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.

Differences in selfies across global cities

A new online project finds that selfies taken in different global cities like Moscow, New York, and Sao Paulo exhibit some differences:

That seems the most salient takeaway from “Selfie City,” an ambitious selfie-mapping project released Wednesday by a group of independent and university-affiliated researchers. The project sought to extract data from 3,200 selfies taken in Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York and Sao Paolo, then map that data along demographic and geographic lines. Do people in New York smile more than people in Berlin? (Yes.) Does the face angle or camera tilt say something about culture? (Possibly.)…

Many of the researchers’ findings are less than conclusive — there’s either not enough data, or advanced enough analysis, to really make sweeping statements without a bit of salt. The photos — 20,000 for each city — were scraped during a one-week period in December and analyzed/culled to 600 by computer software and Mechanical Turk. While 600 photos may seem like a lot, there’s no indication whether that number is a statistically significant one, nor whether the culled photos represent each country’s Instagram demographics…

Selfie City has found more evidence for a phenomenon both sociologists and casual users have noted already: women take far more self-portraits than men. (Up to 4.6 times as many, at least in Moscow.)…

They also suggest that people take more expressive selfies and strike different poses between cities. Bangkok and Sao Paulo, for instance, are by far the smiliest — Moscow and Berlin, not so much.

Sounds like a clever use of available images and analysis options to start exploring differences across cities. While not all residents of these big cities will follow such patterns, cities are often known for particular social features. New Yorkers may be relatively gruff. Other cities are known as being open and friendly – think of the popular images of big Brazilian cities. (I wonder how much this will come up with future World Cup and Olympics coverage.)

At the same time, how many selfies would a researcher have to look at to get a representative sample? Over what time period? And, perhaps the underlying issue that can’t really be solved – this is likely a very select population that regularly takes and posts selfies (even beyond whether this represents the typical Instagram/social media user).