Image by Karim Abdelrady.

Selfie Citizenship: The Political Uses of Personal Social Media Photography

The Selfie Citizenship workshop was held at Manchester Metropolitan University on the 16th of April 2015. Organised by Adi Kuntsman, Farida Vis and Simon Faulkner, the event brought together a number of researchers to explore the connection between social media and theories of citizenship.

This workshop was an important day for the Visual Social Media lab; not only because two members of the team were speaking, but also because it affirmed the importance of the lab’s focus on social media images. As someone who has previously analysed the connection between selfies and social organisation, I found this workshop to be a timely — and heartening — demonstration of the value of researching the visual web. Going beyond popular notions of what constitutes social media photography, the talks described below show that selfies and other forms of networked image-making relate to a number of contemporary political concerns, including self-monitoring, governance and protest.

Adi Kuntsman began the day by discussing emergent forms of individual and collective political engagement that are represented by the concept of ‘Selfie Citizenship’. Alongside examples of Israeli soldiers’ selfies, Kuntsman discussed the work of Zach Blas, which addresses a potentially alarming connection between facial recognition software and governance.

The unsettling use of software was also analysed by Jill Walker Rettberg, whose talk on ‘Biometric Citizens’ cited a number of examples of the overlap between machine surveillance and the direction of human conduct. Technologies such as Withings Home promote a form of benevolent monitoring of the family, which reaches its nightmarish conclusion in Brad Berens’ techno-dystopia Redcrosse. Rettberg also discussed the connection between selfies and physical discipline, in which Noah Kalina’s long-term selfie-taking and the app Everyday reconceptualise photographic recording as a heavily prescribed and formalised practice. Here, selfies act as a form of biometric recording, within a wider practice of self-auditing.

Whereas Rettberg considered the connection between selfies and social governance, Crystal Abidin took a different approach to analysing the political implications of social media photography. In ‘Vote for my Selfie’, Abidin outlined the social media practices of Singaporean MP Baey Yam Keng, in particular his use of selfies as a technique of generating a connection with his electorate. His Instagram feed displays a combination of approachability and dedication to his job, which Abidin identified as constituting a form of charismatic authority that acts to legitimise his position of power. In particular, Abidin asserted that the apparent frivolity of selfies enables them to be stealthy, in terms of consolidating power dynamics without obviously appearing to do so.

In contrast to the use of selfies by politicians, Sanjay Sharma considered the anti-authoritarian potential of ‘Black Twitter’. Sharma demonstrated how hashtags such as #blacklivesmatter are utilised on different platforms, by making a comparison between examples found on Instagram and Twitter. He describes selfies in these contexts as ‘repetition with a difference’, in which social media self-promotion must be seen alongside, and in connection with, collective forms of protest.

Continuing the theme of protest, Simon Faulkner considered the work of Hamde Abu Rahma, a Palestinian photographer who posted a message of solidarity to Ferguson. In the image, Abu Rahma holds a sign that says that ‘the Palestinian people know what mean to be shot while unarmed because of your ethnicity’. Faulkner identifies this selfie as an example of the continued importance of photography within a global discussion on civil and human rights, extending from Anat Saragusti’s work in the 1980s, to contemporary photographers such as Abu Rahma.

Farida Vis concluded the workshop by discussing the concept of ‘Algorithmic Visibility’, in which social media visibility must not be taken as either straightforward, or as a given. Using a photograph of an Eqyptian protestor from 2011 as an example, Vis described the process of tracing the image across social media, and its circulation in contrast with other similar images. Vis argued that the role of algorithms such as EdgeRank must be integral to any conversation about the potential for networked photography as a form of citizenship, as they govern the most fundamental divisions between what is visible, and what is concealed.

And, lastly, no selfie workshop would be complete without a few selfies of the speakers and attendees…

‘Picturing the Social: Transforming our Understanding of Images in Social Media and Big Data research’ is an 18-month research project that started in September 2014 and is based at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. It is funded through an ESRC’s Transformative Research grant and is focused on transforming the social science research landscape by carving out a more central place for image research within the emerging fields of social media and Big Data research. The project aims to better understand the huge volumes of images that are now routinely shared on social media and what this means for society. This project involves an interdisciplinary team of seven researchers from four universities as well as industry with expertise in: Media and Communication Studies (Farida Vis and Anne Burns, University of Sheffield), Visual Culture (Simon Faulkner and Jim Aulich, Manchester School of Art), Software Studies and Sociology (Olga Goriunova, Warwick University), Computer and Information Science (Francesco D’Orazio, Pulsar and Mike Thelwall, University of Wolverhampton). The project is part of the Visual Social Media Lab.

Picture credits: All workshop photographs taken by Anne Burns. Cover image taken by Karim Abdelrady.