See Me Like I Do: A Forum on Selfies

See Me Like I Do: A Forum on Selfies

The “selfie,” a photograph taken of and by the same person, is a surprisingly malleable genre. Selfies can be taken of one person or of groups, at different angles, in different environments. The photographer-subject can be clothed, intending to showcase their OOTD (“outfit of the day”) or nude, aiming to entice romantic partners. The filters offered by popular platforms like Instagram can make a selfie appear as if it was taken forty years ago. The image geotagging feature of most cell phone cameras even allow users and viewers to use selfies to track the subjects’ daily whereabouts. There are also “selfie” offshoots: “belfies” are of photographer-subjects’ derrieres and the primary subject of “lelfies” are legs. In recent years, the selfie has become something more than a means to capture a look or moment; selfies, in all their forms, have been deployed for a variety of creative and critical purposes.

This forum takes up the hows and whys of selfie creation and circulation, paying special attention to the ways selfies act as a means of asserting agency in a variety of different contexts. Our hope is to combine perspectives on gender, sexuality, and surveillance as well as historical selfie precursors and the use of selfies in the classroom into one concentrated, scholarly forum. In our minds, the benefit of this forum over a scholarly article is that it can showcase the many ways the purposes and functions of selfies clash and create new configurations of creativity and power.

Here are some of the questions we are interested in:

History of the Selfie

  • What are the forms selfies have taken in the past? What purposes have selfies served historically? How are these purposes different from our current use of selfies? How have the audiences for and circulation patterns of selfies changed?

  • In what ways does the temporal context of the selfie matter in order to understand its social/historical importance?

Gender and the Selfie

  • How has the selfie trend contributed to a sense of female community?

  • How do selfies function in terms of self-care as well as self-representation and narrativization?

Sexuality and the Selfie

  • In what ways are selfies an important genre for sexual self-representation,expression, and action? How have they functioned this way historically?

Surveillance and the Selfie

  • How does the EU’s recent law allowing one to remove unwanted search results about oneself impact how we think about identity?

  • How are machines constructing our identity based the content we post ourselves?

Teaching the Selfie

  • How can we use selfies to engage with students about critical digital literacies, the potentials of digital spaces, digital self-representation, etc.?

  • Why might selfies in particular be a valuable way to engage students with critical digital literacies?

  • What might we accomplish in the classroom by bringing in selfies?

  • In what ways have students/teens been using selfies themselves in educational/activist contexts? How might these contexts be valuable models for our own students?

Future of the Selfie

  • What’s next? What new, related forms are emerging in digital spaces? How is the selfie changing, being adapted for new purposes by new kinds of users?

Hosted by HASTAC Scholars:

Special Guests:

Forum banner image: "Selfie," by Paško Tomić, cropped.

33 comments

The selfie craze has triggered a surge in the use of the term “photogenic.” Fashion magazines and blogs abound with advice on how to improve on one’s photogenic qualities in selfies and similar digital self-representations. Cosmetic surgery clinics advertise cheek augmentations to “make you appear more photogenic” and Dior’s “Star Foundation” is advertised by women’s magazines as “the first selfie-friendly foundation.”

The photogenic branding trend is astoundingly similar to the 1920s photogénie craze in Paris when magazines advertised everything from dresses and skin cream to make-up as photogénique. For Jean Epstein and Louis Delluc, two of the world’s first film critics, photogénie was an almost magical transformation that occurred when a face, object, or landscape appeared on the cinema screen: the fleeting and ultimately indefinable quality of looking good on film. For the many female movie fans and readers of the popular press, the concept quickly took on the somewhat less theoretically refined connotations we recognize today: “looking attractive in photographs or on film” (OED).

Today’s selfies appear both unsettlingly new and reassuringly familiar in part because they offer a new medium in which to carry out centuries-old practices. They thus pose many of the same questions that we have posed in the past: To what extent are today’s selfie-takers exercising agency in selecting and manipulating their own public face? To what extent are they buying into standards that have been fabricated by the beauty industry?

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Selfies also have a more recent history, between the growth of advertising and consumer culture of the "photogenic era" and what we might now call the Kim Kardashian era. 

I am thinking specifically of how online dating sites, online chat sites, and online social sites ask users for a "profile photo."  In the 1990s, those were more often taken via a webcam or the camera built into the computer itself. These sites (including HASTAC) provide "scripts" and environments for users that compel registration through the image. These images don't have to be selfies, obviously, and many of these sites (Twitter is a good example), provide images for you if you don't want to upload your own. Nonetheless, part of belonging to cyberspace and the digital era is the presentation of identity (and self, though those are different things) through the image.

Basically what I'm getting at is that the apparatus in which the camera lens faces the camera operator was a hardware option that had its beginnings in the laptop and desktop computer. In some ways, the mobile phone "front-facing" lens was built on earlier logics of registration and identification embedded in the software and "user agreements" of earlier social communities built specifically for interactions via the computers linked to the internet and the world wide web.

We can therefore think of selfies as a kind of "forced choice" or an obligation that has been embedded in the software and the hardware prior to the act of creating the image. This obligation bleeds into virtually all internet-based activities, when many of us join an institution (as an employee, for instance), we are often asked to provide an image for the company newsletter, or other publicity materials (as I have been as a graduate student, a postdoc fellow, and new faculty member).  Likewise, many of us have to maintain profiles on internet-based services as a form of production (HASTAC and academia.edu as examples) and as a form of public relations.

This way of framing the selfie -- as public relations -- of course recalls Annie Fee's connection of the selfie to the 1920s, when advertising and marketing were starting to flourish as full-time professional occupations with their own sets of protocols, interests, and language.

 

 

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Stephen,

I like your point about the image-based avators in digital culture as pre-cursors to current selfies. Certianly, in digital culture am image-based self-representation plays a central role (versus, for example, a signatre in a text-based pre-digital communication).

You are also completely right that without second self-facing camera in mobile phones selfie phenomenon would not happen. I was trying to remember than such cameras were introduced, so checked Wikipedia (very nice) page about selfies, and here is what it says: 

"According to [Kate] Losse, improvements in design—especially the front-facing camera copied by the iPhone 4 (2010) from Korean and Japanese mobile phones, mobile photo apps such as Instagram, and selfie sites such as ItisMee—led to the resurgence of selfies in the early 2010s."

I don't know about the history of selfies in Asia but its not surpizing that selfie thing started there first. Asia already had very active social networking sites a few years before they took off in the U.S." 

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In a valuable article by TIME Magazine titled, “Our Bodies, Our Selfies: The Feminist Photo Revolution,” Jessica Bennett asserts that selfies are “how young women are turning a symbol of narcissism into a new kind of empowerment.” Frequently dismissed as a frivolous preoccupation of teenage girls, selfies may deserve far more credit than they’ve received. In an examination of online girl culture, it becomes evident that selfies are being used in mass as important, revolutionary tools.

The male gaze involved with professional fashion photography has long been criticized by feminists such as Jean Kilbourne, director of the famed documentary, “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women” (1979). Kilbourne argues that commercial photography has harmful effects on women, subjecting them to objectification, unattainable beauty standards and demeaning visual narratives. Enter the selfie. Through these self-portraits, women take on the role of both photographer and subject. Women take the power of portrayal back. They actively decide how much of themselves they will reveal to the world, and in which ways. These seemingly disposable selfies in turn have weighted value, and important potential for the feminist movement.

Likewise, selfies have become an important remedy in healing the toxic effects involved with viewing manipulated commercial images. On Tumblr in particular, the trend of selfies has taken on intertwined connotations of body positivity and self-care. Women of various races, sexualities and body types post their selfies as a means of negotiating a positive relationship with their physical forms. Through this action, this outright display of flawed beauty, women are creating an alternative dialogue to the heavily Photoshopped images in fashion magazines. Instead of turning self-critical and self-destructive, women use selfies as an assertion of reality.

Further, selfies can be seen as a uniting force for female community. The act of reblogging, liking, and commenting support on other women’s selfies has become widespread as an act of feminist solidarity. In her interview with Paper Magazine, Tumblr beauty blogger Arabelle Sicardi says there is one thing she will always reblog: her friends’ selfies. She declares, “Reblogging selfies means ‘I'm proud of you.’”

In this forum, I’d like to open up the discussion of selfies as a feminist concept. What do you think? 

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First, I'd like to say I wrote a long long reply and my browser crapped out so here is another shot, albeit less comprehensive. Argh! 
 
Selfies, Self-Portraits, Self-Imaging, Self-Imagining, Self, self, selves...

To start, I'd like to take up your reading of selfies as feminist and bring up the idea of self-imaging/self-portraiture. My work reads selfies as engaging in tactical praxis. For this discussion I use the term 'selfie' broadly as I am focused on artists engaged in self-imaging practices. I have also had a feminist self-imagining practice since the 1990s and find it fascinating how so much of the mainstream discourse on selfies disregards history.

So yes, I have always considered selfies feminist. I am looking to research as far back to find women engaging in self-imaging practices (especially outside of the EuroAmerican context). Women taking control of their image is powerful. We know this. It is also dangerous. If it wasn't dangerous it wouldn't be censored with as much force. Censorship isn't just the forced removal of images, refusal to show them in exhibitions, etc. It is also that which deems selfies as narcissistic, obscene, frivolous and strips them of their political valence. How can a work be simultaneously dangerous and frivolous? 
 
Why is the disdain for women taking photos of themselves and their bodies so radically different than the valorization of great (male) photographers taking photos of those women? It is a mis-recognized solipsism, and threat to the social order in which  women are not the ones to take pleasure in their own, (often sexual) self-representation. In the self-portrait, the artist (subject/maker) actively performs as the object of our desire, and in turn complicates the (historically) male gaze of the passive body to be examined and consumed. 
 

One of the tactics of self-portraiture articulates “radical narcissism” a concept that interrogates narcissism as a catch all for the condition of female subjectivity. Jones in Body Art/Performing the Subject (1998) explains radical narcissism using Hannah Wilke as an example —  Wilke articulates, like many other feminist artists of the 60s and 70s, a "flamboyant objectification of the (her) female body but also simultaneously performs her body/self as subject."  Jones continues that this: "perverts the simplistic conception of self-other relations by pulling the viewer/other inexorably into the artists interpersonal structures of viewing and self-display" (17). Using the body was crucial to exemplify that the personal is political and to interrogate the fetishization of female nudes in complex language that was not anti/pro sex/porn in distinguishable ways. 

Another tactic of self-portraiture is its way of foregrounding the body as a communicative medium that displaces the gaze and particularizes the body. In other words, it emphasizes the specificity of the body and its affects,  rather than claims of any possible homogeneity. This is similar to the ways in which Terri Senft defines 'selfies'. I wonder, are 'selfies' only 'selfies' if they are a photo? Can a selfie be made with other media and still be circulated as a mode of exchange?

Thinking with Ariana Reines, I would also like to leave with this claim: simply because a woman includes herself and/or her body in an image she took/made doesn't automatically make that a self-portrait, 'selfie'.

 

Hannah Wilke

Hannah Wilke, S.O.S.Starification Object Series,1974-82

Jo Spence

Jo Spence, Narratives of Disease

Ana Mendieta

Ana Mendieta, “Untitled,” (Self Portrait with Blood), 1973

Adrian Piper, Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, 1981

Lynda Benglis

Lynda Benglis, A response to a self-portrait by Robert Morris, 1974.

 

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So, this is certainly late to the game, but still relevant:

I am the editor of an online journal for exemplary first-year writing at Fordham University. In our last issue, an undergraduate student made an argument for the selfie as a tool of female self-empowerment. You can read the full essay here.

In the essay, the student makes comparisons between Frida Kahlo's paintings, Vivian Maier's self-portraits, and the ubiquitous "selfie." The writer arrives at the nuanced and insightful claim: "Selfies provide girls with the opportunity to reclaim agency by presenting themselves to the world in the way they desire to be seen, and cultivating as well as sharing unique identities. By facilitating self-exploration and helping young girls assert their identities, selfies give girls power and agency."

It's certainly relevant to this discussion and worth a read!
 

104

The first half of this forum’s title (“If you could see me like I do”) is taken from gay rapper and dance music icon Cazwell’s 2013 anthem, “No Selfie Control.” In the video for the song, Cazwell rolls around in satin sheets and bathtubs, contorting his body—and especially his outstretched arm—to achieve the perfect shot. He sings,

I got no selfie control
while on my cell phone.
I swear, I’m not flexing,
I’m not holding my breath.
If I have a bad side,
then I ain’t found it yet.
Look at the lens,
Tilt my head, then I lick my lips wet.
Drag, crop, pick the filter,
Save to camera, then send.

 

http://floridaagenda.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Cazwell.png

 

Cazwell seems to be commenting on what we might describe as a compulsion to self-document, but also on the amount of control selfies allow him to have over his “image” (a single photograph and the wider way he’s perceived). As some of us have suggested here and as a number of selfie researchers have also argued, selfies can be empowering for precisely this reason: Selfies are fully self-curated.

As Cazwell notes earlier in the song, selfies are also a means of instant gratification and seduction (“Instagram for instant love”). Distributed on dating and hook-up sites, both nude and clothed selfies initiate what Lasén and García describe as a “complex gaze game,” in which selfie-takers get to see themselves as sexual subjects and objects and must “[consider] the preferences, desires, and demands of their potential partners.” Tiidenberg has also recently demonstrated that “sexy” selfies, and their reception in a sex-positive community, can improve selfie-takers’ views on their own and others’ bodies and sexualities and aid their discovery and development as sexual beings.

“Sexy” selfies can also negatively impact selfie-takers, a case we see on misogynist, “exposing” websites like The Dirty, which uses privately shared, nude selfies to shame women. The release and analysis of public figures’ nude selfies has become a favorite pastime in U.S. celebrity culture, destroying political and creative careers. And, of course, not all sexy-selfie-takers are adults. Underage nude selfies betray pre-teens and teens as sexual beings and their circulation has weighty legal consequences. For the last several years, middle schools across the U.S. have hosted selfie seminars and retreats to educate young people on their role in the creation and distribution of child pornography.

Selfies—and the communities in which they move—have become important means of sexual expression, education, and, we might even say, experience. We’d like forum participants to consider these aspects of selfie-dom.

115

“Visibility is a trap.” - Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1977)

Is there a downside to this democratization of image producing, sharing and commenting? Certainly we now have a more active role in the way that we choose to represent ourselves through images, and Jill Walker Rettberg laudes this empowering practice in the closing lines of Seeing Ourselves Through Technology (2014). Yet, this raises questions about the multiple audiences for these representations. It’s clear that one aspect of the audience consists of our friends and followers with whom we intentionally share our selfies. If we don’t take care to control our privacy settings, these pictures may also reach and be appropriated by unintended audiences who can potentially even access meta-data such as where the photograph was taken.

However, regardless of privacy settings, the less obvious side of this audience is the machines themselves. Building on Foucault’s work on discipline, Deleuze argued that one is constructed as a dividual, an endlessly divisible representation of a person as data, which, in a control society, can be used against us (“Postscript on the Societies of Control” 1992). Sebastian Anthony of ExtremeTech (2014) reports that Facebook is developing new facial recognition technology, dubbed DeepFace, that can identify faces nearly as accurately as humans and far better than similar software from the NSA. As of now, Facebook is only using an older version of this technology to help users more quickly tag photos they’ve posted to Facebook. However, as the article notes, there is potentially a lucrative incentive to expand this facial recognition software to real world settings such as the shopping mall or the big box store in order to more accurately trace shopping patterns on and off the web. We might one day soon receive targeted Facebook ads based on the contents of the aisles at our local pharmacy where we lingered without making a purchase. Yet, even if we don’t extend the recognition to these locations, our selfies are revealing more and more. Companies such as Ditto Labs, Inc. are mining social media for photos that include images of brand logos, going so far as to perform sentiment analysis on smiles in those photos. Each selfie expands the database of images available to this machine audience.

We may be representing ourselves, but how important is our machine audience?

112

In the final chapter of danah boyd’s It’s Complicated, boyd argues for the increasing importance of equipping youth with greater media literacy. Even though “millenials” often get conflated with Marc Prensky’s “digital natives,” a group of people assumed to already communicate with fluency in digital spaces, boyd argues that “In a networked world, in which fewer intermediaries control the flow of information and more information is flowing, the ability to critically question information or media narratives is increasingly important” (181).

 
One example of a “media narrative” that has gained significant traction is about selfies as primarily narcissistic forms of expression; popular outlets like The Huffington Post and Psychology Today have circulated stories on linking narcissism to selfies, while researchers at Ohio State University conducted studies examining this link. While there may be some credence to these popular narratives and studies, teaching students to examine the selfie critically, understanding its impacts and what the selfie communicates is crucial in an increasingly image-driven communicative landscape.

This forum provides one space to think through how to bring the selfie into the classroom and discuss its implications for college students, a generation deeply embedded in the cultures of social media, image consumption and image production.

152

JJ, I think your take on the selfie is interesting because your reading highlights exactly how the selfie differs from early forms of self-portraiture. Photographs have long been used to construct archives for the purpose of disciplining deviants through surveillance (think mugshots, police records, etc), but what’s new is the self-selection into that database and, as you mention, the machine-as-audience.
 
The selfie might be shifting photography from an indexical representation of “reality” to an a-signifying semiotic regime that directly reconstructs “reality.” Guattari understands a-signifying semiotics as connections between “material fluxes” (150). He says that they “rely on signifying semiotics [e.g. words, symbols, etc.], but they use them only as a tool, as an instrument of semiotic deterritorialization allowing semiotic fluxes to establish new connections” (150).  In terms of the selfie, we need to first recognize the way that things like smiles are able to be read by facial detection software and thus turned into symbols and then how those symbols are used as tools (within the database, for example) to establish new material connections, flows, and fluxes (surveillance and targeted advertising among them). Maurizio Lazzarato builds on Guattari’s work and presents stock market indices and computer languages as prime examples of a-signifying semiotics that operate directly on material flows (40). These are significant to Lazzarato because in his view capitalism seeks to control “asignifying semiotic apparatuses” in order to “depoliticize and depersonalize power relations” (41). The selfie, of course, would seem to be an extremely personal means of expression, so such an analysis could be important for mapping the potentially depersonalizing effects of the machines at work in this context.  Does J.J.’s analysis of the dividual and data flows open up consideration of the selfie (or even the human face itself) as a machine for producing a-signifying semiotics? If so, we might begin to analyze what Guattari calls the “micropolitics” of the power relations that take exist within and around both the signifying and a-signifying regimes of the selfie.
 
It seems to me that looking at this sort of automatic directness of action within and around the selfie (which we might otherwise read in exclusively symbolic terms) not only draws our attention to the materiality of the selfie, but to the materiality of all symbolic communication. That is, we need to consider not just the medium-as-message, but the ways in which the medium directly reconfigures material action.  The medium may carry messages, the medium may be the message, but the medium is also produced by material things that act directly on other things. What material functions are being carried out by these messages? (Of course with selfies, “medium” and "message" are probably awful terms to use, but I hope the point is still clear).
 
So why does all of this matter? It might not. But if it does, it’s because it means we need to start thinking about communication on multiple scales (and/or within multiple ecologies) simultaneously. If we consider the ways that the selfie plays into histories of advertisement and construction of a public face, as Annie does, the underlying a-signifying semiotics at work within and around the selfie could be informative. For example, let’s say we take up the question of the selfie as an expression of the selfie-taker’s own agency versus their (perhaps unwitting) repetition of existing norms of beauty shaped largely by advertisers. We would need to not only look back historically at how beauty trends are produced, shaped, and replicated as well as how the selfie might provide a space that encourages such practices to continue in particular ways, but we would also need to consider how the results of the selfie (as a-signifying semiotics operating within algorithms and databases) could trigger targeted advertising aimed at further intensifying the selfie-taker’s engagement with particular notions beauty and the presentation of a public self.
 
Works Cited: 
 
Guattari, Félix. “The Place of the Signifier in the Institution.” The Guattari Reader. Ed. Gary Genosko. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996. Print.
 
Lazzarato, Maurizio. Signs and Machines. Trans. Joshua David Jordan. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014. Print.
107

Jason, thanks for the interesting comments. I'm particularly interested in the way you've updated McLuhan's medium/message paradigm to include the importance of materiality, because I think it helps anchor the discussion of materiality in more familiar terms. The scales/ecologies approach also seems to be particularly useful, and does justice to the complexity inherent as something as (seemingly) simple as the selfie, which is well reflected in the diversity of approaches to the selfie in this forum. From an academic perspective, this works really well. We can sit down and thoroughly think through these issues while discussing them with others, as evidenced here.

My concern is more from a practical perspective. As these complexities multiply, I struggle with how anyone can appropriately navigate these multiple ecologies during a lived experience. Sometimes, I'm out doing something fun with my family and we simply want to take a selfie to capture that moment. In that fleeting moment, it's difficult to hold in mind all of these differing ecologies. What notions of beauty or family are being reinforced? How will this selfie be re-appropriated as data? And so on - not just with the selfie but with so many of the actions we take in a normal day. 

I don't have an answer to that challenge, but I think it adds to the importance of thinking through these ecologies from an academic perspective in order to better understand, and perhaps even positively change some of these ecologies. 

123

First of all, I love all of these comments so far. I am particularly interested in JJ Sylvia's and Jason Buel's discussion of a "machine vision" directed towards selfies. 

 

Jason-- I love your discussion of turning smiles into symbols--and then using those symbols as tools for further processing. If we use the Deleuzian concept of deterritorialization to think about how facial recognition algorithms create a dividual, or a representation of ourselves in data, that does indeed open up the discussion to consider how our face enters into global flows of capital and tools of political control.

 

As you point out, there is a tension here with the selfie as a form of personal expression, and the "aim" of deterritorialization to "depersonalize and depoliticize." If Selfies are an intensely personal form of expression, how is it that they create a de-personalized symbolic form? By engaging in a personal form of self-expression, are we actually giving up our agency? Or are we taking hold of that agency, using the tools available to use to participate in a new form of cultural expression?

 

In my work, I am very interested in the desire to participate in symbolic expression that generates data, and the desire to understand oneself using data (e.g. Personal fitness tracking, the quantified self). Selfies are an interesting corollary to those practices because a selfie creates an visual image. However, as JJ points out, those images are immediately processed (as data) to determine facial characteristics. The same technology is used for the security purposes and law enforcement. And we can easily imagine this technology being employed directly in shopping settings, for marketing and advertising. Kelly Gates’ book Our Biometric Future details the use of facial recognition and the quest to build these algorithms. 

 

So Selfies exist as both image and data (as all digital images do). And the value that we gain from them depends on whether we are more interested in the selfie as a visual representation, or the selfie as a data-source to be mined and subjected to algorithmic processing and entered into databases.

 

My guess is that the “personal” use of selfies is concerned with the visual representation. And the “de-personal” use of selfies is concerned with the data.

 

I wonder what other people think about the desire to take a selfie. The “data” of the selfie is what opens up the images to algorithmic processing, and the connection to the scholarship of dividuals, data-flows, and material communication. So when we take a selfie, is the “data” of the selfie just a by-product of the visual image? Do we just care about the visual part of the image? Or are we starting to see more of an understanding of how this data is used—as tools of political, social and economic control. 

 

 

125

Thanks for the comment, Neal. I definitely see the relation to quantified self as well. Your question of whether the data of the selfie was just a by-product of the visual image resonated with me and touches upon a recent question I've been working through. I'm interested in how the metaphors that we use for data can affect both the ways that we think about data but, perhaps more importantly, the ways we create policies related to data. Sara Watson has an interesting article on this issue where she actually contrasts the very industrial metaphors of big data (as by-product, for example) to the much more personal metaphors that have been adopted within the quantified self movement such as data as a mirror or practice.

I'm particularly interested in her challenge to think of data metaphors in a more embodied way. Do you think some of those data metaphors from quanitified self could also work in the discussion of data related to selfies?

111

I just took a look at that article—Sarah Watson makes some very interesting points. If we start to think about data in terms—not of the “industrial metaphors”—but of personal, embodied metaphors, we might better grasp our relationship to our own data.

 

A lot of academics who critique big data often do so in terms of the vast amount of power that Big Data companies have over individuals. Watson is saying that one way to try to adjust this power imbalance is for people to start thinking about data differently—with metaphors that better reflect our personal, embodied relationship to our data.

 

As this relates to selfies, I wonder if there is a similar thing going on with the practical, lived experience of taking a selfie. For the most part, we do not think about the notions of beauty and family (or sexuality, gender, and race) that are being reinforced when we snap a selfie. And I think we normally don’t think of selfies as data. Maybe if we did, we would see how they are already an ideological portrayal, coded with norms and embedded with power relations.

 

Perhaps that is because we are too much in the moment to step back and analyze the selfie. We think of the selfie as a self-representation, as a new kind or portrait. Are these perhaps metaphors that disguise a more vast ideological framework going on?

106

Greetings,

Some of your probably already know the project of our lab we released exactly one year ago:

http://selfiecity.net/ 


For me, the most valuable thing that came out from this project was something that we did not planned at first. The initial idea was to have a collaboration between my lab (softwarestudies.com) and one of the most well-known data visualization in the world Moritz Stefaner. Since we already developed by that time code to download large numbers of Instagram images, we decided to use in the joint project. I had no interest in selfies but my team convinced that this would be the thing to do. This was August 2013, then selfies have not yet became as big as they are now.

Anyway, while we were working on the project, I decided to also use it as a "platform" for a few theory essay. As a result, in addition to featuring various visualizations, selfiecity.net also has three essays:

http://selfiecity.net/#theory

One is by art historian (PhD student at The Graduate Center, CUNY), another by a theorist of social media (PhD student at University of Pittsburg), and the third is by a feminst media scholar (UCSD). These essays use materials from our project but develop their own arguments (including criticism of some things we did).

I hope that such a platform combining quantitative analysis, visualizations (which in our case include a custom interative app we created - http://selfiecity.net/#selfiexploratory) and critical texts offers an interesting example of how work in digital humanities can be presented.

After publication of selfiecity.net, I used the same model for our new project about use of Instagram during Maidan Revolution in February 2014:

http://the-everyday.net

This website also features guest essays written by other scholars, along with the text I developed around visualizations we created.

155

It is interesting that anxiety surrounding government registration of citizen images continues into “the Kim Kardashian era.” In 2013, a beauty blogger for the Glamour magazine “Lipstick” blog began a post on taking perfect selfies with the avowal, “Having just renewed two government-issued IDs, I have been harshly reminded of what NOT to do when being photographed: stare straight-on at the camera, do a weird half-smile. As a beauty blogger, I've mastered looking cute in selfies, but as evidenced on my license and passport, when I don't dig into my bag of photo-posing tricks, I look...intense. The experience traumatized inspired me to investigate further why some people look so amazing in photographs.”

Taking a government identification brought to the foreground the difference between “identity” as in “government-issued identity” and the self as projected in a “selfie” where one is free to choose head angle, hairstyle and facial expression. I know I shared this sense of loss of self/selfie-control when asked to awkwardly tuck my bangs behind my ears to reveal my forehead for a US visa photograph.

There was certainly an aspect of “trauma” to the original 1920s photogénie craze, too, as it collided head on with an order delivered by the Parisian chief of police for photographic identity cards to be issued for all citizens in September 1921 (until then, they were mandatory only for criminals, the homeless and nomadic communities). This administrative “forced choice” was an occasion for traumatised postwar Parisians to worry about how their faces would render on an official photograph. The French government ID cards recorded anthropometric data like eye colour, hair colour and nose size and shape. In the case for the Glamour beauty writer, the experience with government surveillance techniques caused her to reflect on make-up, head angle and eye aperture. In early 1920s Paris daily newspapers and film magazines encouraged individual women to take a ruler and angle-measurer to their own faces in a disturbing anthropometric study of the self in order to measure their “photogenic” qualities. See for example “The Nose in the Cinema” (La Presse, 11 February 1922), “The Photogenic Face” (Le Petit Parisien, 11 February 1922) and "Photogénie" (Ciné pour tous, 20 March 1920).

More recently the Selfiecity project collecting data on global selfies described the method in which researchers “ran automatic face analysis, supplying us with algorithmic estimations of eye, nose and mouth positions, the degrees of different emotional expressions.” Elizabeth Losh criticises this tendency towards biometrics in a essay available on the Selfiecity site. These two historical junctures share a convergence of technological transformations and state control mechanisms. The introduction of photo identity cards played a part in young Parisians engagement in a kind of auto-biometric analysis - measuring their own facial features and comparing them to data provided in newspapers and fan magazines to “authenticate” their photogénie. What similarities can we see with today’s practice of selfie-taking and new anxieties regarding state surveillance? When we take selfies and post them on social media we may not be trying trying to look good for the NSA, but surveillance surely has an effect on how we see ourselves. How can a historical approach to selfies allow us to see how issues of race and gender factor into ideas of perfect “photogenics”?  

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I'm so glad you brought up government-issued ID cards, Annie.  When my wife and I got our driver's licenses in Virginia, it was the first time we encoutnered the new regime of biometrics for photo-IDS. In addition to having to remove my glasses (something which I only do to sleep or shower, so it had this strange invasion of pirvacy/intimacy feel to it), I was told not to smile. Smiling for the camera, of course, is a learned convention, much like many of the conventions for selfies ("duck-face", the camera held above your head, the framing of a famous landmark/person in the background). My wife, cleverly got around the biometrics rule by smiling with her mouth closed.  

Now, thinking about this regime of surveillance in conjunction with selfies, I'm wondering if the selfie is a more widespread form of rebellion akin to my wife's "civil disobedience" in front of the government's cameras. If surveillance photos ask us to conform our facial features in order to be more easily measured and decoded by machine algorithms (software) and propose a system of universal and standardized measurements, than the variety of facial expressions, hand gestures, and camera angles present in selfies could be seen as an effort to become "immeasurable."

We might also think of this movement against surveillance and standardized metrics as a return to a more contingent regime of measuring the body. After all, it was once true that units of measure corresponded to the body of the monarch (the foot, etc.).  Are we seeing an attempt to return to this correspondence between an actual human body and metrics? That is, rather than having universal measures based on the speed of light in a vacuum (eg the length of a meter since 1983), selfies could be reframed as an attempt to return to more contingent (and relative) forms of measurement and comparison of the body.  

In this sense, the selfie is self-expression, against the kind of repression before the surveillance machine.  Thus, one could say, this passport photo (or driver's license) isn't me, this [selfie] is me. 

 

 

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 My take on selfies is that even though they are mostly used to capture moments or for teenagers to just take pictures of themselves, it has come to my attention after doing some research that selfies can also be a way to express oneself.  Many individuals use selfies as art, like many have posted above.  I believe selfies to be one of the keys to the future of art itself, bringing into the use of technology. Technology has become an everyday thing, according to Pew Research Center, about 90 percent of people have a cell phone and use devices like internet at least once a day. Using selfies as an art form incorporates technology into something that has been around for centuries. It will also make it more interesting to the future generations as more of us become used to technology as an everyday thing. Art has become boring to the current generation, picking up a brush and wiping paint on a canvas is too much work, where all you have to do for selfies is pick up your phone and snap a picture, creating an art piece. 

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Selfies have become a part of our generation, societys way of taking selfies has dramatically changed over time. Today it's more common for females to take selfies, where as if a male were to post one it's looked at differently and more uncommon.  Selfies are looked at as a way for people to express themselves through social media. They can be seen in both positive and negative ways. It can also be looked at as attention seeking or showing confidence.

Technology is constantly changing and advancing, there are different qualities of cameras. It has evolved from just a common camera, to using the built in camera on your phone. All smart phones are equipped with a front camera giving you the option to take a picture more conveniently. There are plenty of different apps that you can use to edit your "selfie", and enhance the quality of it. Selfies are a good way to express yourself but can also be abused in many ways.  

Emma McLaughlin (posting on behalf of Courtney Lautenbach, Lindsey Ehrhart, Ngoc Nguyen)

 

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Selfies function in terms of self repretation by being able to express emotion and feeling through facial expressions. Also, your you can change your wardrobe which would help represent thr different environments you might be in. For example, a selfie with a shirt and tie could represent something different compared to a selfie with a casual shirt on.

(Posting on behalf of Alex Shuart, Mark Zywiol, Troy McCmanus)

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Females take selfies to get attention on social media. We have phones now that have cameras on the phone just for selfies and we also have selfie sticks. Most of the time selfies can make someone feel better about themselves. Getting likes and comments from many people some they don't even know. Guys don't post selfies as much as girls do because they don't need the self-confidence. If guys do post selfies they most likely will not get as many likes as girls because they edit pictures to look better and get more likes.

(posting on behalf of Ryan, Patti, Zach and Zach)

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Why do you think it's more common for women to take selfies than men? What sort of structural and systemic frameworks make that possible? I'm thinking with John Berger and Laura Mulvey here.

the gaze — "John Berger observed that ‘according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome - men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’ (Berger 1972, 45, 47). Berger argues that in European art from the Renaissance onwards women were depicted as being ‘aware of being seen by a [male] spectator’ (ibid., 49)."
 

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This is an interesting thread. Thoughtful and thought-provoking.  There is such a long history of selfies--known as artist's self portaits.  I find it fascinating that the whole genre of the artistic self-portrait is associated with the invention of another technology:  the mirror.   

It's also fascinating that, in many cultures and at many times in history,  where there were extreme restrictions on what women were allowed to represent in art, it was often considered legitimate for them to represent themselves--another variation on selfies, and an interesting commentary on who is or is not allowed to address what subject, in what way, for what purpose, and for whose pleasure  (as the feminist artists above are alluding to in their parodic/erotic representations).

On a side note:  I also think it is obnoxious that the same pundits who accuse youth of being narcisstic for taking selfies don't seem to think middle-class parents who insist their kids sit for photographs are being egotistical.  I've never seen a critical article aimed at parents who photograph their posed and coiffed children, often against their desires, and then post them for the world to see.  A friend once said they were like 'deer heads,' meaning trophies for others to see.  It gives a different meaning to who is accusing whom of narcissism, and other questions of representation, power, and authority to which the selfie gives rise.

On the point about the kinds of selfies men take versus women:  I don't know if the generalization holds for selfies, but it certainly holds for every other kind of popular representation.   This is a very old feminist point, back from 1970s feminism:  all the "men's magazines" have women on the cover---and all the "women's magazines" have women on the cover too!  With such an obsessive attention to female appearance, how could selfies not represent differently?  

Here's an interesting experiment that two Australian newscasters did.  The male newscaster wore the same blue suit for a year, just changing the tie and shirt, and not one person noticed.  His female counterpart would get attacked for re-wearing a blouse she had worn weeks before.  Given the scrupulous of the observer, how could the self and the selfie not vary?  Our representations are cultural and historical.  Here's a link to the YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VU_xjIeSUqE

And check this out, a photography contest for self--portraits:   https://www.lensculture.com/portrait-awards-2015?utm_source=fb-cpc&utm_m...

 

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Your point about narcissism here is spot on. It is analogous to the claims that women who take their own image are narcissistic, but those who take images of women are hardly ever critiqued in their actions.

This reminds me of Terri Senft's keynote at AOIR12 (in Manchester) in which she speaks about narcissism and the notion of being called shameless "When critics rail against “shameless exhibitionism” on social media these days, I find myself confused. Besides sociopaths, is anyone actually shameless? People call me exhibitionist, but I’ve spent nearly every moment of my life negotiating with one form of shame or another." 

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This is pretty delightful--a reflection on the diverse reactions from posting a selfie at the request of your delighted students!  (I like the guy in the back; selfie's always hold their own parody within themselves and he made it a classic fun photo of "Kid Goofing Off Behind Teacher's Back"--but teacher was doing the selfie at the request of students and the "behind the back" was captured on camera and posted for all to see:  hilarious inversion of a trope common to just about any school room comedy).   Thanks for this!  You and your students are using the hastac.org site for some serious writing and thinking. 

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Selfies have taken the form of an activity to show off how you looked in the past, but their purpose has changed since then.  They now have a more show off meaning and have become a staple of social networking sites. It is more a girl thing than it is a guy thing in my opinion. I can't speak on the behalf of a girl on why they take selfies, but as a guy I don't take selfies and usually don't see other guys taking selfies unless it's in a group. Selfies have become a form of an expression and a good way to look back at yourself in that particular time nonetheless. In today's time, selfies have become a popular craze and it won't be long before that red squiggly line in Microsoft word will disappear and you will start to see that term in dictionaries.

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Because the subject is accessible to students, I decided to incorporate “See Me Like I Do” into the composition class in which my students will be doing public writing.  I asked students to read the essay before class and then, during class, students worked individually or in teams to draft comments inspired by the prompts included in the blog posting.

As students were working on their comments, someone suggested that I take a selfie; a suggestion that received wide support.  Although I am not a selfie type of person, I complied with their request.  With their permission, I told students that I would post the image in the comments section of “See Me Like I Do.”  I figured that all I would have to say was that I took a selfie during class.  And maybe that is all I would have commented had I not first posted the selfie in Facebook.

Little dog next to her house with a small Christmas tree beside it.Within minutes of posting the selfie, I had received several “Likes.”  Based on the number of likes I received within 15 hours of posting the selfie, this image became the most popular photograph I have ever posted on Facebook rivaled only by an image that I had posted last December of one of our little dogs next to her Christmas tree and casa. 

Why would the selfie be so popular?  My initial speculation includes several possibilities.  First, the selfie was not characteristic of what I post.  Not only is it the first selfie I have posted, but I rarely post any photographs of myself.  Second, in the words of some students, “girls post selfies, but guys don’t unless they are in a group.”  I’m a guy and this wasn’t a group selfie.  Third, a silly selfie does not quite fit my on-line and class persona which both have an air of formality. 

The comments were also enlightening.  Until two friends pointed it out, I didn’t realize that I was holding my breath when I took the selfie.  One former student commented that he thought he would never see the day that I would post a selfie.  Another former student described the moment as “awesome” and said he wished he could have been there.  Although a couple of people were charmed by the student with his hands up, one person commented about “The Yahoo in the back of the room had to make a fool of himself.” 

My perception of my selfie was not the perception that others brought to it.  It seemed perfectly in character for me to agree to a student request to take the selfie.  Also, the selfie was taken in a professional context and therefore was consistent with my on-line persona which tends to rarely include photographs of myself in a personal setting.  In fact, since 2009, I have only posted seven photographs of myself in Facebook that were not in a professional setting; two of which were photographs from when I was a child.  Yet friends and former students found my posting of the selfie to be something extraordinary.

Finally, there were the varied interpretations of the student raising his hands in the background.  Was his action appropriate or not?  For me the answer is clear because I would never post anything that showed a student being inappropriate.  But what is self evident to me is not self evident to others.  It is my selfie, but I don’t control the perception that others have of it.

From my perspective, posting the selfie in Facedbook was no different than other postings about an interesting class event that would garner at most a half dozen likes and one or two comments.  Yet there is a power in selfies that I had not considered.

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Selfies, overtime, have taken on mulitple different meanings and forms, some of these forms are known as belfies, which are also known as selfies of your butt. Selfies can be a description of how someones day is going, about their own self confidence, or new chapters in ones life. Selfies, as a whole, should not be considered "naked" pictures because  naked pictures imposse a certain set of feelings, when they are not limited to a set of feelings.

 

(Posted on behalf of Josh Pilarski, Brandon Gerwig, Jay Marshall, and Mario)

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The point of a selfie is for mood and expression.Based on the photo, you represent yourself on how it is taken. A man form of the selfie is the sexual content photo. To show that you have self care in your selfie is that you have nice clothes, showing that you have money to buy nice things. Even doing your hair can show you have hygiene and want to look presentable. By bringing this idea in the classroom, we can take polls and get comments based on the persons selfie. By doing this we enhance participation by talking about something students can relate too. 

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Posted for Darren Brown and Mark Mika

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I'm interested in the selfie as a reaction to travel and seeing new places, especially as it relates to study abroad (in the educational context). I recently co-led a university group on a one-month excursion in Europe, and one student became obsessed with taking selfies in different important sites, cultural contexts, or fun group situations. He even tried to include all members of our group in the background of each selfie. At times, it seemed superficial and annoying, yet when I look back on the series of pictures taken, it provides a good record of some of the more important places we saw, and (perhaps more importantly) provides an index of student reactions to those situations (for example, skepticism with a new food).

Does the selfie have a place in multicultural education and travel? Are there any dangers in placing the focus on egocentric reactions? ("I was there!"). Could research into selfie usage in the target culture mitigate some of these effects and create cross-cultural dialogue?

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