Visual Standards and Disruptive practices in selfies

Captura de pantalla 2015-11-25 a la(s) 13.51.22We will be present at the workshop “Standards, Disruptions and Values in Digital Culture and Communication” organized by the section for Digital Culture and Communication (ECREA) and the University of Salzburg (Austria) from 26 to 27 November 2015.

This is the abstract of our presentation: Visual standards and disruptive practices in selfies by Elisenda Ardèvol, Antoni Roig, Gemma San Cornelio

Abstract

Selfies have become a very popular phenomenon on social networks. Since 2013 the presence of news regarding selfies in popular media (TV and newspapers) has been recurrent, and in many occasions related to narcissism and exhibitionism. Even though the topic is not completely new (academic research dealing with Internet identity is very prolific and showcases related debates) the use of the specific the notion of ‘selfies’ is just bursting right now in the academic field, more than a year after its popularization.

An initial state of the art of selfies research reveals two different ways to deal with the phenomenon: on the one hand, researchers with a previous trajectory of research on the Internet (Hogan and Wellman, 2014) and young scholars who perform mainly a qualitative approach (including digital methods). These approaches are diverse, but most of them refuse the simplistic idea that selfies are just the product of a postmodern, neoliberal or narcissistic vision of the self (Gunthert, 2015; Warfield, 2015).  On the other hand, in spite of being a phenomenon spread on social media, there are few examples of quantitative analysis of selfies, being Selfiecity the most renowned (Tifentale and Manovich, 2012). This project, led by Lev Manovich, was an attempt to introduce cultural analytics in a big data fashion and has been celebrated as much as criticised precisely for the limitations of quantitative data in understanding human experience and in general as a problematic scope within in the humanities (Losh, 2013).

Our starting point is to understand the selfie as a social practice that involves a number of questions including the preparation of the shot, the election of the tags and the conversation that takes place with the community, just to cite a few. In this regard, we are interested in how the ‘selfie’ is performed in different social contexts and as part of a personal or collective narrative. As Vivien and Burgess (2013) suggest, in contemporary digital storytelling, digital photography gains an emotional weight through its use as part of a personal narrative and the ‘selfie’ -as a corporal image- might be one strong component for personal performances and even a new visual standard for narratives social sharing.

But does the selfie entails an aesthetic or a cultural canon? Should it be considered mainstream or countercultural? In order to understand selfies as a cultural form (Gunthert, 2015) it is not enough to look at the networked photos that include the “selfie” hashtag: first, because there are images tagged as selfies that they are not even portraits (this could be interpreted as an strategy to reach more audiences, using a popular tag). Second and most interestingly, there are lots of what could be defined as conventional -or canonical- selfies that are not tagged as such (Carmean and Morris, 2014). Here we initially identify different practices: on the one hand, the tag ‘selfie’ is refused or underused for some reasons (e.g. because of the narcissistic readings, because is too ‘mainstream’ or normative). In this case alternative tags are used instead (eg. #instagay, #instagood, #instafriend). It could also be a sign of ‘naturalisation’ of the selfie as a cultural form for personal narrative by their practitioners, so a self- identifying tag is not needed any more or seen as too obvious.  On the other hand, there have been several activist campaigns against selfies as individualistic like the #unselfie movement in and other campaigns that claim the values and positive aspects of the practice, making visible the contributions, for instance, to NGO’s.

In this paper we want to present a first exploration of these canonical and disruptive uses of “selfie” through combining two approaches: first, we will explore through bigdata analysis the performance of different tags related to the practice of selfie on Instagram. Second, we will analyse with qualitative methods different ways to play and transgress the selfie ‘canon’(s) including art or activist practices.

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