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The social affordances of group selfie machines

Purikura is a type of high-tech photobooth where users can digitally manipulate their images before printing them off (or, more recently, sending the jpg versions to themselves). In “Play, Process and Materiality in Japanese Purikura Photography,” Mette Sandbye explores the cultural uses and ramifications of purikura photography practices.

She observes that the practice of taking (and later circulating) these photos can concurrently build identity and reaffirm social connections between young women in a nation where group identity and belonging are central: “in Japanese society, people are primarily group-oriented” (Davies and Invenko in Sandbye 119).

The more traditional and geographically widespread chemical photobooths also encourage certain social practices based on the machine’s affordances. Like with purikura, photobooths have historically been situated in locations where people go on day-outings so that they can record their social lives (at malls, theme parks, movie theatres, etc.), contributing over time to a sort of visual diary that can be scrapbooked for posterity. The group photo-taking practice becomes part of the activities of the day and acts as mnemonic tool down the line.

In Photobooths: A Biography, Meags Fitzgerald laments the disappearance of these traditional photobooths. Kenneth Kimbrough, a reviewer of Fitzgerald’s work, points out that the physical layout of the booths invites users to enter and sit behind a curtain, allowing for certain types of social relationships to exist in public and private simultaneously. Kimbrough explains how Fitzgerald’s work offers “examples of this private freedom[, which] include[s] vintage reproductions of African Americans and gay and lesbian couples who are allowed to exist in the photobooth without the persecution of the outside world.”

Although the traditional photobooth that Fitzgerald writes about is on a drastic decline, a new type of machine with a related but unique set of characteristics is emerging. Selfie machines have begun to crop up around North America (there are two in Canada, one of which is located at Heaven Gastro Club in Waterloo).

I gave the aforementioned machine a test run with some colleagues recently and noticed that the selfie machine offers very different affordances from its predecessor. Two very noticeable differences are that there is no secluded space to enter into to take the photos and the selfie is publicly available for other people to see as you’re taking it. Further, the photograph only exists in digital form, and can either be emailed to the group or posted directly to Facebook or Twitter.

As these machines become more widespread, it will be worthwhile to record patterns and observe how the machine’s design, for instance, influences use in contrast with older media forms. The physical placement and features of machines intended for group image-taking practices reveal how certain types of behaviours and responses are encouraged by technological affordances.


Works cited

Fitzgerald, Meags. Photobooth: A Biography. Conundrum Press, 2014. Print.

Kimbrough, Kenneth. “Review: Photobooth a Biography.” Comicsalternative.com, July 2014. Web. Accessed 29 March 2015.

Sandbye, Mette. “Play, Process and Materiality in Japanese Purikura Photography.” Digital Snaps: The New Face of Photography. Ed. Jonas Larson and Mette Sandbye. New York: I.B. Taurus, 2013. 109-130. Print.

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About kaitlynholbein

I'm a part-time Rhetoric and Communication Design Master’s student and full-time communications and marketing professional. I received my B.A. in English literature, with a minor in Sociology, from Carleton University.

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