The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The surprising sociology of selfies

We love to deride selfies as a futile modern exercise in self-aggrandizement. But self-portraits might actually represent much more than that. They could even — dare I say it? — prove kind of profound.

That seems the most salient takeaway from “Selfie City,” an ambitious selfie-mapping project released Wednesday by a group of independent and university-affiliated researchers. The project sought to extract data from 3,200 selfies taken in Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York and Sao Paolo, then map that data along demographic and geographic lines. Do people in New York smile more than people in Berlin? (Yes.) Does the face angle or camera tilt say something about culture? (Possibly.)

Many of the researchers’ findings are less than conclusive — there’s either not enough data, or advanced enough analysis, to really make sweeping statements without a bit of salt. The photos — 20,000 for each city — were scraped during a one-week period in December and analyzed/culled to 600 by computer software and Mechanical Turk. While 600 photos may seem like a lot, there’s no indication whether that number is a statistically significant one, nor whether the culled photos represent each country’s Instagram demographics.

The methods are also a bit imperfect — the researchers had the Mechanical Turks estimate the age, gender and mood of the subjects based on their expressions, something that obviously varies widely between cultures (… not to mention the guesstimation skills of the Mechanical Turk involved).

With those disclaimers out of the way, however, there’s some really fascinating stuff going on here. Selfie City has found more evidence for a phenomenon both sociologists and casual users have noted already: women take far more self-portraits than men. (Up to 4.6 times as many, at least in Moscow.)

They also suggest that people take more expressive selfies and strike different poses between cities. Bangkok and Sao Paulo, for instance, are by far the smiliest — Moscow and Berlin, not so much.

Perhaps most significantly, by quantifying selfies’ apparently unquantifiable moods and variations, Selfie City also validates them: they’re not just “a ridiculous practice of narcissism,” (per Urban Dictionary) or a dubious “chance for subjects to … show off a special side of themselves,” (James Franco), but a legitimate cultural output, ripe for academic study and nifty data visualizations. In an essay responding to the project’s findings, feminist media theorist Elizabeth Losh puts it this way:

Although many regard the selfie as proof of the vainglory of contemporary social media obsessions, those familiar with the nuances of the genre know that its peculiar combination of humanizing individualized self-portraiture … dates back to Renaissance self-fashioning and the detached gaze of the digital technical apparatus that senses rather than sees may actually be uniquely characteristic of more complicated forms of marking time, disciplining the body, and quantifying the self.

… heavy stuff, in short. Which all serves as a reminder to the selfie-shamers among us: Don’t dismiss the duckface! It does actually mean something.