Blog Post

#vandyvienna_2015: Using the Instagram #Selfie as a Critical Lens and Identity Builder in Study Abroad/ SLA Contexts

 #vandyvienna_2015: Using the Instagram #Selfie as a Critical Lens and Identity Builder in Study Abroad/ SLA Contexts

If you exist in 2015, you know the #Selfie. Hate it or it or love it, this pop culture phenomenon seems so ubiquitous, even our president is jumping on board, joining the ranks of Kim Kardashian with her “Selfish” selfie book and the millions of other users (celebrity or otherwise) on Instagram. Bloggers give tips on achieving the perfect “selfie pose” and makeup brands sell products promising a "perfect selfie pallette."

As a self-proclaimed lover of all things social media, Instagram has been a favorite of mine since its inception in 2013. The ability to take photos and videos, slap a neat filter on them, and share them through all avenues of Facebook, Vine, Twitter, offers a tantalizing image of super-connectedness combined with the powerful ability to create new realities and develop new identities. As Lev Manovich and Nadav Hochman point out in their 2013 article “Zooming into an Instagram City: Reading the Local and the Social through Social Media,” social media can also be used for “reading of local social and cultural events.” As an instructor of German language, literature, and culture, these qualities resonated with me, particularly in co-planning a Maymester in Vienna, Austria with Prof. Christoph Zeller of Vanderbilt University in Spring 2015. Using Instagram meant not only reading these social and cultural events, but it also seemed to me to contain the potential of reading and understanding a culture itself visually. In the words of communication specialist Aaron Hess, students could "express a character or identity and assert a territory" through this medium.

Our reasons for using Instagram were two-fold: we wanted to use a photographic medium to document the trip in an accessible way, and we wanted students to take selfies with cultural objects in the city as a way of critically engaging with their surroundings and experiences. In this respect, Instagram was the clear winner. All the students possessed a high level of familiarity with the tool, and showed excitement about using it. It became a kind of game to go around the city and hunt for dramatic pictures and perfect selfie spots.

Yet the goal was not only to have students take and post entertaining selfies on Instagram. We wanted them to reflect on the medium as it came into contact with the object and to think about the significance that the location services and inclusion of their own bodies gave to these digitized cultural objects, as well as the significance of the objects themselves. In this light, we asked students to post their photos and selfies to Instagram, and to choose a particular selfie for a reflective essay project entitled “Selfie and I.” The result: students used a familiar social media outlet to navigate an unfamiliar city and culture. They combined nontraditional and traditional approaches to critical thinking and socio-cultural reflection to produce work that felt timely, organic, and tuned-in to the time and place. Yet it simultaneously engaged critically with these spaces and their meanings.

With this experience, I have begun to investigate the benefits of using Instagram as a way to build identity—particularly a foreign language identity. Its been an interesting journey and one that I will blog about later on the HASTAC Scholars’ blog. If you’re interested, please feel free to visit the Instagram page from the Vienna Maymester (, and I’d love to hear about your experiences teaching with Instagram and using #selfies in your classes! 

Links to online sources used:

Aaron Hess, "The Selfie Assemblage"

Nadav Hochman and Lev Manovich, "Zooming into an Instagram City: Reading the Local through social media"

Gabriela Farias, "Selfie and the experience of the virtual image"




I'm interested in what you had to say about "asserting a territory,"  especially within the transnational/transcultural/translingual spectrum.  Can we make any sort of statements regarding how the selfie is viewed in different cultures and how "selfie styles" vary from culture to culture, language group to language group and nation to nation?


This sounds like it created quite a memorable experience for the students! I find the idea to be so creative! One thing that I do wonder is how these students felt while taking these selfies. I'm wondering if they found it to be a possible clash between cultures (in the sense of "high culture" vs. "low culture") and how they possibly merged the two. I could imagine some examples working out quite nicely, like a visit to Schloss Schoenbrunn where plenty of people are taking selfies with the palace in the background. However, when it comes to changes in location and what is considered "appropriate" or "inappropriate" in relation to how to approach and interact with art, it would be interesting to see how something as contemporary as "the selfie" could call for an interesting experience, and perhaps a clash of art-consuming conventions, with a certain piece of culture.