Jordan Hollender for Al Jazeera America

What do your selfies say about you?

Analysis: Digital self-portraits are the hottest form of social currency. But can we learn anything from them?

Centuries from now, when anthropologists and historians examine the cultural imagery bequeathed by the early 21st century, they’ll be struck by the ubiquity of the digital self-portrait. “Selfie” was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2013. Ellen Degeneres’ much-shared Oscar-night photo, the Last Supper of selfies, is the most retweeted message in the history of Twitter — a title that cements the selfie’s stature in technocultural discourse even though it may baffle those future scholars. And Ellen’s moment of self-aware exaltation has left the chattering classes pondering just what her selfie told us about ourselves as a culture.

Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” above, isn’t quite your typical self-portrait, but the overlapping perspectives and positions of the subjects make this work a favorite among art historians.

Our love affair with the selfie keeps on growing. We take them by the millions, everywhere from the gym to our grandmother’s funeral. “Every major social media site is overflowing with millions of them,” notes Jenna Wortham, technology reporter for The New York Times. “Everyone from the pope to the Obama girls has been spotted in one,” although not together — yet. With the White House furious over a Samsung-sponsored selfie of the president and Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, His holiness may have to wait.

Self-portraiture is obviously far from a modern invention. James Hall’s brilliant book “The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History” traces the evolution and aesthetic development of the form, from Flemish painter Jan van Eyck to Diego Velázquez’s renowned “Las Meninas” to the works of Frida Kahlo, only to find — in the words of English artist Lawrence Gowing — that “the painter’s opinion of himself is a part of his equipment. He needs his conceit, as an opera singer does. Pride and a certain exultation nourish any physical skill.”

But from ubiquity, democracy: Where self-portraiture was once the preserve of master artists like van Eyck, Rembrandt van Rijn and Joseph Ducreux, any peasant with a smartphone, an Instagram filter and an Internet connection can traffic in our hottest form of social currency. What, then, is its real worth?

Some social psychologists read serious meaning into the selfie, seeing it as a positive mode of identity formation and an important way of presenting and reinforcing a personal image on the Web’s vast social stage. “For some, this presents a more attractive (and therefore satisfactory) [self-]image as the movement and life tend to overcome flaws that might be more noticeable to an individual were the person to see him- or herself in a photo,” Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, told Mashable in 2013 while discussing why people prefer to view themselves in mirrors rather than static photographs. 

Other researchers side with Gowing, reading the selfie as an extension of modern narcissism. Writing in Psychology Today, Cornell professor of psychology Peggy Drexler senses that “selfie subjects feel as though they’re starring in their own reality shows, with an inflated sense of self that allows them to believe their friends or followers are interested in seeing them lying in bed, lips pursed, in a real world headshot. It’s like looking in the mirror all day long and letting others see you do it.” But she warns of “real and serious implications,” saying the egomania promoted by the selfie can have adverse effects on family and workplace relationships and even elicit violent behavior. 

Our awareness of the selfie’s ubiquity, symbolized by DeGeneres’ Oscar-night moment, brings us close to a point of cultural fatigue. In March a woman took a selfie after her plane crashed during takeoff. Another snapped a selfie with a jumper on the Brooklyn Bridge. Some plastic surgeons say they’re seeing an uptick in demand for facial surgery in response to the rise of selfies. More recently, a student damaged a 19th century Greco-Roman sculpture during an ill-advised selfie attempt. Perhaps the craze is little more than “the masturbation of self-image,” as Esquire’s Stephen Marche puts it, with some destructive social side effects lingering on the horizon.  

Despite these exasperating moments of idiocy, human beings don’t take selfies in a vacuum: Every social interaction, online and off, relies on historical and cultural context to make sense to us.

Enter SelfieCity, an ambitious selfie-mapping project released in February by a group of independent and university-affiliated researchers. Their idea: extract and analyze data from thousands of selfies taken in Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York and São Paolo, then map the data along demographic and geographic lines. The photos — 20,000 for each city, from the famous and the obscure — were scraped during one week in December, then culled to 600 using computer software and Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s online marketplace for crowdsourcing. 

A collage of self-portraits taken by residents of New York City and collected by SelfieCity.

“There was a lot of writing about this phenomenon, but they weren’t looking at the data set,” project coordinator Lev Manovich told Al Jazeera. “We look at the means of communication of a selfie — whether it was tweeted or shared on Facebook and what that says about signaling to other people. We wanted to pull a large photo set and analyze the data to get a sense of how and why people create self-portraits.” 

This unusually deep dive into selfie data has provided backup for a phenomenon others have noted already. Women take far more self-portraits than men (up to 4.6 times as many in Moscow). The expressiveness of the poses that people strike varies among cities; you’re much likelier to be smiling in a Bangkok or São Paulo selfie than in one shot in Moscow or Berlin. And the data confirm that selfies are a young person’s game, with an estimated average age of 23.7. Out of the five cities analyzed, New York City had the oldest average age, 25.3. 

“There are potentially hundreds of thousands of different variables we could examine,” says Manovich. “But the idea was, combine the human interpretive analysis” — the social psychology of Rutledge and Drexler, for example —  “and the massive data sets that provide a compelling snapshot of a particular population. Let’s look at something that’s not just demographic, like male and female, but other contingent variables. So we say, ‘OK, this person is looking straight. Their head is turned by 3 percent or 5 percent. They have big smile or small smile.’ Once we have these descriptions, we can start really drilling into data in these particular categories.” 

Is it just me, or do São Paulo women tilt their heads more? Do New Yorkers or Berliners look older? SelfieCity combined automatic facial analysis with human judgment to analyze thousands of photos and broke them down by demographic categories.

Intriguing information but hardly conclusive. Data-driven projects like SelfieCity assume social media are valid social indexes, but the sample size is self-selecting and is limited to a demographic slice of a larger population. The Pew Research Center reports that of the 73 percent of American adults who use social networks, the majority are young and well-educated. Manovich notes that 70 percent of Internet users in the U.S. use Instagram, while other social networks are much more popular in other countries.

But given the cultural popularity of the selfie and its rapid growth, computational social science may offer a better way to interpret modern self-portraiture than conventional psychology, at least for now. “While art historians traditionally would engage in a close reading of a singular image and practice formal analysis of a unique artifact, the current project instead focuses on patterns in a larger set of images, analyzing such features as pose, facial expression and mood,” writes Alise Tifentale, a researcher on the aesthetics of new media at CUNY. “At the same time, the website invites visitors to inspect single selfies as well. How to reconcile different approaches to the selfie — how to view the same images as data, as examples of contemporary vernacular photography and as a form of popular art are among the questions that SelfieCity brings to the table for further discussion.”  
Answers to larger questions — are selfies a benign, positive form of expression and self-promotion or a more ominous cry for attention? — may have to await a larger database. In the meantime, SelfieCity suggests these casual acts of self-love may tell the analysts of the future not just where we were but where we were at.

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