“Selfie Scholar” on how pictures we take define our online presence

Katrin Tiidenberg.
Katrin Tiidenberg.
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Every day, millions of selfies are uploaded to Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. In her new book, author and academic Kat Tiidenberg tries to understand why

One afternoon, on the first days of December 2017, when my book about selfie culture was practically done, I decided to ask my then eight year old son what selfies are.

“Well,” he said: “selfies are when you take a picture with your phone. Like you turn the camera around, and you look at yourself, like with Snapchat, and you take a picture.”

He stretches out his arm, mimes the gesture. He then presses his cheek to mine and takes a pretend selfie. From the corner of my eye, I catch him pulling a face, but can’t really tell what the expression is.

“Do you have to make a face to take a selfie?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says, like it’s obvious. “You can do this,” he says and winks, raises his hand and spreads his fingers into a victory V that grazes his cheekbone; “or this,” he pouts his lips into a kiss; “or this” he says, sticking out his butt.

I watch with wide eyes. I am pretty sure I have never seen him do any of the things. I know I do the kissy-face when I take pictures with my sister, my mom, probably him too. But the butt thing?! That is not me, I swear!

Cracking up as well as uneasy, I press on: “so, who do you think likes taking selfies?”

“Girls, when they have pretty dresses on,” he says.

“I see,” I say, trying to keep at bay the creeping disappointment at the apparent tentacles of everyday sexism clutching my kid: “but boys, can boys take selfies too?” I brace for the response.

“Oh, yeah,” he says. Easy as pie. Obvious for him.

Mom-proud and pleased, I keep asking questions. After all, this is an eight year old. Any time now, he’ll be done with this conversation. So I ask: “what about old people?”

“Well,” he says, scratching his head: “some old people can take selfies, but other old people, if they’re very old, like if they are over 70, then they sometimes say they are too old for this.” He thinks for a moment, and adds: “but they could actually take selfies.”

I nod.

“What are selfies even for?” I ask.

“Well, they’re like your family pictures, or you can take a selfie with your friend, or with the person you want to kiss.”

“Huh …” I think. So for him, selfies seem to presume other people and warm feelings.

“OK, one more question,” I promise: “why do you think people take selfies?”

“To get likes.” A lightning quick answer.

I blink.

He adds, cheerfully: “People take selfies, so they can be the Master of Likes, and get lots of subscribers.”

Master of Likes. I blink some more.

“Uh … and … what do you need the likes and the subscribers for?” I ask, totally forgetting that I said the previous question would be my last. I just can’t stop now.

“To be rich, and become a famous star,” he says.

So much for the warm and fuzzy feelings.

“And do you think everyone wants that?” I carefully prompt.

He looks pensive: “well no,” he acquiesces: “some do, but some don’t.”

“So why do the people who don’t want to be rich and famous take selfies?”

“To show their parents, it makes their parents very happy.” I can’t really fault this logic. Seeing his face does make me very happy. I know my mom appreciates our selfies.

“I see,” I say: “have you taken any selfies?”

“Oh, I’ve taken loads of selfies, like this sandwich I made last spring that we uploaded to Instagram.”

Wait a minute …

“A picture of a sandwich is a selfie too?” I ask.

He looks confused again. “No,” he says, uncertain. “I haven’t taken any selfies,” he finally says, and leaves to build a new spaceship for his Lego men.

He has taken selfies, I sometimes let him play with Snapchat lenses on my phone. I’ve seen him pulling faces at the iPad. Not to mention that I take selfies of the two of us all the time. At airports, on planes, eating ice cream. Our family is scattered across many countries, it’s what we do to remind each other we’re still fine, still kickin’, still smiling. But his explanation is fascinating for me, and not just because I am his mom and find a lot of what he says cute. It is fascinating in its interplay of certainty and confusion, of the way the definition and boundaries of what counts as a selfie stretched the more we discussed it. It’s fascinating because of the broad range of why selfies matter, which could, at first glance, seem incompatible. From family and togetherness to a Master of Likes in a blink of an eye. It’s fascinating because it reflects the richness of research findings about the phenomenon.

This is why I wrote Selfies: Why We Love (and Hate) Them. Everyone knows what selfies are, kind of. Many of you have taken them, or refuse to take them. You might have strong opinions on them. Every day, Facebook users upload 350 million photos; Instagrammers share 95 million photos, and there are three billion Snapchat snaps. Not all of those are selfies, but selfies have come to be seen as the bane and boon of internet-mediated visual culture. Yet, as I am sure many of you have noticed, selfies pose a conundrum of sorts.

On the one hand, they are continually and passionately discussed in popular media. People take many selfies. Studies measuring engagement have shown that posts containing images generate more attention (likes, comments) than text- or link-only posts, and that selfies generate more attention than other image posts. It makes sense. We, humans, have a long history of communicating visually, and being enchanted with (our own) faces. Pictographs and ideographs preceded written communication; we’ve been scratching marks into available surfaces for a very long time.

On the other hand, selfies are persistently framed as unworthy of all of this attention. Angry rants pop up in our newsfeeds. They claim that selfies are a sign of a pathological self-obsession or narcissism, that they lack artistic merit, and are the reason for why people behave in dangerously stupid ways. These are mighty judgements for something as simple as a snapshot of one’s face.

For internet scholars, selfies are a networked communication practice enacted by various groups on different platforms. This means that selfie sharing is similar to many other things we do on social media. Setting up a profile on Facebook, opening a Tinder account, even playing Pokémon Go. Selfies, like those other things we do online, are about experiencing and expressing ourselves; about building and maintaining relationships. Existing research, including my own, defines selfies not only as photos we take of ourselves with an extended hand, or in a mirroring surface, and share on social media, but as: expressive acts; cultural practices; gestures; means for communicating and understanding ourselves; tools for experiencing our bodies, or gaining visibility for political means and much more.

I’ve been studying selfies for seven years, but I didn’t start off as a ‘selfie scholar’. Rather, I was interested in how identity and community are constructed on social media. Selfies kind of … abducted me. Once I started exploring selfies, I found I was steered away, kidnapped by surprising facts and led down rabbit holes where things became intriguing.

And whether we take 
selfies or not, like or despise them, they certainly are intriguing.

Selfies: Why We Love (and Hate) Them by Katrin Tiidenberg is published by Emerald Books, £16.99