Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.56.19 PM
my car

The New York Times has a bad habit of uncritically replicating mainstream opinions about technology and society, for instance this piece from Sunday that states,

Much of the research on selfies reveals that (surprise!) people who take a lot of them tend to have narcissistic, psychopathic and Machiavellian personality traits — which may explain why they are oblivious when they bonk you on the head with their selfie sticks. This is not to say that everyone who takes a selfie is a psychopath, but it does imply a high need for self-gratification, particularly if they are posted online for social approval.

For at least the past year, this narrative that selfies equals narcissism has been deeply challenged in popular and academic work. Perhaps the “research” should have included this really terrific special issue of the International Journal of Communication on selfies, edited by Theresa Senft and Nancy Baym (scroll to special sections and click the + more articles). Especially the paper by Anne Burns, who continues to be the strongest critic of the selfies-as-pathological narrative (read her paper and also see her present part of this work at Theorizing the Web 2014 here). Indeed, the concerns over pathologization, especially by dismissing the selfie as narcissistic, is a powerful thread through the entire issue. Hopefully this critique will soon be less necessary, but as the New York Times makes evident each weekend, it’s still a much needed intervention. By my count, more than 2/3rd of the papers in the issue explicitly mention and are rightly critical of the narcissism frame.

If you read Cyborgology you might have already seen and read this issue, but in case you haven’t, I just just want to briefly use this space to highlight terrific work being done on the topic of selfies (I especially loved the stand-out papers by Jenna Brager and Elizabeth Losh). It’s quite good, and open access, so download away.

Another thread throughout the issue I found particularly interesting is if and how the authors chose to define what a “selfie” is. It seems that for some authors, it’s self evident (resisting the pun resisting the pun), though, there is considerable disagreement over the term in everyday, journalistic, and academic discourse. Indeed, telling people what is or is not a selfie has become its own genre. I see a steady flow of posts angrily noting that some people like to use the term outside just a self-shot picture of one’s face, or even body. This leads to the counter move of wanting to enforce a stricter version of what a selfie is. The (you guessed it) New York Times just ran such an explainer last week.

It might have been redundant for a special issue on a specific topic to have each paper replicate the same paragraph or two defining the same thing. In any case, it seems either implicitly or explicitly that the papers agree with the definition provided in the Introduction to the issue. In fact, the definition in the Introduction, authored by Theresa Senft and Nancy Baym, provides as good a definition as I’ve seen anywhere,

What precisely is a selfie? First and foremost, a selfie is a photographic object that initiates the transmission of human feeling in the form of a relationship (between photographer and photographed, between image and filtering software, between viewer and viewed, between individuals circulating images, between users and social software architectures, etc.). A selfie is also a practice—a gesture that can send (and is often intended to send) different messages to different individuals, communities, and audiences. This gesture may be dampened, amplified, or modified by social media censorship, social censure, misreading of the sender’s original intent, or adding additional gestures to the mix, such as likes, comments, and remixes.

Although the selfie signifies a sense of human agency (i.e., it is a photograph one knowingly takes of oneself, often shown to other humans), selfies are created, displayed, distributed, tracked, and monetized through an assemblage of nonhuman agents. The politics of this assemblage renders the selfie—generally considered merely a quotidian gesture of immediacy and co-presence—into a constant reminder that once anything enters digital space, it instantly becomes part of the infrastructure of the digital superpublic, outliving the time and place in which it was original produced, viewed, or circulated. It is perhaps for this reason that selfies function both as a practice of everyday life and as the object of politicizing discourses about how people ought to represent, document, and share their behaviors.

For the papers themselves, about half of them defined what a selfie is, the other half, presumably, assume there isn’t disagreement over the term. At times, I did find myself wondering what the various authors counted as a selfie versus what they did not, especially with papers utilizing interviews. I’m not sure if the respondents all have the same definition of what counts and doesn’t count as a “selfie”. The interveiwers and respondents in the research and the readers of the paper might all have something a bit different in mind. For instance, Matthew Bellinger’s article says, “This choice of terms is particularly striking given that Cameron’s photograph lacks the visual cues normally associated with the selfie” – which are? Or from Anirban Baishya’s wonderful article, “The connection of the hand to the cell phone at the moment of recording makes the selfie a sort of externalized inward look”, which assumes a hand-to-phone connection, which is a particular, and perhaps not fully agreed upon, necessity for an image to be a selfie.

Some of the papers do define the selfie. Kate Miltner and Nancy Baym define selfie as, “a practice in which people hold out a camera phone and photograph themselves.”

From Frosh’s article, “A selfie, whatever else it might be, is usually a photograph: a pictorial image produced by a camera. This banal observation informs widespread understandings of the selfie as a cultural category: “A photograph that one has taken of oneself” (Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, 2013, p. 1).”

Aaron Hess defines it, “The selfie, a form of self-portraiture typically created using smartphones or webcams and shared on social networks.”

Katharina Lobinger and Cornelia Brantner define it, “A selfie is a self-portrait usually taken with a digital camera or a camera phone in order to be shared with relevant others”.

David Nemer and Guo Freeman has a nicely encompassing definition, “More than just a self-taken, static photo shared on social networking sites, selfies (also known as “self-shooting”; see Tiidenberg, 2014; and “self-portrait”: see Mazza, Da Silva, & Le Callet, 2014) are considered nonverbal, visual communication that implies one’s thoughts, intentions, emotions, desires, and aesthetics captured by facial expressions, body language, and visual art elements.”

James Katz and Elizabeth Thomas Crocker provide my favorite definition, one that I think best gets at some of the popular fluidity around the term,

for our purposes we define selfies as images that were not only taken by the person posting the image but that also include part or all of the person taking the photo.” They precede that definition with, “Although interviews with users and even academics turned up different boundaries for that definition,2” and the footnote states, “Chloe Mulderig, who teaches courses about visual culture at Emerson University, told us during an interview that she includes images of food and immediate surroundings in her definition of selfie. She argues that these are extensions of the self and are intended to impact how the public should view the individual posting the image. Some users we interviewed agreed with this assessment and also included within it images of such things as pets, homes, vehicles, and craft products. However, most interviewees disagreed that these images fell into the larger category of selfie if they lacked part or all of the person taking the photo. It is reasonable to accept a narrower definition as that seems to be the generally accepted meaning, though we certainly see merit in the broader definition as well.

I really appreciated the papers that did define what a selfie is because, at least outside the academy, there is intense negotiation and deep disagreement over how to use the term and what it means. More interesting than trying to narrow down the definition might be to track how the term is used, how the fluid meaning of selfie tracks the fluid meaning of the self. I’d like to take a moment and appreciate the smart neuance these authors provide when defining the selfie to allow for such movement and fluidity instead of trying to constrain the selfie and thus selfhood as much popular writing seems obsessed with doing. Curious what others think of these definitions, where they excel and how might they be improved?

nathan is on twitter and tumblr