Angelica Svelander, Mikael Wiberg
Selfies—commonly understood as those shallow pictures taken with no preparation, no thought behind them, no careful editing, no thoughtful posing, and no other purpose than showing off one’s look. But is this really an accurate description of the practice of selfies? Here we elaborate on this practice and its implications for design. We demonstrate that it is not an act of narcissism, nor is it tied to a single individual. On the contrary, selfies need to be understood as a social practice, the result of a long and thoughtful process governed by three mechanisms: social calibration, social probing, and social feedback. These three mechanisms of interaction, tightly coupled to their enabling technology, form a basis for interaction design.
The practice of taking photos of oneself has been around for quite a while—recall the days when Polaroid pictures were taken and handed out to friends and family. Nowadays, technology lets us share these self-portraits online via social media, making them viewable by anyone around the globe. The phenomenon became so big that a new word was invented for it. Defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media,”  selfie became the word of the year in 2013. The practice of taking selfies is a long one, performed with great care in terms of preparation, editing, and sharing.
Sometimes people think of selfies only in terms of self-expression. However, while narcissism could be a label understood through a psychological lens [2,3], here we provide a complementary perspective. We suggest that since technology and social processes enable selfies, and since selfies are created and reconfirmed between “me” and “you,” the phenomenon cannot be fully understood by taking only an individual or a psychological perspective. Instead, we advocate a sociomaterial understanding of selfies. In doing so, we approach this phenomenon as an inseparable combination of interactive technologies, social processes, and psychology. Hence, in this article we look at the materiality of social photographing. The notion of materiality here refers to the intertwined relationship between a person and a material artifact [4,5]—in this particular context, the relationship between the producer of the selfie and, as the material components, the selfie, the social media (including the platform and other people using the platform), and of course, the smartphone.
Studying the Practice of Selfies
While many definitions of selfies already exist, there is still a lack of knowledge about the sociomaterial practices surrounding them. In order to deepen our understanding on the subject, we conducted an empirical study. Twenty Swedish women ages 23 to 43 completed a written interview about their habits, thoughts, and feelings concerning self-presentation through selfies. The participants are friends with one of the authors on Instagram, which gives the authors access to private pictures otherwise posted in a closed network. The invitation to participate went out to both men and women, but since no men fit the requirement of having posted at least one selfie on Instagram, no men were recruited. The expectation with having written interviews instead of oral ones was to gain complete honesty. Since selfies can be quite a sensitive subject, we wanted the participants to be able to speak their mind freely, without having to worry about exposing too much of themselves to an interviewer. After completing the interview, participants were asked to attach selfies they liked, as well as before/after pictures of selfies that were edited in some way.
The Intertwined Processes of Selfies
Selfies are of course enabled by a combination of interactive materials, including social media, such as Instagram, and the camera phone. Beyond that, however, and in staying true to our sociomaterial approach, we see the practice of taking selfies as a phenomenon consisting of not only interactive materials but also social processes. Accordingly, we conducted a study on Instagram, which is the largest picture-sharing social media service. Instagram has 150 million active users and an average of 60 million photos posted every day. Currently 193 million public pictures and videos uploaded to Instagram are hashtagged with the words selfie and selfies. Despite their popularity, little is known about the processes and mechanisms through which selfies are created and posted. We view these mechanisms as intersections between interactive materials in use and the social practice of selfies, which in turn enable, govern, and develop that very same practice. In our study, we identified three such processes surrounding the practice of selfies: social calibration, social probing, and social feedback (Figure 1).
Since technology and social processes enable selfies, the phenomenon cannot be fully understood by taking only an individual or a psychological perspective.
Social calibration. Social calibration refers to ways of using Instagram to get an overview and understanding of what might work as a selfie even before the photo is taken. This happens through the study of similar photos posted and in relation to one’s own photos shared online. In particular, two aspects surfaced in our study: how people select occasions to share photos online is dependent on what others have selected, and people post new photos with a certain frequency or rhythm.
The majority of the participants stated they do not have any problems with seeing selfies in their Instagram feed, unless they appear too often by the same person:
I like commenting nice things about the person, to not put too much focus on the appearance. However, it gets tedious when people post selfies too often. It has a negative effect on me. Then I stop liking and commenting.
... but when a person posts selfies several times a week without any other reason than taking a picture of oneself, I just scroll past because it does not interest me.
Selfies are often associated with other contexts, which once again shows that it is not always about an individual and their self-expression.
The two pictures in Figure 2 are examples of selfies taken not mainly to show the look of the person in the picture, but rather to show a new place and a fun happening. The pictures were accompanied by captions enhancing the focus on the view and the money won.
Social probing. The second mechanism surrounding the practice of selfies refers to the act of taking the photo, editing it, and posting it on social media. In our study, we found that the participants do not actually use the camera function available in Instagram. Instead, we noticed a small workaround practice. People take photos by using the standard camera application available on the phone. The reason why, as stated by the participants, was that they want to take several pictures and then choose the best one to upload to Instagram, which is not possible when using the camera in Instagram.
Before selfies are shared on social media, the photos undergo a rich editing process in Instagram, where different settings such as filters, brightness, and focus are tried out (Figure 3).
The majority of the respondents reported that they usually edit their picture before posting it to Instagram:
You want the picture to look “professionally” made and well thought out. I always edit using a filter, sometimes also light and contrast.
Social feedback. Selfies can be understood as a one-way communication where a person presents himself or herself to an online community through self-portraits. However, in this study, almost all participants found it important for their Instagram followers to communicate back to them through likes and comments. Accordingly, social feedback is crucial for the practice surrounding selfies. This was highlighted by several of the participants in our study:
Of course it makes me happy when I get positive comments/many likes. It increases my self esteem.
It is fun when people like and comment, absolutely! As said before, I take it as if people like who I am and what I am doing, and somehow that is what we strive for.
In some cases, it even went as far as removing selfies if they were getting too few likes and comments:
I think so [that it is important to get likes and comments]; if no one liked a selfie I put up I will probably remove it since it shows it was not as good/funny/entertaining as I thought.
Implications for Interaction Design
While there is much more to say about the practices surrounding selfies, we can already see the identified mechanisms as an emerging pattern with implications for design.
When people use Instagram in acts of social calibration, social probing, and social feedback, they make use of a lot of information gathered over time. This information is shown only in fragments spread across the timeline, with no overview and no possibility to see how it varies. As of now, the users have to keep all this information in their mind, without any support from technology. Accordingly, technology support for such overviews could be helpful.
For acts of social calibration, users in our study wanted information about what kinds of pictures have been appreciated the most in the past and how often people in their networks post pictures. The idea of enabling services like Instagram to suggest when to post pictures so as to get the most likes, or to stop users from posting several very similar pictures in a row, is accordingly a design opportunity.
Posting selfies is a live experiment in which users have little knowledge of how a picture is going to be received until they get, or do not get, feedback from their followers. Therefore, to be able to get a prediction of how a picture might be received based on the motive of the picture, the rhythm of posting, users online, time of day/week/year, and so on would be valuable. As mentioned earlier, participants in our study said they take several pictures using their phone’s camera app before choosing the best one to edit and upload, which is currently not possible in Instagram. Hence, to be able to take several pictures in Instagram itself would facilitate the practice of taking selfies.
Further, we suggest that users of social media platforms like Instagram should be able to see how their feedback varies over time. To get a grip on which photos generated the most likes and comments, the user now has to look at all their pictures individually and try to remember the patterns, if they even manage to find any. A timeline of all the photos, accompanied by curves for the amount of likes and comments, would satisfy this need, letting the user see their feedback in its entirety and not only in bits and pieces.
Here, we have presented the sociomaterial practice surrounding selfies. We argue that selfies are not an individual phenomenon or about one person wanting to show off their looks online. Selfies are more than self-portraits; they are also a sociomaterial practice surrounded by three social processes: social calibration, social probing, and social feedback. Related to this, there is more to do in the area of interaction design.
So what can interaction design learn from this? Designing for social media platforms such as Instagram should involve more than the interaction between a human and a computer. Beyond this model, design for the practice surrounding selfies needs to be addressed using a sociomaterial lens through which services like Instagram are viewed as interactive materials in relation to the social processes surrounding them. The implications of this for how people interact with the service range from how particular functionality is used in Instagram to how Instagram is combined with other technologies (for instance, the standard camera photo app and other social media platforms).
We conclude by suggesting that if selfies are to be understood as a sociomaterial practice, the proper way of studying this practice in the coming years will be with one keen eye on how technologies and social media platforms are developing, and another one on the characteristics surrounding this practice. Selfies exemplify digital technology brought into the social world and how our social practices live on these technological platforms. The practice of selfies simultaneously reproduces not only the platforms and their contents, but also what it means to “be,” online and in our everyday lives.
3. Bergman, S.M., Fearrington, M.E., Davenport, S.W., and Bergman, J.Z. Millenials, narcissism, and social networking: What narcissists do on social networking sites and why. Personality and Individual Differences 50, 5 (2011), 706–711.
Angelica Svelander is a Ph.D. student in informatics at Umeå University. She has a background in human-computer interaction and cognitive science. Her research interests focus on social media, from both a user and a developer perspective. firstname.lastname@example.org
Mikael Wiberg is a professor of informatics at Umeå university. He has held positions as chaired professor in HCI at Uppsala University and as research director for Umeå Institute of Design. His research interests focus on the materiality of interaction and ways of integrating architectural thinking with interaction design. email@example.com
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