The Important Global Selfie Study We’ve All Been Waiting For is Here

SelfieCity analyzes selfies from five cities around the globe and theorizes the way we present ourselves to people online.

Here is a fatal blow to all your grandfather’s theories about the demise of civil society at the hands of this generation of self-involved millenials: people don’t actually take as many selfies as we think they do. SelfieCity is an ongoing research project that analyzes thousands of selfie photos from five cities around the world and organizes the resulting data points city by city, as well as by age groups and gender. Using the data, SelfieCity researchers attempt to theorize cultural and social meanings from their findings. After randomly selecting 120,000 photos from Instagram, they found that only about 3-5 percent of them were selfies. The rest of the photos depicted images from users’ everyday lives: animals, food, clothes, artwork, etc.

Some of the more interesting data was geo-specific. Studying how people looked in their selfies, SelfieCity finds that people in Sao Paulo and Bangkok tend to smile more often in their photos than people Berlin, Moscow and New York. Women in Sao Paulo also tend to pose more aggressively, tilting their heads in greater angles, than people in other cities.

The SelfieCity researchers acknowledge some weaknesses in their study, one of which is their reliance on Mechanical Turk workers to sift through the photos and label and tag them with appropiate gender and age markers. The gender-related findings, in particular, are imperfect, because they depend on the rigidity of the gender binary and the flawed human judgement of what they refer to as an “alienated labor pool”. These flaws considered, the findings would suggest that women tend to take more selfies than men; they also tend to smile more across the board.

Does this data indicate what our future selfies will look like? It’s not totally clear, although the project leaders have some ideas. Speaking to the Creators’ Project, Moritz Stefaner, who worked on the team, said: “If the selfie is more like a visual 'ping' to the people we socially feel connected to, the idea of the photographic selfie might get replaced by other forms of technological self-documentation and sharing one 'selfie-state' through other self data representations than the purely photographic.”

What that means is that selfies are just ways to regulate our online identities and that, in the future, we’ll find ways to do that differently. Take the #shelfie, for example, which is just a photo of your personal library. Think about how people use coffee table books to communicate ideas about who they are to people who are in their home; #shelfies perform the same function on the web. Outside of photographic representation, you can already see this process taking place with the promulgation of the identity-specific “listicles” popularized by Buzzfeed.

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