Girl with a silver camera / mictchell grafton c. 2012

The Selfies are Coming. The Selfies are Here (Part 2)

Romanticism vs Realism for our online interactions 

Selfies are a huge trend. Go to any tech blog and “Oh, look! There’s another article about selfies!” Well, here’s another one.

My co-founder and I launched a social network for selfies a few weeks ago. We launched it as a satire to a silly trend — or so we thought. The only content (with a few exceptions) are photos of and by yourself. I covered a little of the origin story in Part 1.

Another #&^! network? For — selfies? How many forms of self-expression can there be? Cut to the jumping sharks. Pop goes the bubble.

I hear you. We didn’t start out thinking “hey, let’s build an app for selfies”. But now that it is out the big wide world, we’re getting some interesting signals from our users. In Part 2, I want to talk about why a social network for selfies can be more true to life than our current online interactions, reflecting a new chapter of Realism in contrast to the Romantic period of the past decade.

Part 2:

Existing networks don’t represent your authentic self

#selfies on Instagram

Every social network addresses some variation of “what does my identity mean?”

Facebook and now Instagram tout “real” identity a lot. Real friends. Real activities. In contrast, Tumblr and Twitter see identity as a set of interests: you like that Miley Cyrus is twerking or you aspire to be a photographer — here’s content for you to identify with.

Yet, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are more alike than they are different, because they are all ego-driven networks. How many friends, followers, likes and favorites we have all affect our digital self-worth. The more feedback we get, the higher our egos. FOMO, YOLO, reputational competition — they’re all side effects of networks based around egos.

But in order to get the feedback we crave, how much of our authentic selves do we give up? There’s not much ‘realness’ there, as we strive to up our interesting score.

Instagram’s ‘normal’ lives

Our weekends are boisterous and full of parties, as evidenced by our status updates and photos on Facebook. We eat meals worthy of magazine covers, savor the rosiest sunsets and hike across always picturesque landscapes on Instagram. We associate with celebrities and experts on Twitter when we eavesdrop on their broadcasts. We are illustrators, photographers and musicians on Tumblr by reblog association.

We don’t just share. We crow, we preen, we exhibit. Our identities on these networks are aspirational. They represent our vanities more than our humilities.We are all marketers, manufacturing who we want to be online.

Does this make us better people? Some of the research isn’t surprising:

The most common emotion aroused by using Facebook is envy. Endlessly comparing themselves with peers who have doctored their photographs, amplified their achievements and plagiarised their bons mots can leave Facebook’s users more than a little green-eyed. Real-life encounters, by contrast, are more WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). (Facebook is Bad for You! Get a Life! The Economist)

Facebook, Twitter and the ego-driven networks are all part of what I call the Romantic period. We all display emotional and dramatic lives on these networks, but our decreased usage of Facebook represents movements toward an era of Realism, of interactions centered around authenticity — and it’s where Selfie makes sense.

Selfie as an exercise in realness

While we built Selfie mainly for fun, we had the opportunity to encourage people to be themselves. Alaric and I wanted to build a network to display our real lives. Selfie’s product development reflected this desire for ‘realness’.

Our design was influenced by the need to move fast, our preference towards usefulness, and most important, how we wanted users to feel.

We wanted to see if we could build a social network over the weekend (Part 1), and getting the essence right was more pressing than visual embellishments like glossy buttons and detailed shadows.

Selfie logo.

We also wanted to get to the point. You use Selfie to take pictures of yourself or to see other people’s pictures of themselves. No fancy tutorial needed.

Finally, how users felt when they interacted with the Selfie was important for us.

One of the counterintuitive lessons I learned at Flickr was the downside of high expectations. Users uploaded their photos to Flickr less and less because a) all the photos they saw were high-quality and b) the design was so nice. Flickr became a place for superb photos and professional photographers over time, and regular users went elsewhere. Similarly, I’m wondering if Tumblr’s focus on “creators” results in a lack of attention for everyone else who don’t view themselves as creative. At what point does high quality become an exclusionary force?

Alaric and I wanted Selfie’s users to be comfortable with candid photos of themselves. A selfie is not a piece of art. People who use Selfie don’t need to worry that their photos might not belong in a beautifully conceived network,with perfect shimmers and shadows.They don’t need to fret that their images won’t meet magazine-spread perfection. The beauty is in the realness. We wanted Selfie to be an empowering, feel-good place. A fun place to experiment. To be your real self.

The selfie is not supposed to be a Van Gogh-ian portrait of careful construction, multiple perspectivism, and judiciously applied color gradients; it is supposed to be the opposite, an exercise in flippancy, a flash of the cam. A minimal viable portrait. (PandoDaily)
A selection of selfies on Selfie.

That’s why we added two important constraints. 1) Only the front-facing camera is operable. 2) And all photos on Selfie expire.

Expiration options for Selfie.

We wanted the network to be a true reflection, a mirror, of the real us. We were tempted to include the back facing camera too, but we then would be building yet another window into the world. What’s fascinating is how we view ourselves without filters.

After some internal usage, adding expirations also made a lot of sense.

Expressions of yourself offline — the normal everyday kind — don’t live on in perpetuity. You spent a few hours with your friend at the beach; that moment will slowly fade in their memories naturally. You expressed a liking to a friend; they’ll remember it for.. how long? Our likes, our comments, and our moments in the non-digital world persist temporarily in our minds by default. The more exceptional something is, the more memorable. Online, everything by default is exceptional.

Having content expire relieves a lot of pressure to publish a photo that stand the test of time. When your self-expression has time limits, the reward for embellishment is removed. Why spend the effort to dress up your statuses or filter your images if they’re not going to stick around?

We wanted selfies to exist in the space between ego and self-esteem. It’s great to gaze upon our real selves, but we shouldn’t fall in love with ourselves either. Self-aware: good. Narcissism: not-so-good. Having just enough time to learn and move on, just like life, appealed to our inner philosophy geeks.

What we’ve learned from Selfie so far

Selfie has been out in the world for three weeks now, and for a small group of users, it feels like a slice of their lives worth coming back to.

Selfies on Selfie.

Instead of photos of faces with perfect makeup in front of mirrors, we get photos of people yawning as they wake up. Instead of photos at parties of people cavorting, we have a photos of people waiting around. Instead of perfect angles to hide our chins, photos that showed double chins passed muster. People took selfies when they were drinking, when they had their hair cut, when they were reading — we were getting all the quiet moments in between the major events of vanity.

A selfie chain showcasing ‘the claw’.

Selfie chains were also popular. Somehow, we love mimicry when it comes to faces. Thumbs up, frowns, mouths wide open, finger pointing and the ‘claw’ have all birthed, lived and faded on the network. More than silliness, it’s a quick and human way for us to connect with other people.

Instead of a network about the ego, and the resulting envy and competition which it engendered, we built a minimum viable network that was about self-awareness, experimentation and esteem. Users took photos of themselves to satisfy their ego’s curiosity, but the ego gave way to reflections of their authentic selves.

Selfies, the act of gazing on our own image, has always been a part of being human. But it’s only in recent years, with ubiquitous cameras, new social norms, innovative interaction models, and yes, perhaps even new social networks, that we realize how much fun they are. Maybe it’s just that simple.

As Realism was a reaction against the other-wordly outlook of Romanticism in the arts, perhaps we’re witnessing a new chapter in digital interaction — where authentic experiences and conversations are the norm vs the fatigue that comes from the ego-centric treadmills.

As ironic as it sounds, a selfie network where people can be their everyday selves exists.

Ideas and feedback welcomed at