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Why We Care So Much About Selfies

Selfie. Just reading that word probably got a reaction from you.

That’s because taking a selfie has become a rather popular and somewhat derided activity.

  • You can’t go anywhere without seeing a person taking a selfie or watching another make fun of the person taking a selfie.
  • You see people take selfies at concerts, political rallies, celebrity sightings, family gatherings, church picnics, scenic vistas, airports, cafes and even the Oscars. Or, frighteningly, the guy driving the car next to you in traffic.

How on Earth did we get here? Don’t we know what we look like? Why are we taking photos of our own faces?

Moreover, what does this tell us about ourselves?

Selfie Mania

For the few remaining people out there who don’t know about selfies, it’s simply taking a picture of yourself while looking at the camera. The advent of digital cameras led to the practice taking off.

Oxford Dictionaries named “selfie” its word of the year in 2013, recognizing its widespread use.


Explore: NEC’s Sociology Degrees


Most of you know how popular selfies have become simply through experience. But if you want statistics to back up what you are seeing:

  • 26% of Americans have shared a selfie on a social media site, according to a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center. That includes 55% of Millennials.

And that’s just the ones that were shared on social media. That doesn’t count the one you took of your new haircut and texted to your friends.

Who Selfies and How Often?

As the Pew Research Center report showed, selfies are particularly popular with younger people. But plenty of Generation Xers take selfies, as well. And then there are senior citizens such as this guy, who is trying to beat the retweet record set by Ellen DeGeneres at the Oscars.

Selfiecity Project

It probably comes as no surprise that researchers have studied selfies in depth. A recent project called Selfiecity looked at tens of thousands of selfies from around the world. The cities included New York City, Berlin, Moscow, Bangkok, and Sao Paulo.

  • Some of what was found was finely grained, such as the fact that women strike more dramatic poses in selfies than men, including tilting their head at more extreme angles, and that people smile more in New York City than they do Berlin.
  • Also, no matter what city in the world, women take more selfies than men.

Certainly, there seems to be something going on here beyond just vanity. And it’s happening a lot, with Selfiecity able to scrape 20,000 selfies from social media from each city in just one week in December 2014.

Other Research on Selfies

The demographics of selfie-taking are interesting. The International Journal of Communication reported in 2015 found that whites posted fewer selfies than blacks and Latinos, and that men generally dismissed selfies as something that’s “OK for girls” but not for them.

Incidentally, there’s proof that women take selfies more safely than men. A Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care study found that nearly three-fourths of selfie-related deaths (72.5%) from 2011 to 2017 involved men.

Why We Selfie

Well, no one is sure. Calling people vain, or saying we live in a narcissistic society, are far too general statements to account for millions of people taking photos of themselves and sharing them online. There must be something more.

Here are some theories to help explain selfie mania.

  • We do it because technology allows us to do it. That theory, shared on ThoughtCo., posits that technology has freed the self-portrait from the world of artists and put it into the hands of everyone.
  • Selfies are part of “identity work,” meaning what we all do to present ourselves in a way that we want people to see us.
  • Selfies are a social activity, as they are meant to be shared with others.
  • Selfies are a kind of meme, a way of offering communication that replicates itself. (Every selfie, after all, is basically a picture of someone taken at arm’s length.)
  • Everyone just wants to be a bit more like Kim Kardashian. (Kidding!)

As for the criticism, it should be noted that whether it’s justified or not, in articles on the topic, these words occur repeatedly: narcissistic, self-absorbed, vain, shallow, and self-aggrandizing.

Expect research into selfies to continue, so long as selfies stay popular.

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