The Psychology of the Selfie
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The Psychology of the Selfie

What the Research Says

Barrie Gunter

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eBook - ePub

The Psychology of the Selfie

What the Research Says

Barrie Gunter

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About This Book

The Psychology of the Selfie provides a comprehensive overview and analysis of research on the significance of selfies, offering insights into the topic from a psychological perspective and examining important issues such as body image, self-objectification, mental health and psychological benefits.

Selfies are a worldwide phenomenon. Although dismissed by critics as a sign of self-absorbed narcissism, they are also a social currency that maintains and reinforces friendships, a feedback loop for self-identity affirmation, a promotional tool for gaining social influence, and a method for preserving memories of life events. In this book, Barrie Gunter expertly explores the psychological underpinnings of the contemporary global phenomenon of "selfies", from the historical roots and meteoric rise due to technical advancements, to the different personality types of selfie-takers, to social relationships, to group and personal identity. Looking at both the psychological nature and impact of selfies, this book reviews different psychological outcomes for selfie-takers, both positive and negative, and the growth in psychological and physical problems that can sometimes arise.

Presenting a comprehensive analysis specifically of selfie behaviour, this book is an essential reference for students and researchers in communications and media, journalism, information studies, psychology and sociology, as well as anyone with a general interest in the phenomenon.

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1 The selfie phenomenon

DOI: 10.4324/9781003176190-1
In 2013 “selfie” was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. For some commentators, the word itself was a testament to the burgeoning “me” generation. That year, the Dictionary’s editors noted a 17,000% increase in the use of the word. Within the single month of July, Instagram received 90 million image posts with the hashtag #me. On another site, Tumblr, that had, with Instagram, been a core player in promoting the “selfie”, the self-absorbed preoccupations of selfie-takers were seen to have no bounds with self-portraits being uploaded even by individuals at funerals (Freedland, 2013). Selfie behaviour had the appealing quality for users that it could generate timely and positive, esteem-enhancing feedback from friends and others (Frosh, 2015).
As we will see, the “selfie” can be defined in different ways. There is a raw technical description of it as the taking of a photograph of oneself generally using a smartphone with a front-facing camera, usually with most of the focus placed on the photographer’s face. As an output it can be judged aesthetically as an art form taking into account the way the shot is taken and where it is staged. There is a performance aspect to it whereby the selfie-taker adopts specific facial expression and bodily postural poses designed to convey emotion or to create a particular impression or reaction in observers who in a sense become an “audience” (Frosh, 2015).
There is also a social dimension whereby these images may be designed to convey specific meaningful messages to family members and friends or to extend the photographer’s social network or to confirm friendships and relationships when images are produced with others also in shot. There is a private aspect to selfies and a public aspect to them. Privately they could be images designed to convey impressions that have meaning only to others who know the selfie-taker. They could also represent a method for reaching out to others, including strangers, as a kind of broadcast message to the world about the selfie-taker, their existence and their character (Eler, 2017). There are also debates and advisories (often for parents) concerning risks associated with selfie behaviour, which generally form part of wider concerns about young people’s involvement with social media sites (Maguire, 2018).
Despite its association with the online world – itself underpinned by relatively recent technological developments – the phenomenon of taking photographs or making images of oneself has a much longer and varied history. The definition of the “selfie” within the Oxford English Dictionary encourages us to conflate the artistic act of taking a photograph of oneself with the observation that this is usually done with a smartphone or webcam and then usually shared with others via social media sites.
There is plenty of evidence that social media sites have become central hubs through which many of the younger generation orchestrate their social lives (Biolcati & Cani, 2015; Biolcati, Cani & Badio, 2013; Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). These virtual environments have extended their users’ everyday social realities and provided alternatives to the physical world for those whose real-world experiences and relationships fail to provide support or fulfilment. Within these online settings, the sharing of images has become the prominent mode of communication, especially among young users in their teens and 20s.
Historically, as we will see, a preoccupation with our own faces and bodies and with producing self-portraits has been traced back to earlier art forms than photography. Many great artists over hundreds of years have produced painted self-portraits. The selfie was therefore conceived as a technological descendant of an artistic practice with a much longer history (Murray, 2015). Some commentators, however, have argued that selfies represent much more than a technological repurposing of a long-established artistic practice. In painted self-portraits, artists stage both the self-image and background, whereas in photographic selfies, especially when taken with a mirror, the subject places more focus on separating themselves from the background (Wendt, 2014; Frosh, 2015).
Certainly, the emergence of photographic self-portraiture was driven by the release of early handheld cameras, such as the Kodak Brownie, that created a market of amateur photographers taking snaps of themselves and their families for biographical family albums (Tifentale, 2015).
The rapid growth of the Internet and World Wide Web created an infrastructure for the creation of electronic family albums and for the easy and cheap distribution of self-portraits on a mass scale (Cep, 2013). The acceleration of photographic development processing and dramatic reduction of time lag between taking and distributing photographs meant that anyone could become a published photographer and pursue photography as an art form without training and exhibit without passing the advance judgement and selection of others (Wortham, 2013).
Photographic self-portraiture has become de rigeur for many social media users. These images of self or self with others entered English vernacular as “selfies”. Within a few years, hundreds of billions of these images were being posted every year with tens of millions being uploaded each day (Zigterman, 2013; Brandt, 2014). At the same time, this behaviour has triggered many public concerns about its psychological impact on senders and receivers of these images (Smith, 2013).
“Selfies” are photographs people take of themselves without the assistance of anyone else. They might feature just the individual on their own or of themselves with others against a blank or indecipherable background or against a familiar or recognisable background. According to Oxford Dictionaries (2013) a selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smart phone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” This is the contemporary definition of a burgeoning social phenomenon that has accompanied the rapid emergence and spread of mobile digital technologies, but it can be traced backed much further to the earliest years of photography and even further back to pre-technology eras when artists painted self-portraits.
There is no doubt that technology developments have catalysed the rise of the selfie as a social phenomenon, and not least the rapid evolution of mobile telephony and social media sites that serve as online photograph albums. The technology, however, provides the means for taking these pictures and a site on which to present them. Fundamentally, the “selfie” is a form of photography and, as such, might also be seen as an art form. Given that its subject matter is the photographer, it is not surprising that, historically, the genesis of this activity, as noted earlier, has been traced back to painted self-portraiture (Frosh, 2015). Whereas selfies grew out of “snapshots” taken by pre-digital handheld cameras, they were different. Snapshots of “self” were often taken by others. Selfies are taken by the individual without help from others. The combination then of self-portraiture with interpersonal communication via social media sites gave selfies a new dynamic. Analogue snapshots were static historical records of activities in which an individual engaged, whereas selfies provide an instant update or live feed concerning what an individual has just been up to (Rawlings, 2013).

How did it all start? History of the selfie

The rise of the “selfie” in the 21st century was undoubtedly driven by the emergence of the smartphone with forward-facing camera and the “selfie stick” that enables the camera to be held well away from the picture-taker. The popularity of social media sites, and the rise in fashion of the use of images over text to tell life stories, provided repositories with almost limitless capacity for the storage of photographic archives. Selfie-taking was also popularised by celebrities, many becoming serial uploaders of self-portraits. The word “selfie” was even formalised as part of everyday vocabulary once included in the Oxford English Dictionary (Coulthard, 2013).
As noted, the selfie has been conceived by some commentators as a modern photographic version of a self-portrait produced with a smartphone camera. As such, perhaps it can also be considered as an artform (Frosh, 2015). Yet, this claim might be overplaying its aesthetic, cultural value. As we will see, there is much evidence to show that this branch of everyday photography usually comprises casual snapshots taken spontaneously by amateur photographers who use this as an interpersonal communication device to keep in touch with family and friends (Gunthert, 2014; Senft & Baym, 2015; Weiser, 2015). It therefore represents an activity that has a social purpose just as much as an aesthetic one, and perhaps the social aspect is key (Batchen, 2008; Frosh, 2015).
The photo is taken by a device that has links to electronic networks through which, if the picture-taker wishes, it can be rapidly distributed to a mass audience online. The 21st century phenomenon has been popularised by celebrities and well-known public figures. Yet, the creation of portraits dates back to ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Publicly displayed self-images in the forms of works of art – that is, paintings and sketches – can be tracked back to some of the best-known art history figures who took a special interest in their own appearance and used self-portraits as a visual record of how they looked at different periods in their lives (Rettberg, 2014).
During the Middle Ages well-known artists of the day frequently painted themselves. Some of the most famous artists from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries produced self-portraits. Rembrandt is believed to have produced nearly 100 self-portraits, including paintings, etchings and drawings. Van Gogh was not as prolific, but still managed to paint around 30 self-portraits (ArtRepublic, 2014).
Rembrandt van Rijn is celebrated as one of the greatest artists, but may have a special distinction that resonates acutely with a highly prominent 21st century phenomenon – the selfie. Rembrandt exhibited a fascination with self-portraits and painted more of them than any other artist. This fascination extended throughout his life and his works left a legacy of portraits that revealed him ageing. He produced around 80 paintings, drawings and prints of himself in his career. Early works presented his appearance as a young man where he appeared to experiment with a range of facial expressions. We then enter a period in his middle age where Rembrandt is depicted wearing expensive clothes and displaying a more dignified air. Then after a period with little self-portraiture we enter a period in his older life when he displayed himself in a more simplistic, even austere, fashion devoid of trappings of wealth (Sooke, 2014).
The first photographic self-portrait is believed to have been taken by Robert Cornelius in October 1839. It is unclear, however, whether this was a genuine selfie or whether it was actually taken by someone else (Coulthard, 2013; Newhall, 1982). Some history of photography experts believed that the first photographic “selfies” were not ...

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