February 27, 2014

British People Take More Pics Of Cats Than Themselves, And 4 Other Weird Trends In Selfies

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What is the issue?

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It’s here! Cold, hard, scientific data about The Selfie. In case you were asking yourself the existential question, what does this all mean? The way man long ago asked, is the world round?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, from which ‘selfie’ was chosen as Word of the Year in 2013, a selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” Since the birth of the selfie, that coincided somewhere alongside the birth of the smart phone, many have speculated upon the meaning behind this modern marvel.

“From a social psychological standpoint, the selfie phenomenon seems to stem from two basic human motives. The first is to attract attention from other people. By posting selfies, people can keep themselves in other people’s minds. In addition, like all photographs that are posted online, selfies are used to convey a particular impression of oneself,” says Mark R. Leary, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University.

One interesting claim has been made by Karen Nelson-Filed, Senior Research Associate at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia, who asserts “In the age of social media where consumer brands seek deep consumer engagement, the human race is following suit. We all behave like brands and the selfie is simply brand advertising. The problem is, like most advertising done on the cheap and in haste, the selfie can easily backfire making your brand less desirable.”

Humble theorists like James Franco explored the depth of one species, the “celebrity selfie”, and proclaims “It has value regardless of the photo’s quality, because it is ostensibly an intimate shot of someone whom the public is curious about.”

Hopeful cynics, such as Joel Stein of Time magazine, believe the selfie is both the cause and byproduct of the ‘Me Me Me Generation’ that is plagued by narcissistic personality disorder.

Whatever has been opined on the subject can now be supplemented with data.

Thanks to four scientists in Europe, who took on the sociological endeavor of conducting a research project titled ‘Selfiecity’ led by Dr. Lev Manovich and Software Studies Initiative to make sense of a multitude of selfies posted on Instagram, we have calculated facts.

For one week in December 2013, the Selfiecity team gathered thousands of photos off Instagram and quantitatively searched for Instagram selfie patterns around the world. Taking sample data from five cities—Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, Sao Paulo and New York—the project reveals “the inherent complexities of understanding the selfie as a product of the advancement of digital image-making and online image-sharing as well as social phenomenon that at the same time serves as a means of individual and creative self-expression.” According to their website, Selfiecity randomly selected 120,000 photos (20,000-30,000 photos per city) from a total of 656,000 images they collected on Instagram. Using Amazon mechanical turk workers they ran automatic face analysis, supplying them with algorithmic estimations of eye, nose and mouth positions, the degrees of different emotional expressions, and a myriad of other statistics.

Here are their findings and some personal thoughts on each.


1. People take less selfies than often assumed. Depending on the city, only 2-5% of images analyzed were actually selfies.

There is, in fact, hope for the future of humanity that will eventually be led by millennials—those who spend more time interacting with others though Instagram than in person, and crush candy more than books.

I would like to point out, and give an admirable to salute to, our friends in Britain who take more cat photos than selfies.

2. Significantly more women take selfies. In each city assessed, there were more women selfies than men selfies (ranging from Bangkok where 55.2% of women take selfies to Moscow where 82.0% of women take part) New York city fell in the medium, having 61.6% of women as selfie takers.

By nature, or nurture if you’re talking to a feminist, women are more self-absorbed than men. This is not a revolutionary, enlightening notion.

3. Selfies are a young person’s sport. 23.7 is the median age of selfie takers among all five cities in the study. Surprisingly, more older men (30+) post selfies on Instagram than women.

Like the aforementioned, younger people are more self-absorbed than older people, probably because older people have substantive things, such an important job or family, to be preoccupied with. You can make the argument that because women feel pressure to begin a family earlier than men, fewer women are single in their 30s and therefore less likely to take selfies. Nothing says bachelor more than a 37-year-old man selfie.

4. Out of the five cities, Bangkok and Sao Paulo smile the most in selfies. Moscow (surprise!) smiles the least and New York and Berlin hover right above it on the smile charts.

If you’ve ever seen a group of delighted Asian tourists or beautifully tanned Brazilians, than this data shouldn’t surprise you.

5. The average amount of head tilt in a selfie is 150 percent higher for women than for men (12.3 degrees vs. 8.2 degrees).

I am as perplexed about why this is as much as I am about the origins and proliferation of the Duck Face or Sparrow Face.

So there we have it. Scientific data that adds a bit of color to the picture we’ve been attempting to paint of The Selfie and its evolutionary meanings. We can only hope that natural selection doesn’t use its mighty force to kill off selfie takers, so that The Selfie may endure and be subject to evaluation for years to come. TC mark

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