features in this selfie that are unique. Because the subject is before a grey wall or background, only the coffee cup and description provide additional context. The sterility of the back wall also suggests a settingless image, which serves to emphasize that here, the setting is the platform itself--the humor, the reactions, and the narrative are all produced to be self-contained to this post. The post not only documents my experience, but as Manovich puts it, “intensifies” it (2016).  (Miroiu, citing van Dijck, makes this point too - 2014).

There are some additional layers of privilege and power that are also evident. Alone, a single post joking about mass market bourgeois service industry interactions is a testament to some deep-seated power dynamics. The Doctor Who reference offers a neat metaphor for the scene as patron of the baristas and as a recontextualized faux-star sighting. That our Instagram networks do not intersect only emphasizes the ephemerality of the moment the post seeks to reflect, it demonstrates divergent social postures that extend into a so-called equalized digital setting. In these ways, this post is the most “performatively strategic” (Horning, 2014) of the collection I’ve critiqued here.

Finally, this post does more explicit performing that some of the others here. Miroiu suggests that Mead’s generalized other is digitized (2014) via the selfie, because of its necessarily social context--this image would fit that, given that humor is specifically meant to inflect tropes in a group or community. So, this joke will only find resonance among those who know me, know Doctor Who, know about the broader politicized phenomenon of Starbucks’ baristas writing names on each cup. That this is a private joke is then deliberately unwound in the Instagram space; and of course, these particular characteristics are far less intimate and more simply a common experience of a social class. Again, leaning on Miroiu to tie together this argument: “the control the individual has on the photographed image of his self and the public one is eventually undermined by the audience” (2014).

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This selfie predates Instagram, which launched October of 2010. By then, Facebook was already ubiquitous. When I joined Instagram sometime in July 2011 (241 weeks ago), I recall feeling like a late-adopter. By the time Facebook acquired Instagram in April of 2012, it had 30 million users, and today it has more than 350 million users.  

This selfie does not conform to many characteristics of the common style, such as arm-length self-portraiture. I published it as my Twitter profile photo. In the decade that I have been on Facebook, I have only had two profile photos – neither of them of my face; and I have grown attached to this choice. As a designer, I wanted to feature representative images and icons.

Twitter gave me a chance to select a profile pic that deviated from the Facebook standard I had set for myself. I have long had discomfort with the scale of the common selfie: where the subject’s face typically fills the entire frame. As creator/photographer, I was able to capture an image that was both haphazard and deliberate at once. The forward tilt of the subject provides momentum to the image; and the several shades of whites are choices that I embraced in selecting this shot.

Some important elements automatically reveal themselves: this is a white male inside a room of some kind, in a relatively clean white shirt. Among the several photographs I have shared on social media, I expect that this one is as salacious as any of the others, and thus a likely candidate for my own #iftheygunnedmedown post. What I am pointing out by this is that my white privilege is perhaps emphasized in this image; in part because it is not exceptionally flattering, but nor is it particularly embarrassing.  

The selection of this image and my usage as a profile picture for Twitter suggests a particular affection for the manner in which it represents me. Distribution in profile pictures gives an image a special stature that extends the user’s identity in more prominent ways than even a typical selfie. I think this is self-evident due to the frequency and potency of a profile image as a complement to all the other sharing and posting a user may be engaged in.


Horning, R. (2014, November 23). Selfies without the self. Marginal utility [New Inquiry blog]. Retrieved from

Levin, A. (2014). The selfie in the age of digital recursion. InVisible culture: An electronic journal for visual culture (IVC), 20. Retrieved from

Manovich, L. (2016). “Subjects and styles in instagram photography”. Instagram book. Retrieved from

Miroiu, C. (2014.) #Selfies: Social identities in the digital age. Proceedings of the Australia and New Zealand Communication Association Annual Conference, Swinburne University, Victoria 9-11 July, 2014. Retrieved from

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