Dr. Mariann Hardey

Digitally on.

Speaker, Writer, Academic.

Durham University Lecturer.

I do stuff for the BBC.

Feminist & lovely.

Slanguage of social media

Holy insta-Pope

March 2016

1839, American photographer Robert Cornelius captured his self-image on light sensitive film, now exhibited at the American Treasures of the Library of Congress as the earliest extant American portrait photo.

Today's selfie embodies a range of cultural values from individualism and narcissism to empowerment and self-improvement and involve an unprecedented rise in self-portraiture specifically designed for sharing. According to reports in the technology industry, 1 million selfies are taken on a daily basis. In the US, 55% of millennials (ages 18 to 33) have uploaded a selfie to social media, 26% of the general population state they have shared selfies (all statistics from Pew's internet life findings, 2014).

It is with some confidence we can state that selfies have become vehicles for celebrity branding, fundraising and consumer awareness campaigns, subject to regulation ( selfie-free zones ) and social media shaming.

Despite this rapid emergence and spread of a novel cultural form, the significance of the selfie has been largely absent for depth analysis. Social media occupy a significant and recurring role in the conceptualisations of consumer behaviour, marketing and sociality for the digital age, but dominant approaches to the subject are often limited by snapshot glimpses into everyday life. From 11.00am GMT today many press (including by moi a (very) brief report on Pope Francis's Insta-presence broadcast on BBCRadio4's Today Programme - Listen Again).

As @Franciscus, he is in deep in prayer, present in spiritual context and dripping in contemporary cultural substance, with not one hint of a selfie stick. God Bless.

This blog post asks how and in what ways the selfie has merged within the practices of long-term users of social media? Selfies, as discussed, are: (1) images of the self captured by a smart handheld device, (2) composed by and potentially subject to modification by the producer (e.g., filters, frames, colour saturation, crop); (3) intended to be distributed ( shared ) across social media/networking platforms for consumption by others. [we might mention a (4th) as symbolic, almost religious, in value.

My academic take is that selfies emerge through and take on, different meanings as a consequence of a user s interest and investment in their social world. And it is easy to focus on several examples of how selfies have been characterised and experienced.

The Top 5 (with the most followers) and, thus, 'most popular' Instagram accounts at the close of 2015 included (nrankings, see footnote):

5. Ariana Grande: 44.6 million followers

4. Selena Gomez: 45.9 million followers

3. Beyonce: 47.2 million followers

2. Kim Kardashian: 48.1 million followers

1. Taylor Swift: 49.6 million followers

Notice anything?... All women. And all 'branded' or rather as a brand, merging PR and marketings own continued consumer existence along with a distinct culture of materialism about modern life. Thus, the selfie is no mere token in networks of consumer relations, but rather it's cultivation is heavily tokenistic.

The main argument would be to point firmly at the key shift from the image of the self to the image of taking the image of the self. At the outset, it is important to ask what is new about the selfie?

Recent research has shown how selfies exemplify several changes in digital consumption and the role of visual production and consumption in self-presentation and impression management. And even Pope-ish behaviour.† An important (the most important?) aspect of selfie aesthetics is the extent to which images such as selfies are routinely altered.

The current prevalence of altered photography is part of a broader makeover culture and carefully†caricatured image in the developed world. Photoshop and similar editing tools, allow the ability to crop, to remove blemishes, lighten and darken the skin, and so on, to position the selfie at the conjunction of immediacy and alterability. This dynamic between the everyday and the doctored self is one that ordinary users actively negotiate.

It is important to note the differences in platforms here; consumers are engaged in arguably very different modes of self-presentation on Facebook, Flickr, Instagram and Twitter. The insta-self has a set of visual expectations with nostalgic and retro filters built into the app, shaping the possible aesthetics of how people display themselves. And it is significant that celebrities, who have been influential in making selfies such a significant and recognisable aesthetic form, use Instagram routinely as a key element in their personal brand. Selfie aesthetics (and what they can reveal about ordinary users) depend upon conjunctions of technology, practice and identity management.

I would caution that far from being 'open', selfies are often closed constructs that make it difficult to understand what people are doing, why they are doing it, or what it means to them. The viewer has no real sense from such visual data what the motivations behind self-presentation might be, or how structural factors might be shaping patterns of activity. Most importantly, there is a basic question of meaning to be applied to such visual data.

The contexts of meaning, understanding and practice cannot be read from selfies or any other form of visual. While photographs have always been inter-textual, the relatively fluid digitization of that inter- texuality (tags, comments, annotations, filters and so on) presents us with new challenges. And prayer.

To end this post, our (growing) knowledge that users are acutely aware of their images of self suggests that the digital world is entering a renewed period of heightened reflection, exposure, openness and negotiation of variously permeable boundaries. The contextual materiality of selfies s existence and significance, moreover, has made the need for reflexive engagement with its potential effect and individual affect all the more important.

πRankings taken from Tech Insider, December 2015: The Most Followers in the World.