Tag Archives: culture

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.”

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Your Facebook Self and “Real” Self Are the Same

Forget my cup of exceptionally strong coffee. Nothing riles me up on Monday morning quite like the chance to debate the internet life, “real” life (or as I call it, physical life), and the convergence of the two. Thank you, Wired and Jessi Hempel.

Hempel begins posing a scenario she had previously posted to her Facebook friends: How do you handle running into an online friend in “real” life?  What’s the etiquette in regards to bringing up something you saw on their Facebook page? The answers Hempel’s friends provided her are actually chuckle-worthy: Wallflowering. Facial(book) recognition. Friendenfreude. A Facebookship. And stalking.

But Hempel, who struggles with coming to terms with these digital relationships, continues to call them awkward. She taps into our inner Foucaultian tendencies with terms to like “surveillance” and “watching.” She talks about liking posts from old acquaintances who are doing arguably really interesting things with their lives, such as working on reindeer villages in the arctic tundra and celebrating and supporting their endeavors. But then, she says “What I’m describing is the digital equivalent of looking into your windows on a dark night. You’re the one who left the curtains open. You live on a busy street. But if we happen to make eye contact…we both feel slightly violated.”

Oh, I love nothing more than writers pretend to be liberal with their ideas about the digital era when really, it’s just a frayed tourniquet on the phobias and disgust that are bleeding through. She negotiates this disgust with all things social-digital by saying “she is not friends with the woman she saw on the street; She is friends with her digital avatar.”

I couldn’t disagree more with Hempel. The digital avatar and the person behind it are the same person.

In my master’s thesis on this very subject, I coined the term “identity bending,” which I defined as this: The online person and the offline person are facets of the same individual. Online presentation is a highly selected, highly thought out version of one’s life. We may not present ourselves as the same person online as we are offline, but we are also not the same people across online platforms. This has to do with the audience of that site, performance norms that date back to sociologist Erving Goffman’s first ever discussion of dramaturgy in 1959 (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). Online and offline, public and private, we are always two sides of the same coin. You wouldn’t consider the tails side of a coin any less real or valid than the head’s side. You need both sides for the coin to be worth anything, to mean anything. Our digital lives and “real” lives are the same.

Facebook (and social media in general) have redefined relationships, specifically friendships.  Hempel’s repeated use of “surveillance” and similar words invoke the idea of the panopticon, and that we are always on display, even when we don’t want to be.

But that’s just the thing –we want to be. People are free to post to social media what they want. They can post how much, and whatever, they would like to. It’s not creeping. It’s not stalking. It’s viewing information and updates that have been made readily available, fueled by that poster’s individual agency.

Agency is something I think that gets incredibly overlooked in digital media studies, and especially in the way digital and social media are talked about by the news media and blogospheres. Someone made the choice to post that selfie, that link, that video. No one forced them. Social media aren’t holding guns to our heads, forcing us, and we are not trapped.

If someone posts something interesting online, and I see them later that day, or within the next couple of days, I may mention it, especially if it’s something noteworthy. Hey, I saw on Facebook you got that promotion! Congratulations! Oh my goodness, that picture of your dog you posted was adorable. How’s she doing? Our dogs should have a play date!

Hempel worries too much about something that frankly, doesn’t warrant much worrying. It’s thought-provoking, sure. But I think her article reveals more about how we as a technology-fueled society still don’t quite know what to do with everything digital. It shows that we still privilege “real,” physical interaction over anything that happens online when they’re both equally valid, equally legitimate circumstances. The binaries strike again.

I’m saying that if someone posts something online, they did so out of their own free will, and out of their desire to have that information publicly known. Don’t feel bad about acknowledging something someone else willingly put out there. Honestly, they might actually be glad you did.

What People Say To You As a Selfie Researcher

The scene: A small party at my friend’s house. It’s Saturday night, everybody’s drinking a few beers, and she grabs my arm. Hey, everyone this is Jess!

A resounding, tipsy chorus follows: Hi Jess!

My friend nudges me forward. Jess is in grad school. She studies selfies.

 Wait, what? Seflies? SELFIES?

Yes, selfies. My paper, “Fear and Selfie-Loathing in America: Intersections of Image Theory, Feminist Theory, and Arm’s Length Self-Portraits” will be presented this May at the 2015 International Communication Association conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I think selfies are an excellent way to study interstices of inequalities and fears of the digital era.

Okay. What can you tell me about selfies?

Everybody needs to calm down. The Guardian just recently published this article claiming the death of the selfie, which is disturbing for a lot of reasons. My research presents, and supports previous research and articles (Huffington Post), which states that typically, the most common groups of people to take selfies are women, minorities, and homosexual men. If images do in fact stand for what they represent, clamoring for the death or destruction of the image essentially argues for the death or destruction of the person depicted.

 Huh. My ex-boyfriend used to take a lot of selfies. *grabs my arm* DOES THAT MEAN HE’S GAY? I KNEW IT!

I don’t know. My research was not about your ex-boyfriend. Just because a man takes a selfie does not mean he’s gay or bisexual or asexual or polyamorous anything or the like.  My research suggests that criticisms about selfies abound because of the demographics who were the initial adopters of the movement (women, racial minorities, and homosexual men). These are groups who have historically been misrepresented in the mass media through narrow-minded stereotypes, ridiculous tropes, and unrealistic standards. The selfie is a way for these groups to talk back and say, “Hey, this is me.”

 But isn’t it narcissistic?

Everything is fine in moderation.  If someone is blowing up your social media feeds every hour with selfies, that might be narcissism. I’m not going to pretend that people don’t do some stupid things with selfies. But people also do stupid things with cars, phones, bikes, toaster ovens, etc. But there’s nothing wrong with someone posting the occasional selfie. If anything, it’s empowering. They’re taking control of their own image production instead of relying on someone or something else. Three hundred years ago, if you were a noble, you would pay someone oodles of gold and jewels to paint you surrounded by your possessions. Variations of the selfie have been around for centuries.

The media likes to over sensationalize this. Some of my favorites include: “What did Narcissus Say to Instagram? Selfie Time!” (The USA Today 2013); “Selfie Addiction is No Laughing Matter” (The Huffington Post, 2014); “Get Over Your Selfie” (The Wall Street Journal, 2014) . These are all blistering critiques in some of the nation’s biggest agenda-setting newspapers – because meaning comes from how something is represented through language, it is no wonder the selfie is largely considered to be a digital era joke.

 Oh. Well, yeah, I guess. What about duckface?

If someone thinks they look good doing that, let them be.  In the meantime, read this. It explains it better than I could.

 Selfie sticks…?

Are excellent for reaching that spider that’s crawled up into the corner of your ceiling that you can’t get to on your own. On a personal note, I’m not a fan. On a scholarly note, I’m perplexed by them. Based on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a selfie, if you use a selfie stick, it is no longer a selfie. The dictionary definition explicitly states it is an “arm’s –length photo.” Not a stick’s-length photo.

 What do you think of that God-awful song?

You mean that God-amazing song? Just kidding (sort of). It’s fascinating. I don’t believe any song sums up the millennial generation more so than The Chainsmoker’s ballad. The backlash against it, like the selfie, says more about society than the song. It’s like society doesn’t want to be reminded of their own habits and culture.

 Well what do you intend to do with this privileged book learning of yours? (this courtesy of a nice gentlemen I went on one, and only one, date with recently).

I’m working on my PhD, and I intend to keep studying selfies. A paper of mine that’s up next is a twenty-first century take on Lessing’s Laocoon, selfies, and hashtags, arguing that a crucial component to understanding the selfie and looking past narcissism is the hashtag that accompanies the image. I hope to encourage my students to think critically about the issues at play in our digital culture, and hopefully look at them with a trained eye. As I said earlier, selfies are a great way to look at these issues. They’re great to look at in terms of activism, empowerment, social movements, agency, and what matters to various cultures across the world.

 My friend and I are currently having a fight on whether the word selfie can be a verb. What do you think?

I think in our postmodern, poststructuralist world, anything can be anything. But no, seriously. “To selfie” is totally a verb. It’s shorthand for “taking a selfie.” We as a society seem to like shortening words and phrases these days, tbh.

 Why do you care so much? Isn’t it just a picture?

Nothing is ever what it initially seems, which is why I love my career path. If a picture is a worth a thousand words, the selfie is worth however many words you want to ascribe to it. In our participatory culture, individuals have more agency than ever before. It’s your world. Do with it – and document it – what you like.

Cool. Want another beer?

An IPA would be just fine, thanks.