Blog Post

Series of Selfies

Series of Selfies

Overiew & description of project

The existence of selfies explains diverse moments in digital technology, photography, and social and cultural awareness. In 2013, the “selfie” was Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year.  The definition alone, “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”, provides a unique opportunity to analyze and critique the relationships between the key words in the definition: photograph, self, smartphone, social media, and website. My project, Series of Selfies critiques a small fraction of the selfie’s prominence in society, and uses the key words in the definition as tools in assessing and exploring the art and act of selfie taking.


The purpose of Series of Selfies is to showcase how selfie instructions or guidelines intervene in the selfie taking process and show how selfies can serve as a platform for self-reflection and self-creation. The Atlantic, defines the selfie as “a deliberate, aesthetic expression—it's a self-portrait, which is an artistic genre with an extremely long pedigree.”The Tumblr site I created is a curated mosaic of modern self-portraits resulting from instructions or guidelines and then posted on the site. 

An array of public figures claim to be authorities on selfie taking and have created lists of instructions, tips, and ideas on how to take “the perfect selfie”. Do people use these instructions? Do they know these instructions exist? Through observation, people do not appear to use instructions or reference how they learned to take a selfie. It is primarily a spontaneous action, unplanned, and intended to capture a specific moment. My project provides a general audience with a diverse list of instructions and guidelines, as well as asks the participant to provide context for the photo (a short description of the photo as well as a relevant hashtag; see the instructions below). This allows the participants and viewers to examine each submission, read about the photo, and learn more about the person behind the smartphone. Series of Selfies provides people the opportunity to take an informed selfie, rather than a spontaneous selfie, that may or may not have context, meaning, or a story behind it. All the key words in the selfie definition were used and needed to complete my project. 


Project Development and the Tumblr Site

For the Series of Selfies project I used Tumblr as a platform to display all the selfie submissions I received in April and May of 2015. Tumblr allows for more creativity when using website layouts with diverse features and the ability to organize photos through the use of hashtags.  For example, each photo references the instructions the contributors choose by using the hashtag #OptionA, #OptionB, #OptionC, or #OptionD. In order for this project to happen, it depended on participation from online communities. To advertise, I used the following avenues:

  • Email blasts: Brown University listserv with over 2,300 subscribers
  • Facebook: Created of a Facebook “event”, with the former project title, Step by Step Selfies, to encourage participation and awareness
  • Medium: Promoted the event on
  • HASTAC: Submitted 3 “opportunity” blog post
  • Twitter: Early May, I created a Twitter, @Selfies_Series topromote the project with various hashtags

Each of these advertisements included the below message:

Follow the directions below and choose a set of instructions or tips from the list below

  • Take a selfie
  • Submit the photo to, or
  • Tell us which set of directions/tips you selected (A, B, C, or D), listed below
  • In a few words, tell us what the photo says about you. Include a hashtag (#) that describes your selfie.
  • Be creative, have fun, and be you!

A.  Taking the Perfect ‘Selfie’ on Your Phone: Nigel Barker Offers 8 Photography Tips: Nigel Barker is a noted fashion photographer and TV show personality, best known for America’s Next Top Model. If you are looking to get tips from a fashion photographer expert, use this link.

B.  Science of People: How to take the Perfect Selfie: Vanessa Van Edwards is the author of “Human Lie Detection & Body Language 101: Your Guide to Reading People’s Nonverbal Behavior”. Watch the video in the link, as well as the instructions listed below. She covers professional selfies, as well as other important body language aspects to be aware of when taking a selfie.

C.  Buzzfeed's 13 Creative Ways to Take a Selfie: Here, Buzzfeed has created a list to spark the imagination in selfie taking. If you want to be creative, or artsy with your selfie, try this link.

D.  Alternatives to the “Duckface” – digital trends: The “duckface” has become a social media don’t, in the world of selfies. This link provides alternatives to this trend. It is an ironic link for those that want to take an unconventional, silly selfie.


Below are screenshots to help navigate through the Tumblr website:

When you click on “Menu” on the top left of the screen, the menu expands to reveal other links.


The Archive feature shows past selfie submissions that filter by month or post type.


The “Submit” feature in the “Menu” tab is a place where people can submit a photo.


On the home page you can click on the hashtags within the photos, to view similar selfies. Below, is a screenshot that shows all the #OptionC submissions.



This project reconsiders an aspect of how the selfie works. It is a digital performance that may use skill and direction to create an art form that possesses a digital rhetoric. Selfies are a source of news and insight into modern culture, as well as an outlet to start a conversation with the digital world. From the theory papers on, Alise Tifentale describes photography “as a tool for constructing and performing the self. Photographic self-portraits offer ultimate control over our image, allowing us to present ourselves to others in a mediated way.” Series of Selfies helps people mediate selfies in a new way. The project aims to take the vulnerability away from seflie taking, and gives people an opportunity to share with the digital world a representation of self.

The intended audience originally focused on people new to selfie taking, or people that have not taken many selfies in their digital lives. However, I learned that did not matter in the grand scheme of my project – whether a person was familiar or unfamiliar. I wanted to learn how selfies can convey performance of self through instructional guidelines.

Through conversations with some of the participants, I learned that they became familiar with new words or phrases associated with the process: the “duckface”, “sparrow face”, and “sexdolling face”, among others. Through reading their photo descriptions, and examining how they used instructions, I observed how participants developed or used selfie rhetoric. Below is a photo that shows how one participant mirrored Option B, from the instruction list and used hashtags in her description to describe her selfie. She described her mood, #happyspring, and put us in her physical space by using #stuckatwork. 


Influencial sources

John Tagg’s analysis of portraiture in the Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, in conjunction with Jill Rettburg’s piece, Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, influenced my final project and its theoretical framework. Tagg examined selfies as a status symbol. To fit Oxford’s definition of selfie, a smartphone or webcam is needed. Tagg explained that, “The portrait is therefore a sign whose purpose is both the ' description of an individual and the inscription of social identity. But at the same time, it is also a commodity, a luxury, an adornment, ownership of which itself confers status (p. 37). Early painted portraits symbolized wealth and status and selfies are a new symbol of wealth and status. It is an assumption that all the Series of Selfies participants owned such a device. Looking back I would have included in the instructions for participants to provide information on how they took the photo, to gage and comment on the reality of this theory.

Rettburg focused on the many forms of filtering that occur in our everyday digital lives. In a sense, the Series of Selfies serves as a filter for selfies. Rettburg explains:

By using the popular cultural term ‘filter’ as an analytical term, I want to emphasize the similarities between the visual filters we apply to our photographs, the technological filters we apply to our blogs and other social media feeds and the cultural filters (norms, expectations, norma- tive discursive strategies) that teach us, for instance, to mimic photo models in fashion magazines or Instagram selfie stars when we photo- graph ourselves. (p 22)

My project asks each participant to choose a set of instructions or guidelines, which in essence filters the selfie – they are mimicking what they read, see, and hear as they take the selfie. Does this take the originality or authenticity away from selfies? Or does it help guide people who are interested in self representation within a digital landscape?

In addition, the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery in London, which took place October 17-20 in 2013, “explores the range of performativity, personality, authenticity, and expression inherent in the #selfie form, from the instant gratification of its creation to the popularity contests of its publication. The #selfie is as omnipresent as the smartphone and as diverse as humanity itself.” Through this project I analyzed the “performativity, personality, authenticity, and expression” of each selfie submission, whether humorous, sarcastic, affable, or serious. Each person read the instructions and interpreted the instructions in their own way. This exemplifies the uniqueness inherient in the selfie, and how no “perfect selfie” can really exist, since we all see and express beauty in different ways.

Frequently, I used as a reference throughout my project, especially as I concluded the theoretical processes and questions that derived from Series of Selfies. The Selfiecity project asks the following questions, which guided me through my own project: “How can history of photography help to better understand selfies phenomena? How can we approach theoretically social media images in general?” One of the theorists, Elizabeth Losh, sited in the project:

Although many regard the selfie as proof of the vainglory of contemporary social media obsessions, those familiar with the nuances of the genre know that its peculiar combination of humanizing individualized self-portraiture that dates back to Renaissance self-fashioning and the detached gaze of the digital technical apparatus that senses rather than sees may actually be uniquely characteristic of more complicated forms of marking time, disciplining the body, and quantifying the self.

Losh summarizes the spirit of my project – thinking about the history of portraiture while infusing the elements of time, body, and the self. How does society view or measure the selfie's purpose? Can we view the selfie as a curatorial tool in commemorating moments or feelings in our lives?

This project allowed me to view selfies in both a modern and historical theoretical context, rather than the social context that I am used to as a part of a generation involved in the rise of the selfie. Although it was difficult collecting the selfies, I still found each submission to communicate a unique message to the world. Just as diverse we are as humans, these selfies illustrated the reality of our diversity. Each photo was filtered by the use of selfie instructions, which could have helped the participants shape their voice and the message they wanted to send to the world at that particular moment. Looking back I may have wanted to create my own list of instructions, serve as the primary authority in the selfie taking process, and see how all participants reacted to one set of instructions. However, I still enjoyed the end result of the Series of Selfies project, and welcome people to continue participating. To submit, visit:

Reference listed above without a url:

Tagg, John. Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1988 (page 37). 


1 comment

I really enjoyed reading about your project! As a language instructor, one of the things that stood out to me was the high level of particiption. It seemed like students really wanted to be part of the project and enjoyed submitting selfies. I am wondering about student responses; were there also reflections included where students explained their reasoning for choosing certain elements?  What was your impression of this student process? I have also become interested in the pedagogical value of the selfie in foreign language identity-building contexts and recently wrote a blog post on it. If you're interested, check out our group's page "Understanding Film and Media Cultures in a Digital World." We'd love to hear what you think. Cheers!