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In the Beginning was the Image: The Omnipresence of Pictures

Time, Truth, Tradition


Edited By András Benedek and Ágnes Veszelszki

The authors outline the topic of visuality in the 21st century in a trans- and interdisciplinary theoretical frame from philosophy through communication theory, rhetoric and linguistics to pedagogy. As some scholars of visual communication state, there is a significant link between the downgrading of visual sense making and a dominantly linguistic view of cognition. According to the concept of linguistic turn, everything has its meaning because we attribute meaning to it through language. Our entire world is set in language, and language is the model of human activities. This volume questions the approach in the imagery debate.

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Selfies as interpersonal communication (James E. Katz and Elizabeth Thomas Crocker)

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James E. Katz and Elizabeth Thomas Crocker

Selfies as interpersonal communication

We define selfies as images or videos that one takes of oneself, primarily alone, but sometimes among a group of others. Manovich’s 2015 study of selfies found that only about 4% of the images posted on Instagram in a single week were selfies. While that is a relatively small percentage of the overall vast number images captured, it nonetheless translates into about three-quarters of a billion pictures that currently reside on Instagram.

Initially considered the domain of teens, the selfie phenomenon now runs the gamut from religious leaders to politicians and practically everyone in between. Franklin Graham (son and heir of the iconic US evangelist, Billy Graham) takes numerous selfies, while President Obama has wielded a selfie stick in Alaska. Politicians across the spectrum now find selfies as routine as shaking hands or kissing babies. Indeed, a colorful story splashed across the front page of Boston’s leading newspaper, dubbing the state’s governor “His Excellency Governor Selfie” for his predilection to snap a shot at every opportunity, even when he encounters a cute dog (Miller 2015).

Yet harsh criticism has also been leveled at the selfie and those who take them. For instance, Robert Lucky has called them “personal propaganda” observing that photos had previously been considered “treasured keepsakes” and were now used primarily for self promotion (Lucky 2015), and this description might be characterized as polite relative to other terms that have been applied to them. Among manifold negative responses to selfies have been comments directed at Mr. Obama for participating in a selfie at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. Nor are celebrities immune to criticism; popular US TV personality Al Roker had to apologize for his insensitivity after taking a smiling selfie with hurricane wreckage in the background (Wagner 2015). Beyond the personal politics and moral indignation that selfies have provoked, is the fact that their production can be quite dangerous. With disturbing frequency, people go to such extremes to take a compelling selfie that they put themselves in harm’s way, with fatal consequences (Diehl 2015).

Yet criticism also extends to the world of scholarship where not only selfie takers are critiqued for various shortcomings, but so too are those who study selfies (Tifentale 2014). We would like to add our criticism of some selfie studies, because they often do not give sufficient regard to the communicational aspects of selfie production, consumption, and coproduction. More specifically, we see selfies as ← 131 | 132 → often filling an important conversational role. Of course this is not true for all selfies, but it is, as we endeavor to show below, a sufficiently important aspect to merit systematic inquiry.

In this sense, our analysis seeks to highlight the turn towards visual communication, which, while we admit this is a contested viewpoint, has not received sufficient attention from philosophical or communication research perspectives. That is to say, many analyses of this new practice may be accused of failing to see them as a rich form of reciprocal communication, even as a broad front has been opened about the inability of young people to communicate (Turkle 2015). According to this school of thought, the absence of meaningful conversation may be laid at the doorstep of our communication technology. We take issue with this “soft technological deterministic” position, holding that people use the communication technology available to get done what they want, the way they want. Of course, there is more to this point than can be captured here in a few words, but our point is not to criticize Turkle, but rather to highlight the fact that people use communication technologies that serve their purposes rather than address some externally defined (often elite-driven) set of standards.

We see that selfies do much to effectively communicate among friendship circles and beyond certain sentiments and ideas, and especially emotions, much better than a carefully written essay or letter, or public address. Moreover, there may be high degrees of intriguing ambiguity and multi-layered meanings to selfies that make them a combination of game and puzzle, adding further to their attractiveness. We suggest that selfies are symbols, and as symbolic representations of self they are signs that evoke or provoke variegated meanings, and thereby are communicating ideas that competent viewers can discern (Hefner 1990).

It is worth pointing out that for hundreds of thousands of years evolutionary forces have attuned human beings to become adept at reading each other’s faces to understand and exploit the thinking behind the mask of one’s visage. By the same token, with effort and experience many facial expressions can be suppressed, giving rise in English to the expression “poker face,” blocking the “mind reading” efforts of the one gazing upon the individual’s expression. But here we are concerned about the ability to communicate using facial expressions, often with intentionality and effort, just the reverse of the point made in the preceding sentence, which is set forth to provide a juxtaposition.

Hence, the question of selfies as a form of human interaction and communication can now move to the center of our argument. In this regard, we wish to present data from a US survey to help shed light on the process from a communicational perspective. Specifically, although there have been a small number ← 132 | 133 → of studies of selfies as communication processes, little systematic evidence exists concerning the generalizability of observations concerning the use of selfies “in the eye of the beholder” (but exceptions include Katz–Thomas Crocker 2015). Hence our research seeks to understand the communicational aspects of selfies by surveying an introductory communication class at a large northeastern American university in the fall of 2015. Although of course not representative of the general youth population, 471 freshmen students successfully completed the instrument (81% female, 19% male). Nearly all were 18 or 19 years old.

In terms of selfie production, all had heard of, and nearly all had taken a selfie (only seven students, or 1.5%, said they had not). As to the intensity of selfie production, over half (56%) said they had taken a selfie with the past 24 hours. Fourteen percent had shared one selfie in that time period, nine percent had shared two, and seven percent had shared three. About 10% of the sample said they had shared 10 or more selfies in the past 24 hours. This result suggests high levels of selfie production among this age cohort. Looking over a longer time span, one week, 29 students (about 4%) reported sending more than 100 selfies, which of course is not a precise count, but rather a general indication of magnitude.

Are selfies designed for friendship circles rather than the general public or unknown others? To get at this question, we asked students to agree or disagree (on a five-point Likert scale) with the statement “selfies should only be shared with friends”. The sample was fairly evenly split on this question, with about one third agreeing with that sentiment, one third being neutral, and one third expressing disagreement. However, when the question was formulated differently, “it’s okay to share selfies publicly,” 69% agreed or strongly agreed, 22% were neutral, and 9% disagreed or strongly disagreed. Hence while selfies in general may be suitable for either public and private consumption, or both, there is a significant proportion of the sample that feels selfies are objects for personal or friendship-circle consumption only. (The public versus private dimensions of selfie production and consumption may be an important topic for future research.)

Selfies are by definition an intentional production, and the question of staging vs. spontaneity is of interest here. In terms of the question “I often carefully stage my selfies,” half of the respondents answered affirmatively (agreed/strongly agreed) while a quarter were neutral and another quarter disagreed or strongly disagreed. Our answer to this question would emphasize the intentionality behind selfie production, a point that further implicates their role as a form of communication to others. (As in so many areas, though, staging could also be integral to the personal documentation activity, for both one’s own sake and that of posterity. However, even going beyond posterity, it could be readily argued ← 133 | 134 → that self-documentation is still a communicative act, created now for the future self to consume.)

An interesting finding was the relationship between the questions, “I often carefully stage my selfies” and “selfies are meant to be informal”. Although one would expect that those who think that a selfie should be informal would also be those who do not carefully stage their selfies, this was not the case. A statistically significant proportion who strongly agreed that selfies should be informal, were also more likely to strongly agree with the statement that they carefully stage their selfies.

Another aspect of the intentionality of selfie production and sharing is the notion that the act of selfie production is designed, perhaps less for personal gratification, than it is to manipulate the impression that others have of the selfie producer. We found some evidence in support of this proposition when we asked the respondents about their motive for selfie production. In response to the question “I share selfies to impress people,” about one third agreed with this statement (6% strongly agreed, 26% agreed). Twenty-six percent of the respondents were neutral, while twenty-nine and thirteen percent respectively disagreed and strongly disagreed. While this is not a resounding endorsement of the principle, there is nonetheless evidence that for about a third of the sample this was the case.

It is worth pausing here to note that the topic of motivation is hard to get at through direct survey questions. Self-reports of motive tend to be notoriously hard to validate, in part because the actor in question may not be aware of their true motives, and in many cases the idea of a “true” motive can be hard to pin down. The notion of social desirability also comes into play, since some individuals may not be willing to admit to behavior for less than socially sanctioned rationales (Fisher–Katz 2000); in this particular case, an intent to impress. However, given that nearly two-thirds of our respondents said it was important to look good in a selfie (62.2%) suggests that undergraduates who post selfies are likely to be concerned with cultivating a positive impression. The extended self is not merely that possessions, text, and images happen to reflect identities, but that they are by their very nature instrumental in communicating those identities.

The two-way communication aspect of selfies is also worth considering. Indeed, it appears that there can be something approximating an interaction effect between selfie producers/centers. We believe this was the case, so we asked the question: “I send selfies back in response to the selfies I get”. Of our respondents, 13% said they strongly agreed with this sentiment, over half (53%) agreed, while 18% were neutral, 16% disagreed, and 7% strongly disagreed. ← 134 | 135 →

One of the aspects we were unable to probe in any detail via this survey, but hope to do so in future surveys, is the “demand” characteristics of photo exchanges. For example, to what extent do those who send selfies back into in response to the selfies they get do so because they feel obliged to do so? What extent do they do so because they feel they wish to engage in conversation-like interaction, or perhaps simply because of the stimulus or competitive dimension in light of another person’s selfies? In terms of our data, there was something of a penumbra concerning this that we were able to probe (although we were not able to do so directly). We did so by the question “I am very interested in how my friends react to my selfies”. Here we found close to half of the respondents affirming this attitude (10% strongly agreed and 36% agreed), 31% were neutral and one quarter were not supportive of that attitude (17% disagreed and 7% strongly disagreed).

Obviously, our investigation has only scratched the surface here. Specifying medium and audience size might help further illuminate this aspect, since there may be different expectations in responses to selfies, depending on the platform they were shared on and how many individuals could reasonably be expected to view it. Such an inquiry would also provide further information about intentionality, since we presume that the motivation to send a selfie sent to a single individual would be different than a selfie put on a public account available for thousands to view.

Summing up, this is not a definitive survey, and as a research vehicle has a plethora of methodological shortcomings; hence any generalizations must be exceedingly tentative. Yet it may be that some data are better than none. In that light, from our evidence we would argue that selfies are a meaningful form of interpersonal communication, and that they provoke an array of responses that have been previously found in both face-to-face interchanges and conversation. Survey responses suggest that competitiveness, friendship circles and grooming, and the creation of in-group rewards and out-group barriers, are all processes that are played out within the context of selfie production and consumption. As such, mobile technologies, such as the smart phone, are new frontiers of human communication that allow new forms of visual interaction to emerge. These forms allow for richness, playfulness, and competitiveness, as well as jealousy and frustration (and danger). Hence there is no reason not to encompass this form of expression into the panoply of communication tools which have played important roles in the cavalcade of human interaction and popular culture. These other forms have included floral bouquets as communication tools arrayed so as to convey complex sentiments. Likewise, stamps on envelopes have been used as a form of meta-communication to enrich, or in some cases hide, messages. Therefore, selfies, ← 135 | 136 → far from a unique or new form of communication, are a continuation of existing visual communication strategies, adapting, as ever, to newer technological tools.

Turning briefly to the philosophical dimension, which can only be noted in passing, the proliferation of selfies represents further confirmation of what might be called a “visual turn” in philosophy. As such, it adds to the opening of the way for those who believe that humans think, gain insight through, and even develop arguments, via images. In this sense, our findings provide ammunition against the position of those who, like Nelson Goodman (1976), argue against the possibility of visual argumentation.

The selfie (and accompanying selfie stick) as a mass obsession may be a transient form of communication production, much as was the singing telegram. But we would not bet on it; there is no reason to expect the face itself, and its use as a form of communication, enrichment and expression, to fade from the core set of interests of humans. The power of the facial image, containing as it does so much information and meaning, will doubtless remain an important feature of the way we interpret the world visually, emotionally, and psychologically. Truly, we live in a world of images. Kristóf Nyíri aptly recognized this during his comments at the 2015 VLL6 conference in Budapest when he said, “Children and teens live in images”. Indeed, it’s rare to find a human who does not.


Diehl, Caleb (2015): Report: Selfies More Dangerous than Sharks. USA Today College, September 24.

Fisher, Robert J. – Katz, James E. (2000): Social Desirability Bias of the Validity of Self-reported Values. Psychology and Marketing 17/2: 105–120.

Goodman, Nelson (1976): Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Second edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Hefner, R. W. (1990): Hindu Javanese: Tengger Tradition and Islam. Princeton: Princeton U. Press.

Katz, James E. – Thomas Crocker, Elizabeth (2015): Selfies: Accelerating the visual turn of self-representation in interpersonal communication. Center for Mobile Communication Studies, Boston University. December 15. Boston, MA.

Lucky, Robert (2015): The Ubiquitous Camera. IEEE Spectrum 52/3: 30.

Miller, Joshua (2015): Charlie Baker’s Passion for Selfies Pays Off in Many Ways. Boston Globe. December 18. ← 136 | 137 →

Tifentale, Alise – Manovich, Lev (2014): Selfiecity: Exploring Photography and Self-Fashioning in Social Media.

Tifentale, Alise (2014): The Selfie: Making Sense of the “Masturbation of Self-Image” and the “Virtual Mini-Me”.

Turkle, Sherry (2015): Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Books.

Wagner, Meg (2015): Al Roker Apologizes for Smiling Selfie during South Carolina flooding. New York Daily News. October 6. ← 137 | 138 →