Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Theory of a Selfie

A lot more than just sharing a smile or frown, the power of the selfie ranges from personal to politics to economics to global.

Selfies have been defined by Oxford Dictionaries as photograph(s) that one has taken of  oneself, typically one taken with a smart phone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website (n.d.).

On the personal side, I’ve been taking selfies for many years, mostly to capture myself in a particular context and share it or remember it; but during my MACT studies I’ve come to recognize that there are many layers of self-representation, identity and production involved with even something that appears to be as simple as a selfie. There is an implicit connection with the fact that selfies are often generated to share – to invoke an outside perspective on ourselves (Horning, 2014).

Here’s a selfie I took against the side of a building, playing with the concept of externalizing a selfie:

A shadow of a selfie, curved around a building in the sunrise, with the full moon setting in the distance. Layering my static identity (Horning, 2014) on the brickwork, with sunlight and moonlight coming from different directions.

Speaking of different directions, the political use of selfies has certainly gone in different directions in North America.

Justin Trudeau has been called the ‘selfie king of Canada’ (Francis, 2015) and the last Canadian election was described by some as the ‘selfie election’ (McDiarmid, 2015). Trudeaus capacity to engage with a seemingly endless stream of selfie posing has brought him praise and criticism (McDiarmid, 2015; Maloney, 2015; ). Here is a CBC video where he repeatedly models with charm:

One of the concepts that a selfie evokes is a proximately and closeness to the subject, and many politicians want to create the impression of closeness to their audience especially during elections… During funerals is another story!

Photo Credit: Roberto Schmidt, Agence France-Presse

This is the photo from Nelson Mandela’s funeral ceremony in December 2013 that sparked the Selfiegate scandal, from left to right: David Cameron, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama.  It was a pivotal moment for the evolving social discussion about when it is acceptable to take selfies and where. “It was not just three world leaders taking a selfie; it was three world leaders taking a selfie at a memorial service for an internationally beloved human rights leader” (Miltner & Baym, p. 1705). As the scandal about this photo unfolded, it became a conversation about whether or not society was ready to accept this kind of behaviour at formal functions like funerals. In the end, this particular event had many narratives and generated a series of important questions about contextualizing power and identity and use of mobile technology (Farci & Orefice, 2015; Miltner & Baym, 2015):
  • Should political leaders be held to different standards in their use of mobile technology?
  • How do we normalize having leaders of all genders interacting in public spheres?
  • What are the interactive power dynamics between social media and main-stream media?

Interestingly, one of the possible outcomes of this media scandal was Obama’s recent request not to have selfies taken with him (Reilly, 2016). Publishing selfies is quite simple using social media platforms, but they can quickly take on a life of their own and overcome the initial representation that the producers intended. Perhaps Obama tired of worrying how his engagement in selfies would affect the public’s overall perception of him as a leader.
So the use of selfies by the leaders of Canada and the United States has gone in different directions – taking a global

One project that examines selfies at a macro-level is Lev Manovich’s selfie-city, which looked at the selfies generated in 5 cities around the world. I found this very intriguing for a number of reasons, including that they openly released their data and methodology, essentially creating the capacity for future research building on this project. The use of dynamic imagery, scrolling images, graphs and charts related to the diverse set of findings helps explore and compare the use of selfies in specific contexts.

Here is one of the selfies from the dataset (http://selfiecity.net/selfiexploratory/):

Taking the question of selfies even more broadly, of the largest projects related to selfies must be by NASA who in 2014 combined over 36,000 selfies to create this image:

This project demonstrated a number of different things for NASA including the sheer computing power that they can wield. The total size of the photo is 3.2 giga-pixels, or 1000 times more information than an average size photo, and to make things even more complicated the thousands of selfies were mapped onto an image of the current weather patterns. As a communicative device, this macro-photo also demonstrated the appeal that NASA has to a global audience, there were submissions from over 100 countries. In terms of the roles of producer, creator, consumer; this image also represents a deep blurring into the prosumer which selfies inspire, but on a macro level (Murolo, 2015).

In some ways, to paraphrase Rutledge, NASA has made something like the ultimate selfie, making a meaningful pattern of thousands of images, contextualizing selfies as a global phenomena (2013).


Farci, M., & Orefice, M. (2015). Hybrid Content Analysis of the Most Popular Politicians’ Selfies on Twitter. Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network8(6).

Fausing, B. (2013). Selfie and the Search for Recognition. Academia.Edu.

Francis, A (2015). Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Is Also The Selfie King Of Canada. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/11/06/justin-trudeau-selfie_n_8482946.html

Japan Times (2015). Canada to return to its ‘honest broker’ role under Trudeau. Retrieved from: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/10/21/world/politics-diplomacy-world/canada-return-honest-broker-role-trudeau/#.Vt5qXpMrIgp

Manovich, L (2014). “Selfiecity,” http://selfiecity.net/#

Maloney, R. Trudeau Says Accessibility, Selfies 'Not About Image, It's About Substance'. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/12/16/justin-trudeau-image-substance-selfie-charm_n_8822274.html

McDiarmid, M (2015). It's The Selfie Election And Party Leaders Have To Grin And Bear It. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/09/27/it-s-the-selfie-election-and-party-leaders-have-to-grin-and-bear-it_n_8202534.html

Miltner, K. M., & Baym, N. K. (2015). The selfie of the year of the selfie: Reflections on a media scandal. International Journal of Communication9, 1701-1715.

Murolo, N. L. (2015). Del mito del Narciso a la selfie: una arqueología de los cuerpos codificados. Palabra Clave, 18(3), 676-700. DOI: 10.5294/pacla.2015.18.3.3. Translation retrieved from: http://www.scielo.org.co/scielo.php?pid=S0122-82852015000300003&script=sci_arttext&tlng=en

NASA (2014). The Making of NASA's Global Selfie: 100+ Countries, Thousands of Photos. Retrieved from: http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/2014-globalselfie-wrap-up/#.Vt41YPFBBWd

Reilly, K. President Obama Is Tired of Taking Selfies. Time. Retrieved from: http://time.com/4218764/barack-obama-selfie-ban/

Rutledge, P (2014). “Making Sense of Selfies,” Psychology Today,
Retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/positivelymedia/

No comments:

Post a Comment