social sciences

Selfies depict values and improve self-understanding

Illustrative photo from
Illustrative photo from

Selfies have become a part of our everyday life and culture. Even if you do not take or post selfies yourself, you most likely have seen many of them in your social media news feeds. If you do not use social media, then you have probably seen someone taking a selfie in a gym, at the seaside, or in a café. And you have definitely heard people’s skeptical opinions about them.

Katrin Tiidenberg, a post-doc at the Aarhus University and Associate Professor of social media and visual culture at Tallinn University, has been researching selfies for seven years now. While in the early stages of research she carried out for her PhD dissertation, she was more interested in people’s behaviour on social media and how it affected their identity, she soon discovered the power of images. “I did not expect that, but selfies dragged me along, abducted me,” she said.

This spring, her book Selfies: Why We Love (and Hate) Them was published, bringing a rich and nuanced analysis of selfie culture to its readers. Tiidenberg’s book shows how selfies gain their meanings, illustrates different selfie practices, explores how selfies make us feel (and why they even have the power to make us feel anything at all) and unpacks how selfie practices and selfie-related norms have changed or might change in the future.

Constantly changing cultural phenomena

“Selfies have so many different meanings: they are sometimes self-reflexive or even therapeutic tools for understanding and accepting oneself. Furthermore, they fulfill two important needs – becoming somebody and belonging to a group,” she noted.

Tiidenberg delineates five social functions of selfies: 1.) self-presentation (aiding in the understanding of oneself); 2.) interaction (flirting, joking, conflict-confronting, etc.); 3.) expression of feelings (remembering, celebrating, grieving); 4.) self-expression (telling stories, protesting, etc.); and 5.) self-branding or monetizing the attention generated via selfies.

The last function is an aspect so-called “influencer culture” and is one of the functions that has significantly increased in recent years, Tiidenberg mentioned. She added that although the social functions have been present since selfie-culture appeared ten or so years ago, selfies still are like every other culture phenomena – they are constantly changing. “For example, poses, leg positions, and facial gestures evolve. The “duck face” used to be common few years ago, but it isn’t anymore,” she explained.

For better orientation

In her research, Tiidenberg used many different methods. First, she observed one group of Tumblr users for seven years; conducting up to five different interviews with some individual informants. She observed blogs and the usage of text, hashtags and pictures during the course of her research. In addition she conducted some hashtag driven studies on Instagram. All combined, it provided her with a lot of material to analyse. “I believe it is necessary to combine different methods, because otherwise we can not get the full picture. Only interviewing or only looking at pictures would probably be biased or misleading,” she noted.

In addition to substantive empirical findings, she has, throughout her years of research,  contributed to ongoing theoretical and methodological development and discussions. Her theoretical inferences could help interpret identity and self-representation, while her methodological ones may help other researchers with investigating visual culture, social media culture and self presentation in a networked world.

“An everyday practice like taking selfies reflects our norms and values. However, upon a closer look, it becomes apparent that understanding phenomena like selfie practices can significantly contribute to the development of our critical literacy, which is important when living in a network-based society,” Tiidenberg noted. She added that critical literacy is an ability to select and interpret information in an engaged manner, which should help us notice the power relations built into that information.

Written by Marii Kangur

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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