Did you see SELFEED yet? It’s an art project by Tyler Madsen, Erik Carter, & Jillian Mayer, that quite simply displays a live feed of the recently posted photos tagged #selfie that are posted to Instagram. Here’s an animated gif showing a random selection of just a few of the selfies that came up when I watched it this afternoon:
My first thought on seeing it was that the images are much more different from each other than the images in Manovich’s Selficity.net project. Here are some of the Selfiecity images:
On checking Selfiecity’s methodology, of course I remembered that they deliberately only looked at single person selfies:
We randomly selected 120,000 photos (20,000-30,000 photos per city) from a total of 656’000 images we collected on Instagram. 2-4 Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workers tagged each photo. For these, we asked Mechanical Turk workers the simple question “Does this photo shows a single selfie”?
We then selected top 1000 photos for each city (i.e., photos which at least 2 workers tagged as a single person selfie).
You can say a lot about the methodology of this kind of research, and especially the biometric analysis that follows (Terri Senft called it a kind of phrenology ;), but obviously if you’re trying to understand selfies and eliminate any images that show anything but a single person you’re ruling out a lot of images. The self-described selfies that the Instagram #selfie tag shows are an interesting counterpoint.
So what is a selfie? Is it what the person taking the photo says it is in the hashtag, or is it what Selfiecity – and, I think, mainstream media – say it is?
I’ve been collecting reasons people say they take selfies, much as I’ve previously collected blog posts about why people blog. Of course, there are hundreds of media articles about why people take selfies, many derogatory – instead I wanted to read what selfie-takers themselves write. It’s a potentially skewed methodology because most people who write about why they take selfies (especially in a society where selfies are so often mocked) are writing justifications and defenses. To hear from people who take selfies despite not really feeling good about taking selfies I would need a different method than searching google (interviews, perhaps), but given how poorly represented the justifications and defenses of taking selfies are reported in mainstream media I think it’s valuable to really look at them.
So many people taking selfies argue that they are able to see and believe in their own beauty due to taking photos of themselves. The beauty blogger Elle Sees writes movingly about how she has received comments about her nose making her ugly since she was in fifth grade (and even as an adult), and it was only after taking selfies for her blog for a few months that she has felt comfortable with her appearance. She writes:
You must be conceited if you post them, right? I lose followers whenever I post a pic of myself. But I don’t see it as conceited when I post them. I see it as a victory. (Elle Sees, “On Why I Take Selfies, and 3 More Beauty Things I’m Not Apologizing For“, Jan 15, 2014.)
This is almost exactly the same rationale given by Woman Verging in her Tumblr post “Why I Take Selfies (and why you can f-cm yourself).
Elle Sees clearly manipulates her selfies, both by intentionally blurring or adding filters, and by using carefully planned makeup specifically for photos. Amy Palko writes in more detail about how manipulating her selfies is important in her selfie-taking practice. It gives her distance, she writes:
I started taking selfies last year. I wasn’t really sure why at the time. It started as a daily practice. A way of exploring self-image, something that I, like almost every other person I know, have a complicated relationship with. Using Pixlr, I began adding layers, textures, colours and frames. It gave me distance. I was no longer playing with a self-portrait. I was playing with line and form. I found that I could appreciate the finished creation in a way that I couldn’t always do when I looked at the image reflected back to me in the mirror. (Amy Palko, “Why I Take Selfies“, Feb 14, 2013)
Palko also separates her reasons for taking a selfie from her reasons for sharing them:
And yes, I totally get that some might look at the practice of creating selfies and assume that I’m completely self-absorbed, and that by sharing them I’m looking for some kind of validation. But that’s not it. That would be to miss the point altogether. When I share the selfies, it shifts from a practice of self-discovery to a practice of vulnerability. I often feel incredibly tender when I share a selfie. It’s not easy to share these images. It wasn’t when I started. And it’s still not now.
So why do I take selfies? I take them to heighten my own self-awareness and to discovery new sides of myself.
Why do I share them? To create breathing space in the experience of vulnerability. And to give you permission, should it be needed, to start a similar practice. ((Amy Palko, “Why I Take Selfies“, Feb 14, 2013)
Finding self-acceptance is a commonly expressed reason for taking selfies, and there are a number of online courses that emphasize selfies as a method for self-improvement and self-acceptance. Palko, cited above, offers coaching and business guidance. Stephanie Gagos is a life coach, and emphasizes similar reasons behind her own self-portrait practice:
It’s not about vanity, or being conceited. One might think that if you look at my Instagram feed as I post many of them there.
It is about witnessing my own beauty, understanding who I am beyond the face, growing more and more in love with who I am as I age, learning to work with what I have and seeing beyond the flawed and broken human being I’ve always thought myself to be.
It is an act of coming home and reclaiming my SELF. (Stephanie Gagos, “Why Selfies Heal“, Oct 30, 2013)
Self-discovery and self-acceptance certainly aren’t the only reason to take selfies. Jenelle Dufva writes that she takes selfies for entertainment or because she’s bored, but mostly for memories:
I take selfies because I think it’s entertaining. I take selfies because I like to write stupid captions underneath my photos on Instagram. I take selfies on days when I feel like I look really nice and maybe I want other people to see how cool my eyebrows look. I take selfies because I get bored when I’m alone all the time. But mostly, I take selfies for memories and I think that’s something that really gets me about people hating on selfies all the time. My opponents reading this are probably like, “What? You like to remember how your own face looked on a certain day?” And my answer to you is yes, opponent. Sometimes my lipstick looks nice and I want to remember that. Me taking a photo of my face is not a political statement (it can be though – I’ll get to that later), it’s a simple photo that I wanted to put on the internet for that reason, and for that reason alone – because I wanted to. And that should be okay because it isn’t up to anyone else to decide what I put on the internet. It’s my decision. (..) If you don’t wanna selfie, you don’t gotta selfie. But don’t judge people that do because it’s just a fucking PHOTO and it’s not your life. (Jenelle Dufva, “Whatever: A Short Analysis of the Selfie“, Jan 29, 2014)
Boredom is also one of Jessica Isme Yoga’s key reasons for taking selfies, and she also notes that selfies of herself with her dog have become important to her after the dog came into her life, and she imagines that parents feel the same urge to have photos of themselves with their children.
Remembering a moment is obviously also an important, whether it’s a moment with a friend, lover, pet or child; a moment where you’re happy with the way you look or your new hat or hairdo; or a moment in a place you want to remember or doing something you want to remember. Tracy Antonioli, who blogs at The Suitcase Scholar, decided to summarize her year of travels by posting a selfie for each month, and explains:
I take selfies not because I think I’m beautiful (I’m not, as I will prove more than a dozen times below), but because I often find myself in beautiful locations and I want to capture a moment of my own joy in said beautiful location. Thus, my selfies are often (nay, only) taken in places that I love. (The Suitcase Scholar, “Travels in 2013: The Year of the Selfie“, Dec 28, 2013)
The personal and the political can certainly mix in selfies, whether through campaigns where people share political messages by posting a selfie with a certain gesture, hashtag or poster (a visual petition – selfies are today’s signatures) or as a personal act of affirmation or rejection. “stavvers”, who blogs at Another angry woman explains that she has been photographed against her will, by a male abuser and by the police, who she says use photographing suspects as a means of power, and she relishes the selfie because she is in absolute charge herself:
I suppose I started taking selfies when I realised there were some things that words couldn’t articulate well, and what I needed to say was best said with my face and body. When putting a webcam or a front-facing camera in front of me, I can see exactly what I look like, and make sure, before taking the snap that I look how I want to look and I am communicating what I want to communicate.
And that’s why I take selfies. Because it’s me presenting myself to the world in the way I want to be presented.
The self-acceptance that Elle Sees and Amy Palko write about in the quotes in the beginning of this post becomes far more explicitly political in the #feministselfies movement that developed in response to Erin Gloria Ryan’s firmly anti-selfie article in Jezebel last November, where she sees selfies as “a reflection of the warped way we teach girls to see themselves as decorative.” (“Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help.”)
When you take, and post, a selfie you are actually doing something radical, you are saying I like myself enough to let others see me. Imagine the entire industries that would vanish overnight if women started liking themsves? It would change the nature of advertising, and close the Daily Mail! Jemima2013, “Rebecca, Celebrity, and Selfies“, Nov 22, 2013.
For people who are not white, thin and young, the abundance of selfies also quite simply allows us to see more images of a far wide range of people.
Because, as Jemima2013 writes, selfies show that “‘ordinary’ looking women are worth photographing and looking at.” And you can look “ordinary” in many, many, many different ways.
I kept writing and reading instead of doing the more DH-specific data visualization I was intending to do. But it’s so interesting! I’m writing about filters, you know, Instagram style filters, but I’m extending the notion of filter by seeing technological and cultural filters as basically the same thing. I talk a bit about that in the presentation I did a couple of weeks ago, and am working on writing that out properly so it makes sense.
But one example of how cultural and technological filters mix is the skin-tone bias in photography, especially 20th century photography, although today’s digital cameras aren’t perfect either. Early photographic colour film was designed to show white people’s skin in detail, but did a terrible job of representing a person with darker skin – especially when people with very different skin tones were in the same image. There were complaints from parents – for instance at poorly lit children with darker skin in diverse school groups – from the 1950s on, but it wasn’t until the 70s that Kodak actually did anything about the problem, and then only because companies wanting to sell dark woods and chocolates wanted film that would show the detail better.
Lorna Roth, who wrote an interesting article about this history (“Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity“, 2009), notes that an important reason there were no real campaigns for film producers to create film that did a better job of representing darker skin tones was our general assumption that technology and science are objective – we thought photographs just were that way. But “[h]ad NASA, the U.S. intelligence service, or meteorological scientists already completed their research on photography of low-light areas at the time of the popular development of still photography, the evolution of film chemistry might have unfolded quite differently,” and it could certainly have changed once those developments were in place.
Sylveeta McFadden’s article in Buzzfeed, “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin“, is a very interesting personal take on this. And the comments on the Jezebel article about the same topic are wonderful explanations of how disgust at how badly conventional photography represents darker skin is a pretty common motivation for taking selfies:
Her piece is beautiful and I struggle with this thought ALL the time. Growing up all of my girlfriends (and immediate female relatives) were white. I would watch them effortlessly take a photo or get their photo taken and in return get an image that looked just like them. I never really felt that way. I still don’t – unless I take my own photo. And people call it vanity but really I just want to be able to see myself in a picture. I don’t see myself in other people’s photos, I just don’t.
Ive alwaaays felt this way too. Some people laugh at me for wanting to take selfies rather than have someone take the photo but I’ve always felt kind of shitty pre smartphone era when the photos would come back developed and I just woudnt look like me. I think there is a features proportions issue as well as skin colour issue. – Ive felt like its not just me but other black people I see in photos too .
McFadden writes the same thing at Buzzfeed:
I couldn’t help but feel that what that photographer saw was so wildly different from how I saw myself. Is that how you see me? Could you not see blackness? Its varying tones and textures? And do you see all of us that way? (..) I started taking pictures to self protect. I just couldn’t bear seeing anymore shitty pictures of me. I didn’t want know what I wanted these images to say, but I knew I could make something beautiful.
I’m going to be using this case in talking with students about how technological determinism, cultural co-construction and how technology encodes cultural biases, that’s for sure.
I’m a PI on an exciting. grant application led by Raine Koskimaa which would offer a training network for 15 PhD candidates in Transmedia studies, and it’s due tomorrow so I’m supposed to log into the EU submission site and add my stuff – but of course the login didn’t work the first time. I do feel like a lot of my day goes in this kind of failed logins and forms.
It’s the 2014 Day of Digital Humanities, and digital humanists around the globe are writing about how they spend their day. I made a blog for it at Day of DH 2014, and of course I’ll cross post here too.
First item of the day: picking up my J1 scholar visa form which needed a travel validation signature so I can leave the US to go to Canada (to Jeremy Hunsinger‘s university, Laurier) on Thursday to give a talk with Scott on our visualizations of the ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base. I suppose I don’t need the signature to leave the country, but I certainly will for them to let me back in.
Getting signatures on forms isn’t digital humanities, just one of the not very exciting admin tasks that all scholars have to attend it. And that reminds you that your presence in a country is potentially precarious. I actually had to have Steve Jones, the lovely head of the Communications Department, sign a different form approving my going to Canada as relevant to my research so I could get this signature on the form I need to keep with my passport. Luckily Steve let me go, with a laugh and raised eyebrows at the government requiring his giving me permission. Nothing like a little governmental paternalism.
I’m writing a book this semester about how we see ourselves through technology, and today I presented the project to the Communications Department here at UIC, where I’m a visiting scholar this semester.
Of course I forgot to press the record button on my phone, so don’t have the audio track, but the talk was recorded on video so at some point it will be online, I’m promised. Here are the slides.
Slideshare apparently no longer displays speaker notes, which makes the slideshow rather useless unless you already know what I intended to say about each image. Here’s the same slideshow on Google Drive – if you follow the link and click the little “settings” cogwheel at the bottom right you can open speaker notes and read a short version of what I said.
I’ve structured my book project around three modes of self-representation that I argue are important in our culture right now: textual, visual and quantitative. During the presentation of this talk to the communications department at UIC, someone asked about musical self-representation, and what about dance? There are probably other modes of self-representation I could look at, though I think these three are the most important online at the moment. Certainly curation should be seen as a fourth mode of self-representation. Steve Jones noted that Will Straw had written interesting things about self-curation in relation to record collections. Certainly Pinterest and Tumblr and various other media set curation as key.
I’m going to present my research on digitally mediated self-representation here at UIC’s Department of Communications on Wednesday March 12 at noon. If you’re in Chicago, please come! It’s in room 1169 in the Behavioral Sciences Building, the one that looks a bit like a spaceship.