Selfie Blog

(I will start this blog by declaring that I was taking selfies long before I was posting online, simply by focusing a regular camera at something an arm’s length away, then turning it around. I was doing that as far back as 1999. The proof is somewhere in a shoe box. Not that I’m cool or anything.  Just didn’t have anyone else to take a picture of me.)

Back to the assignment at hand: In reading about selfie courses overall, I was interested to read that the classes and the discipline they belong to is purposely amorphous. As we have seen in our own class, it’s difficult to define the digital age and the changes that we are seeing in out culture while we are still in the midst of the transition.

It seems to me that there’s an element of urgency to all of these studies, although it may simply be something I’m feeling personally because I see my kids at an age where they are on the precipice of having to define themselves digitally when they haven’t even defined themselves to themselves. How can you be conscious of how you come across online when you are still trying to figure out who you are inside? This is a concern I know we talked about a bit in class, but I think is clearly something that the parents in the class have on their minds. It is hard enough to figure out who you are and what you are doing in the relatively tiny cultural fishbowl that is your local high school. Adding a worldwide audience to your awkwardness seems almost unfair. As Posner points out, we have to be aware of the fact that an image meant to circulate in one community can travel elsewhere (and really, anywhere). It’s a lesson that shouldn’t be confined to college students but stressed at the earliest ages when kids begin to form their own digital identities.

I find the New York Times link  interesting in the sense that it stresses the role that “celebrity” plays in the selfie. As Alice Marwick points out, selfie models are “media driven”. So, if we follow that to the next logical conclusion, one of the basic building blocks of our digital identity (the selfie) is based on a celebrity ideal. That is a dangerous precedent and one that is addressed in the Selfie Course (as seen in the syllabus a few links away from the original article). It points out that celebrities can also become the model of online interaction – not just selfie images/modeling. The worry for me is that the strategy that people are adhering to is about commanding the largest possible audience – not something that’s necessarily healthy for the average person. Obviously, as a celebrity, the job is to draw eyeballs and to collect tweets and clicks. But we have to wonder what kind of tactics the young person might resort to if the only goal is to command eyeballs. Something dangerous? Something overtly sexual? Something that potentially compromises their own future? This is where the biggest worry about people putting out images or messages that they will one day regret comes in. Young people have to be taught that celebrities are modeling behavior driven by their own personal gain and consciously considered goals. Such goals are not necessarily relevant for every person, even those trying to make their mark online.

Of course, if we look at a selfie as a cultural artifact, it can be informative – something we are already finding when we look back several years and see memes or fashion or events that timestamp those particular images. As Alice Marwick points out, there is an element of self-representation that is culturally important in that it not only provides a “visual artifact” on (digital) life in 2016, but it also provides evidence that can be mined to discover more about what is popular, what is celebrity, etc.

One of things I’ve found interesting about the selfie is how often it escapes it’s original medium and makes it’s way into others, particularly the so-called mainstream news. . For instance, in the past few days, the New York Post carried this story about a Khloe Kardashian selfie and the NY Daily News had this one about a Twitter photobomb at the Oscars. More and more, these pictures become news well beyond Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. The ability to reach an even larger audience than the one that’s tuned into the actual online platform will likely only fuel the lengths celebrities (and others) will go to get themselves noticed. (Both the New York Times and Washington Post posted articles last week that underscore that point, discussing the number of people that have been killed trying to take a great selfie.)

This point is advanced in the third selfie article, in which it talks about how digital self-representation and the use of the images of real people can provoke or advance a discussion. I’ve seen this over and over in my line of work.  One thing I think would be interesting to examine would be how these kinds of stories play out inside the digital media and how that contrasts with how they play out in the mainstream media. Which one is more nuanced? Which one has more “analysis”? Which one includes more voices? As an example we can even look at this story about selfies – a rash of them that saw people taking pictures of themselves at disaster scenes (or suicide scenes).  The mainstream media’s take is here.  And (an example of) an online take is here, through Reddit. It’s not quite slut-shaming, but the idea that these people put themselves out there and were then called out by lots of other people online (as well as the media), not only spurred action (and an apology) but also awareness of what was going on, hopefully stopping others from making similar stupid decisions. One other note – that the idea of an image carrying more weight than messages is a timeworn notion, so the fact that images may be taking a more prevalent place in our methods of communication may be seen as a good thing in that it allows people to see what folks are talking about rather than allowing others to interpret it for them. Over and over last year, for example, I wrote stories about the refugee crisis in Europe and failed to come up with one sentence in all those months that communicated as much as the single image of that one little Syrian boy who drowned and was washed up on the beach. It was worldwide news. Didn’t matter what language you spoke, you understood the message of that one image. (By the way, there were 742 comments on that one article and (if the comments are to be believed) it remained the top story on WSJ’s website for three days. I can imagine it was the same for publications around the world.)

As for the final selfie article, it’s certainly worth exploring how we compose selfies and what decisions go into it, which is part of what I think Mark Marino is talking about. The essay he assigns tells his students to examine their own selfies for representations of race-ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexuality and gender.  But I think you could also go further and ask people to look at what it says about their mood, their outlook, the way they see themselves in relation to others or the rest of society, etc.  This also makes me think about people that use avatars as their personal representations, or those that use their pets or kids or any other objects. I know a woman who was promiscuous back in high school and was interested that when we linked up on Facebook years later, she was represented by a a picture of her pooch and had NO pictures of herself at all on her Facebook page. Is it because she’s ashamed of what she looks like at 40? Or maybe she doesn’t want to be found by those from her past?  I guess your choice of how you represent yourself can include no representation at all.

One final point: I have been thinking about what types of social media I would like to learn for our class final project and after completing this blog, I’ve decided on Instagram and/or Snapchat.  In addition, I know both of my kids want to learn these as well and so I’m wondering if I can do a project in which all three of us (or two of us) are videotaped trying to learn (in doing so, we can compare digital learning in two different generations).