Tag Archives: Media

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.

Black and Blue, White, and Gold – Real or Digital?

We could easily continue to beat the dead horse – is The Dress blue and black, or white and gold? (Personally, I saw white and gold, but that’s the last I’ll touch on that here).

I’m more concerned with what happened after the question infiltrated our lives, taking on a soul of its own and “breaking” the internet.

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If you’reliving under a rock and somehow have no idea what I’m talking about, a band was playing a wedding in Scotland last weekend, and this member of the band was perplexed by the mother of the bride’s dress. Some called it blue and black, others, white and gold. The unsuspecting band member posted it to her personal Tumblr account, asking her followers for their sage inputs, and like what frequently happens with the most surprising things on the internet, it took on a life of its own and The Great Dress Debate was born.

Everyone from Taylor Swift, Kimye, and Mindy Kaling weighed in, and the following day, The New York Times published this article as a comprehensive summary and subsequent analysis. But what made me throw my pen across my cubicle wasn’t the fact we were still arguing about this dress (and still are – thanks, advertising of America for perpetuating this). It was what Buzzfeed editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, said:

 “This definitely felt like a special thing,” said Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith. “It sort of erased the line between web culture and real culture.” (New York Times, February 27, 2015)

And if The Dress “erased the line between web culture and real culture,” that implies there was a boundary there in the first place. And what do lines do? They section off. They divide. They privilege.

Like it or not, we’re living in a post-modernist world (well, really, we’re in post-post-modernism, but I digress). Post-modernism has frequently grappled with the fact people still cling to the idea of high brow versus low brown culture (i.e.: opera, ballet, theater, vs. reality TV). Yet, now, for some reason, people, like Ben Smith, still assume that there are (at least) two cultures – digital, and “real.”

What happens on the internet is just as real as something that happens in our physical reality. Just because you can’t physically hold the computer code in your hands doesn’t mean it’s any less legitimate than something you can reach out and touch. We, as a Western society, have real trouble wrapping our brains around that concept.

It’s a digital world, and we’re just living in it. What happens online has very real consequences and reactions to things offline. Twitter sparked revolutions in Egypt. One asinine tweet got a woman (understandably) fired from her job and made her personal life an international mockery.

By differentiating web culture and “real” culture, we enter the messy realm of dichotomies and hierarchies. When you have a duality, one is automatically privileged and valued more than the other (Male/female. White/Black). And based off of Smith’s comments, it’s clear that “real” culture (i.e.: what happens in physical reality) is more privileged than the digital world (ironic, isn’t it, especially since Mr. Smith has earned his fortune managing one of the most popular digital journalism pieces in the world?)

I’m snarky by nature, so don’t let my words fool you. I don’t fault Mr. Smith or mean to maliciously attack him. His comment is just perplexing. In a world where so much occurs online, we as a Western society still feel uncomfortable to attributing legitimacy to our digital actions.

I don’t think The Dress erased the boundary between our “real” world and our digital world. I think it finally showed there was never a line there in the first place.