Pointing the lens at ourselves: The cultural impact of selfies

Katie Warfield, in between teaching communications and media literacy courses in Kwantlen’s Journalism program, has taken on a new project examining selfies – those arm’s-length self-portraits that are seemingly everywhere on the internet.

Warfield is conducting a 34 open-question survey of women between the ages of 14 and 21 in order to understand the cultural significance of how media technologies are being used and critiqued in society. We talked about her research and the issues faced by all generations creating online culture today.

Chloe Smith: Why did you decide to study selfies?

Katie Warfield: It was mostly from an article that a colleague of mine had posted that spoke about selfies from an art background, art history perspective. I really like the idea of taking pop cultural expressions that seemingly really super fleeting and superficial and adding some interesting depth to them.

CS: In your research, is there was core thing that you would want to find out or present to people. What would that be?

KW: It would be how young girls are using online photography to explore their identity at a super awkward and influential period in their lives.

CS: What is your opinion on the idea that selfies are narcissistic?

KW: I think it’s too simplistic of a conclusion. That discourse on judging selfies as negative has to be situated within that whole history and trajectory of the embedded patriarchal ideals.  Women aren’t permitted to celebrate their physical self and that is something other people – primarily men – do. I think selfies need to be read in a very different way.

CS: Some people think that selfies are a symptom of a generation, the online generation, which is too self-focused and individualistic. What can you say to that?

KW: I would say check out the Unselfies movement and the type of unselfies that are posted up there. It’s a really interesting comparison to look at the selfies trend, the discourses around selfies – mostly being negative – and the unselfies trend and the discourses around that as being very positive.

The Unselfies movement was reaction immediately against selfies, so they have to be talked about in tandem. My problem is the judgement label on the selfies as reflective of this trend within the younger generation. For me, the reading is young people using these new technologies to explore their own identity, which to me is not problematic.

CS: Recently there has been some controversy over the Funeral Selfies trend. But does it cut two ways? On one hand there is time and place for everything but is there something be said about documenting your own life experience?

KW: I think you have a valid point. This goes into what I’m talking about, which is I think the younger generation – you’re closer to them but I think you even are a step away from this age demographic – that we’re focussing on and keeps getting in trouble with these sorts of things. They are using these technologies in ways that haven’t been used before. But they are using [these technologies] within an online mass media system that is of the older generation that reinforces the proper technology conduct.

This older generation is the one that is saying, “Oh, that’s inappropriate,” like the guy who pulled all of those selfies at funerals and has a Tumblr site featuring them all. It’s funny, but the reason why we laugh at it is because, “Oh, these poor people obliviously weren’t thinking when they posted them online,” this is inappropriate conduct.

This goes back to Michel Foucault’s Technologies of the Self. We police each other and we police each other especially online because we are still trying to decide what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate. Because online culture isn’t a true space, it’s a space without walls. It’s not a visible space, the parameters that would otherwise define private versus public like in the real world, which are very explicit, are really quite invisible online. We’re trying to figure those out and the only way those lines and walls are built online is through dialogue.

People saying that it’s inappropriate to take picture of your dead grandmother at her funeral – that is the wall, those words are the walls that being built to say inappropriate or appropriate. The only way we learn about them is through talk.

What is often being neglected in the critique of those types of movements is the individual, the personal reasoning. We talked about Stuart Hall’s encoding and decoding. The origin of the encoding-decoding model was the lack of mass media outlets being introspective on how the audience was going to make sense of what they’re doing.

But it’s almost as if that model is being reversed. We have these individuals now acting as broadcasters – broadcasting these images from a very individual place and then the mass audience of the internet, especially online mass media, reflecting back to them and decoding their experiences, but decoding them from hegemonic places.

CS: Do you think that is failure on the part of society of how best to digest self-made content online? My generation was the generation of texting too much and meeting strangers online, now this generation posts selfies that some think are inappropriate. Does society fames these occurrences incorrectly?

KW: Your texting was your moment of exploring yourself and developing relationships, but it was being digested by society as you’re not following the codes of proper interpersonal communication. Rather than what you’re really doing, is you’re just figuring things out at this really awkward stage in your life, that 14 to 17 age. I think that’s the something that’s going on and the medium had just changed.

CS: How do you think selfies relate to online self-documenting? Instead of a diaries, teens have Tumblr blogs. So how does that all relate to idea of creating personal content that is out there for anyone to see?

KW: I haven’t thought too deeply about that. I have to the extent that we have more recording of ourselves online. Communication theorists have writing about the regime of surveillance where the positive side of it is we have this epic collection of little bits of our lives online, so if you ever want to reflect back on them it is nice nostalgia. But the problem with that is very much public and that information can be used for better or for worse by other individuals.

I think it’s obviously different in the fact that, like I said, the lines between public and private are blurred. But I think that part of it that I keep coming back to, is no matter what media technology we look at historically, media has always served some sort of a socializing purpose.

Previously, it was broadcast media broadcasting out the social expectations, but even since the phone, the net and then the cell phone, we’re using these communication technologies to figure out our identities. But now we have tons and tons of different media to do that, and online culture, our online lives, is very multimedia and experiential. It’s selfies, it’s photos, it’s Vines, it’s your Facebook updates.

I always hesitate to judge whether it’s good or bad. I think it’s just we’re still in this figuring-out period of exactly how different people are using it. I think the quick judgment is to say it is bad, but no, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

I think people of this generation are smarter than what we give them credit for, and they still find these uses for these various technologies that we haven’t conceived of yet. To me, that’s brilliant.

Chloe Smith

Chloe Smith is a third-year journalism student who, instead of curbing her habit of mindlessly scrolling on the internet, is exploring why online culture matters.

Be first to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.