In an effort to uncover more layers of meaning in people’s selfie-taking practices, Sophia, Alexandra and myself searched #selfie on Instagram to explore the types of shots that people categorize under the term.
Selfie-taking is worth critically exploring because it has become such a pervasive practice. While there are more than 224 million photographs categorized under #selfie on Instagram, there are millions more under slight variations on this hashtag, such as: #selfies (14 million), # selfietime (3 million), #selfienation (3 million), #selfiee (800,000), and #me (327 million).
Because these numbers are so astronomical, the selfie becomes a worthy topic of study for approaching a wide range of sociological questions. Our own exploration of the #selfie revealed several patterns:
- Setting: Every day, all day is a good time for a selfie (in contrast with other genres of photography)
The mundane shots categorized under #selfie make it clear that no special occasion is required to take a photo of yourself. Many people justify their selfie-taking and sharing by co-tagging #bored. Other popular selfie-related hashtags include: #selfiesunday, #selfiemonday, #selfietuesday, etc. These trends exemplify how transformations in photographic technology and social networking have created affordances for autobiographical photographic documentation. While older photographic forms required a special occasion to justify the costs of capturing a photo, modern photographic tools (front-facing cameras and the ability to delete failed selfies, for instance) reduce many barriers that previously existed.
- Content: Baring all of your self as a common theme
A common type of selfie focuses almost exclusively on the (usually female) body. Some types of shots categorized under this type include #ootd (outfit of the day) selfies, and workout selfies that capture an individual’s fitness transformation. However, the most common type of “body selfie” that appears under the #selfie search on Instagram surpasses certain taboos of other social media platforms like Facebook. About one in ten photos under this hashtag feature women posing topless or completely nude. In this light, the selfie can both be seen as a tool through which agency can be gained (exemplified by the #freethenipple campaign), but also forfeited as individuals lose control over circulation.
- Action: Display of the gendered self
Most of the photos feature (often extremely) young women and girls. When combined with the prior theme, more questions are raised: is the trend towards selfie-taking encouraging young women to objectify and sexualize their selves for a vast, online audience? Is selfie-taking in some instances reaffirming the historical tendency for the male gaze to portray female sexuality in a way that simultaneously others and objectifies – which is also observed in older visual media forms like paintings and etchings (see John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and WJT Mitchell’s What do Images Want)?
While this short summary hasn’t answered any of the questions it has raised, I hope that it’s made one thing clear: only by observing, recording, and breaking down patterns like the above, can digital scholars begin to make sense of complex online practices like selfie-taking.