Tag Archives: cultural studies

Your odds of dying while taking a selfie? 1 in 4 billion

A lot of my research lately has centered around trying to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between feminisms, technology, and the media studies concept of a moral panic (see, Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, and Roberts [1978], “Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order). I typically use images as epicenters to understand these things and how they are all interlaced. So naturally, because I don’t live under a rock and basically do live on the internet, I saw this Mashable article and have also been fielding many comments, texts, tweets, and emails from friends/colleagues over the last 24~ish hours.

Mashable claims, in a hyper sensational manner, that more people have been killed by selfies this year than by sharks. Technically, and quantitatively, they’re not wrong. But culturally, and conceptually, they couldn’t be further from the actual circumstances.

The 12th selfie-related death happened recently when an elderly tourist fell down the steps at the Taj Mahal, while trying to snap a self-portrait. So, here’s what Mashable first gets wrong: This man didn’t die from a selfie. He presumably died from something along the lines of blunt force trauma from falling down stairs. But by claiming this man – and 11 other individuals – tragically died while taking selfies, Mashable perpetuates a discourse that’s culturally prominent in today’s media. And, that discourse is one of exclusion, sexism, and policing bodies/actions.

Originally (and in now different ways, still are), selfies were criticized for being narcissistic, as were the (mainly) girls and women who were taking them. It became an inherently cyclical way of thinking: women are narcissistic because they take selfies, and selfies are narcissistic because women take them. Ann Burns has a fantastic Foucauldian analysis of the selfie, in which she argues selfie criticism exists as a means to policing bodies and “teaching” what actions and images are acceptable to post to social media.

My reaction to this Mashable piece was a combination of Burns’s work and my recent work on moral panics. Media use fear to police bodies and actions. And because the general experiences of most media consumers are not the experiences being reported on, media must use certain metaphors and lines of thinking to make the story understood and resonate. In the case of this Mashable article, they use a “stock of meaning” of the shark attack, which prompts one to think of the movie Jaws, hear the iconic music, and consider devastating bloodshed. Ergo, shark –> sharks are dangerous –> compare to selfie –> selfies are dangerous.

“More people have died from selfies this year than shark attacks,” is a sensational headline. It privileges the idea that those who take selfies take unnecessary risks and put themselves in danger. Jill Walker Rettberg posted a fantastic analysis of this piece earlier, using a capitalist/tourism/global economy lens, and it is absolutely worth a read. While the Russian

source: Al Jazeera
source: Al Jazeera

government may have posted a guide to safe selfies earlier this year and tourism agencies actually encourage “daredevil selfies,” there is something oddly perverse happening now in which image-based actions are simultaneously being encouraged, policed, and criticized. There is something I don’t yet have an answer to.

While all these deaths are tragic and could have been prevented, it is also worth remembering that no amount of social media likes is worth a life. Earlier this year, my friend sent me an article that read, “Selfie Causes Colorado Plane Crash.” And I texted back – False. Stupidity Causes Colorado Plane Crash. Be smart, and use “common sense.” My critique here is one that focuses on how media discuss these issues, not on the individual people and their actions. It is upsetting that media can’t – or won’t – disentangle these concepts.

(Added: Forbes actually critiques this piece in a blistering fashion – and reveals your odds of dying from taking a selfie are actually about 1 in 4 billion)

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Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

Yes.

My brilliant fellow Grady grad, Felicia Harris, recently wrote a wonderful post about her academic journey, and she’s inspired me (and I’ve finally given myself permission) to do the same.

My old cubicle. Such great memories at GMOA!
My old cubicle. Such great memories at GMOA!

A year ago at this time, I was in my final days of working as a bus operator/trainer for UGA’s Campus Transit System and working as a PR intern for the Georgia Museum of Art. I had a plan – I was entering my final year of my Master’s program in Mass Media Studies, and I was going to move to Atlanta when I graduated to practice PR. I knew I wanted a Ph.D., but I thought that was still several years away.

But as that Fall semester began, other things began to chip away at that plan. After working on a conference paper with my adviser, the wonderful Elli Lester Roushanzamir, and taking a class that introduced me to WJT Mitchell and image theory, I knew my plans had changed. Then, one week in January 2015 confirmed that – I had been accepted in the PhD program at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and that conference paper had been accepted for presentation at the 2015 International Communication Association Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

That spring semester flew by. I wrote, edited, edited, edited some more, and then finally successfully defended my master’s thesis (with the help of my brilliant committee, Elli Lester Roushanzamir, Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, and Valerie Boyd). I came to learn myself just as I came to learn the theories of dramaturgy, digital literacy, and the social media phenomenon I dub “identity bending.” I got a tattoo as my present for these accomplishments. The quote “love the questions themselves” is forever marked on my left wrist as a reminder to the excitement I felt that week in January (those words are from Rainer Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” – be still with all that’s unresolved in your heart, and learn to love the questions themselves).

And then, I was off to Puerto Rico. I had never traveled alone, flown alone, booked a hotel alone, hailed a cab, etc. etc. I didn’t just step out of my comfort zone. I zoomed out of it, 500 mph across on ocean on a Boeing 757.

View from my balcony, San Juan, Puerto Rico
View from my balcony, San Juan, Puerto Rico

There, I presented original research entitled “Fear and Selfie-Loathing in America: Intersections of Image Theory, Feminist Theory, and Arm’s Length Self-Portraits,” and was awarded Top Student Paper, Popular Communication Division. I had the privilege to speak on a panel entitled Theorizing Digital Media’s Visual Imagery: Aesthetics, Abilities, and Motivations with brilliant scholars from Brigham Young, Annenberg Pennsylvania, the Queensland University of Technology, and Hebrew University-Jerusalem.

So what’s next?

In August, I begin my PhD at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, as well as my journey into my becoming a “Triple Dawg” (I’ve earned a Bachelors and a Masters from UGA). Broadly, I call myself a digital imagery scholar, as I’m fascinated by things such as selfies and memes. The paper I’m currently working on to submit to a conference early next year is about Slender Man and the feminization of digital spaces. After that, I already know another selfie paper is in the works. Memes and selfies have already evolved and changed so much just in the year since I began researching them, which makes it such an intriguing field. IMG_1499The way we visually represent society says so much about ideological norms and values. Images are never innocent, and they are never silent. They are screaming a thousand things, demanding to be studied, looked at, revered. They sit amidst a rocky terrain of gender, race, class, politics, religion, history, popular culture, and current events, not just in their content, but in their production.

Those who know me know that I view the academic and the personal as inextricably linked. As I came to learn theories, I came to learn myself. James Carey pushed me into the swimming pool. Stuart Hall encouraged me to think boldly. W.J.T. Mitchell showed me the world. bell hooks inspired me to roar.

I used to never believe I could be here. This was one of the best things I ever gave myself permission to do.

The Most Important Part of a Selfie? The Face

Take your belfies (butt selfies), feet-at-the-beach-selfies, and back of the head selfies and move over. Those pictures are valid and worth documentation of course, but they’re not selfies.

While the Oxford English Dictionary defines a selfie as “an image that one has taken of oneself…etc.” It doesn’t specifically say it has to be a picture of one’s face, but I still think the face is a crucial part of the selfie. Why? Because of a concept in media studies called face-ism.

Face-ism came from a 1980s study that found in media images, men are more frequently portrayed from the shoulders up, while full-body shots of women are almost always used. But the implications of that were more striking. In a headshot, the individual shown is described as being more dominant, assertive, and intelligent, while the full-body shot was viewed as passive, less intelligent, submissive.

Subsequent studies found that when even the same individual was depicted in a head shot and a full-body shot, viewers rated the head shot as “better.” Because media frequently use head shots for men and full-body shots for women, it’s no wonder these gender stereotypes and inherent misogyny persist. In other words (as said in a study by Konrath et al., 2012): “It is not surprising that two groups of people who are conceptually seen as different would be literally seen (visually) as different.”

My desire to study selfies came out of this concept – because what does a selfie show? A head shot, from the shoulders up, but selfies (and those who take them) are deemed silly, aimless, dumb, and narcissistic. Why the chasm? Why, when the picture is taken by someone else, is it respectable, but when it is taken by oneself, it isn’t? Why does face-ism not apply to the selfie?

In a previous post, I said I used the selfie as the intersection to study media, culture, and society. How the selfie (and those who take) them are represented through language says a lot about what we value as a society, and what we’re afraid of. In that same earlier post, I mentioned that the early adopters of the selfie were women, minorities, and homosexual men, and this set the tone for how the selfie would be talked about in culture. These are three groups that have historically been stereotypes, marginalized, and misrepresented in the mass media, and selfies are a way for them to talk back to the status quo and say, “No, that’s wrong, this is actually me.”

Face-ism doesn’t apply to the selfie because society does not want it to. The finding inherently privileges men and “masculine” qualities. When a group that has historically been marginalized is featured in the exact same style, rejection of it says more about society’s feelings towards that group than it does the level of facial prominence in a picture. The backlash suggests that historically marginalized groups shouldn’t be viewed in an empowering light. They need to remain subordinate, even in images. This is a classic “Othering” move – make the subordinate group feel like second class citizens through any means possible.

The selfie adheres to all concepts of the head shot except for one – the removal of the outside photographer. And while this is quickly labeled as narcissistic, it is actually empowering and an act of protest. It says “if you value the norm for taking a picture like this, you will value me, too.” Selfographers (my term for those who take selfies) are saying, “Look me in the eye. I am worth more than my body, which has typically been viewed as an object to be consumed by the dominant class. Look me in the eye. I’m important, too.”