The evolving definition and usage of “selfie”

The word “selfie” was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2013 but its usage and meaning continues to evolve:

A selfie isn’t just “a photograph that one has taken of oneself,” but also tends to be “taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website,” as the editors at Oxford Dictionaries put it. That part is key because it reinforces the reason why we needed to come up with a new name for this kind of self-portraiture in the first place.

Think of it this way: A selfie isn’t fundamentally about the photographer’s relationship with the camera, it’s about the photographer’s relationship with an audience. In other words, selfies are more parts communication than self-admiration (though there’s a healthy dose of that, too).

The vantage point isn’t new; the form of publishing is.

This explains why we call the photo from the Oscars “Ellen’s selfie” — because she was the one who published it. Selfies tether the photographer to the subject of the photo and to its distribution. What better way to visually represent the larger shift from observation to interaction in publishing power?

Ultimately, selfies are a way of communicating narrative autonomy. They demonstrate the agency of the person behind the lens, by simultaneously putting that person in front of it.

The key to the selfie is not that people are talking photos of themselves for the first time in history; rather, they are doing it with new purposes, to tell their own stories to their online public. This is what social media and Web 2.0 are all about: putting the power into the hands of users to create their own narratives. The user now gets to decide what they want to broadcast to others. One scholar described it giving average people the ability to be a celebrity within their online social sphere. The selfie is also part of a shift toward telling these narratives through images rather than words – think about the relative shift in updating Facebook statuses years ago to now posting interesting pictures on Instagram.

Terrible real estate photos or providing helpful (and ugly) information about the home?

I’ve highlighted some cases of bad photos of a home for sale (like here) but here is a Tumblr with a collection of bad photos: terriblerealestateagentphotos.com.

Some of these photos are clearly poorly done. Whether taken from a bad angle or including bad staging of furniture (does photoshopped furniture count?) or way too much clutter or weird clutter, this can detract from showing the home at its best. The photos also suggest plenty of people are unwilling to change their home much to appeal to potential buyers. The seller and their real estate agent should want to put the best image forward so the new buyer can imagine themselves in that space.

However, there are other photos here that don’t seem to be as egregious. The March 4, 2014 picture of a green pool. It is not inviting but wouldn’t it be better the potential buyer know that the home has a pool? While the pool should be clean, the other option is to list the home with an in-ground pool and then never show a picture. Or the February 27, 2014 picture of an unfinished hallway. Again, isn’t it better for the buyer to see the space at all rather than have it hidden? I find myself frustrated when I can’t find a picture of one of the home’s features (this seems to happen a lot with basements). Without a picture, what are they hiding? If the person isn’t going to do much to make the home look more presentable, I would still rather see that and have more information.

I’d love to see some data on how hiding some of a home’s worse spots from online photos might help boost in-home visits or eventual home sales.

In defense of an (un)original aesthetic

My Modern Met has posted a hauntingly beautiful gallery of photos that manages to tease striking originality out of a tired world of copies:

Switzerland-based Corinne Vionnet is our guide to the world’s most famous landmarks, monuments millions have visited before. Her art is created not by acrylic, oil, or watercolor, each piece is made by combining hundreds of tourist photos into one. After conducting an online keyword search and sifting through photo sharing sites, this Swiss/French artist carefully layers 200 to 300 photos on top of one another until she gets her desired result.

You really need to click over to My Modern Met to see this stuff for yourself.  Words alone doesn’t do it justice.  (Vionnet’s own website is here, if you want to look further into her work.)

I first became interested in intellectual property law as a part-time photographer.  I was intrigued by the legal implications of photographing the world around me, including the ever-encroaching restrictions that narrow the subjects “safe” from litigation threats.  Not surprisingly, then, I get pretty excited when the fields of copyright and photography intersect as explicitly as they do in Vionnet’s work.

Vionnet’s pieces — beautiful in their own right — serve as a meditation on the artist within the collective and the unique within the copies.  Her works have an ethereal and timeless aesthetic because they are composed of photos taken by hundreds of people over many years (they are literally ethereal and timeless).  The “originals” (taken by tourists) are simply copies of what everyone else takes, but her “copies” (clearly lovingly composed by Vionnet) are truly original takes on these famous landmarks.  Brilliant.

The article quotes Vionnet’s own summation of this series:

“Why do we always take the same picture, if not to interact with what already exists?,” Vionnet asks. “The photograph proves our presence. And to be true, the picture will be perfectly consistent with the pictures in our collective memory.”

Well said, Vionnet.  This is why our shared, cultural commons is so important.  Artists always have to “take the same picture” in order to “interact with what already exists”.  It is what artists do with their picture that makes them unique, not in some divine ex nihilo sense, but as mirror-holders who call our attention to a part of the larger whole and allow us to see one bit of reality in a new way.

However, artists do not “own” reality any more than their creative fore-bearers — or any of us.  In the slow passage of time, we all receive, create, and relinquish back.  Hopefully, in the words of John Locke, we relinquish “as good as” what we have ourselves received.

To be sure, copyright law is needed to allow Vionnet to enjoy the full fruits of her creative labor.  Nonetheless, take care to remember that, in a very real sense, she does not “own” her works any more than she took the underlying photographs — or than those tourists built the towers, mountains, and waterfalls they themselves copied with their cameras.  Vionnet’s pieces are “out there” now, part of our collective memory.  We can discuss them, critique them, applaud them, reject them, or even build on them.  However brilliant, Vionnet doesn’t “own” them in an absolute metaphysical sense, and she shouldn’t “own” them in an absolute legal sense.

Given the genesis of her work, I doubt that Vionnet would be overassertive with her copy-rights.  (Though one never knows.)  Unfortunately, lots of other people routinely assert “their” divine rights in “their” intellectual property.  As sad as this state of affairs is, one has to laugh a bit.  Just because they have a mirror doesn’t mean that they made the sun.