Representations of Identity

Representations of Identity

There are 1.8 billion images uploaded per day, Of these, many are self-representational, defining how individuals present themselves to the world. Katrin Tiidenberg’s Selfies: Why We Love (and Hate) Them, a new publication by Emerald Books, looks at the social, technological and cultural contexts of a 21st century phenomenon.

A: The publication offers a powerful analysis of “selfie culture”. What are the social implications of these practices?

KT: I think a great place to start thinking about the social and cultural impact of selfies is the intersection of the contradictory reactions that they generate.

We currently have a situation where selfies are continually and passionately discussed, and people take so many, but they are also persistently framed as unworthy of all of this attention. There is a lot of negative criticism that claim that such images are signs of wider pathological discussion. Yet, from the perspective of internet and social media researcher, selfies are just a networked communication practice enacted by various groups on different platforms. This means that selfie sharing is similar to setting up a profile. They are all about experiencing and expressing yourself, about building and maintaining relationships.

I have argued that selfie practices can be forms of thinking, interacting, expressing and working, all of which can be seen as something we do to present ourselves, and in more abstract terms, to become and to belong. But it is interesting that the valence attributed to these different social functions of these images varies. Some expressions and interactions are met with outrage, while others hardly earn a blink of an eye, now THIS is where we see their impact – when we start asking why some selfies are considered inappropriate, why authenticity and narcissism are so potent as criticism, and whether they are applied universally to different groups of selfie takers with same effects (they are not).

The biggest social impact that selfie culture has, is probably its impact on highlighting, troubling, reinforcing and rejecting specific sets of norms and through that normativity as such. Examples include who can be visible, by whose terms, regardless of their “photographic appeal.”

But in terms of smaller moments of impact, we can argue that selfies have introduced new formal logics into the genre of photographic self portraiture – the angle of the selfie, the distance between the camera and the face, and the normalisation of the part of the arm in the frame.

We can also cite new expressions and poses. If Kodak’s marketing taught Americans to smile in photographs, then selfies are arguably teaching us a series of new facial expressions.

So at least among some groups of people selfies have transformed the level of professionalism in posing, editing photos, curating self-representations and thus, perhaps, normalized a different level of ‘quality’ in visual self-representation.

A: In the digital age, where images are shared at an unprecedented rate, why has this form of self-expression come to dominate the online landscape?

KT: First of all, we can question whether selfies do dominate the visual social media space, I’m not sure they do, statistically speaking, although that depends on what you lump into various categories of images. But they definitely have become focus of socially mediated visuality and a metaphor and a metonym for visual self presentation and even social media use, so symbolically, it can be said that they do indeed dominate.

As for why people might be drawn to selfies over some other forms of (visual) self expression – it is a combination of things – the broad spread and accessibility of the tools (smartphones), the possibilities of editing images (via filters and apps like Facetune or Meitu or Snapchat lenses), which raises the standards of aesthetics, the successful marketing of visual social media apps (Instagram, Snapchat), people’s age old attachment to visual communication and the fact that we find images of our likeness so appealing, the linkage of the face to the self / soul (which art historians have linked to changes in how people relate to religion), and finally, the unprecedented amount of control all of us now have over the (conditions of) our visibility.

A: How do you feel selfies compare – or contrast – to the time-honoured tradition of self-portraiture?

KT: My argument is that as objects, selfies have three features – they are self-representational, photographic and networked – and these three features do not simply exist side by side in a selfie, they merge into something new. So rather than just being a photographic object (like family photos or landscapes), a self-representative object (like autobiographical writing or a painted self-portrait) or a networked object (like a Tweet or a dating profile), a selfie is a configuration of all three and maybe more. The order of the qualifiers in my definition is important. First and foremost, it has to be a photo, but it must also be intended and legible as a self-representation, and it has to technically afford easy sharing. You may notice from the careful wording that I propose a selfie does not necessarily and only mean an image of your face. In one of my studies, for example, selfies often omit or deliberately crop out the person’s face. It extends to portraits of the body.

A: We live in an image-saturated society, where 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook each day. What does the future of self-representation in photography look like?

KT: I do some speculation in the last chapter of the book, using methods from science fiction. Such as: are we at peak selfie generation, and if so, are we facing post-selfie, and what does that look like? I looked at the critiques within popular discourse, in particular memes, jokes and clickbaity Facebook art and created prompts like “a deleted selfie becomes sentient”, or “young women are banned from taking selfies, their phone administers an electric shock every time they try”, or “your device regulates how you take selfies” and asked colleagues, students and friends to write short stories on those prompts. And then I analysed these short stories in the context of what futurists, tech journalists and social media marketing professionals predict more generally about social media, apps and the internet. Based on this, I offer a list of speculations about whether the future holds AR restrictions on screen time.

A: Can you tell us about any upcoming research projects?

KT: Currently I am really fascinated with the logics, practices and dynamics of everyday persuasion, in particular via visual social media content, but also in broader terms. So I hope to launch into a project that works more specifically on that.  Also, embodiment and people’s experiences of “becoming a body” via a variety of socially mediated practices is my perpetual side-gig.

Find out more here.

1. The Honeymoon Suite, 2015. © Juno Calypso, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery
2. Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1976.
3. Evelyn Bencicova, Artificial Tears, Courtesy of the artist.