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Peacocking Culture of Me: The Selfie Phenomenon

Our fascination with self portraiture — good or bad? 


Recently the social media phenomenon called #selfies — a digital trend that might be categorized as social narcissism — has exploded. But is it good or bad?

In its official definition, a selfie is a genre of self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone. Selfies are often associated with photo-sharing services such as Instagram or Vine, and they are very popular among the fan communities of celebrities (just look at Lady Gaga’s Little Monster network). Selfies are often casual, are typically taken either with a camera held at arm’s length or in a mirror, and may include only the photographer or the photographer with others.

The answer to why this is becoming one of the hottest marketing topics is in psychological and sociological definitions.

From Lady Gaga’s Little Monster Social Network

Fan Photo: Little Monsters

“We are at once living a reality to which subjective notions of self, other and institution blend into a sweeping collectivism, as if we are all advancing towards some element of truth that shines a light on past and future considerations of freedom, security, artistry, politik, and more generally, those aspects of life we feel that we cannot do without — food, fortune, and self made fame,” says Gunther Sonnenfeld, the founder of K5 Ventures in Newport Beach, California.

Fan Photo: Little Monsters

Selfies Are Psychological

Krista Peck, M.S., says, “Compliments are one of the most extraordinary components of social life. People like compliments; that’s not rocket science. Compliments help increase self-esteem — and who isn’t looking to feel better about themselves?” Hell, the fashion, beauty, and lifestyle industries are marketed on desires to look and feel better.

So to have several hundreds or even thousands of people comment, share, or like what you’re posting, creating, or featuring is extremely validating. Also, when we see others exhibiting certain behaviors, they can become tempting to try as a way of being accepted by the group; a form of peer pressure, which makes sense, since we’re social beings.

Sociologist Ben Agger describes the trend of selfies as “the male gaze gone viral,” and sociologist and women’s studies professor Gail Dines links it to the rise of porn culture and the idea that “there’s only one way to visibility, and that’s fuckability.”

So it’s a logical progression of thought to say that selfie photos, art, and video could boost someone’s self-esteem or grow their personal brand. Singer-songwriter-actress Rihanna is a perfect example of this, using her Instagram account to stream all aspects of her life in seemingly unfiltered ways.

Selfies Are A Result Of Mobile, Social Behavior

Tablets will outsell desktop computers by 2017. By 2016, 80 percent of the U.S. population will use mobile phones, on which 90 percent of the actions are related to SMS/texting and information sharing. Overlay that with platforms such as Snapchat, Vine, Instagram, and Twitter, and mobile devices have been turned into the perfect broadcasting and lifestreaming tools made possible by our favorite mobile apps.

Just as hashtags are used to track trending topics, celebrity figures have tremendous influence over their followers and audiences. Their followers look to them to find out what’s “hot.” If the celebrity does something, then they do it.

Another great example of masses following influencers is the rise of #ArmParties, created by fashion blogger Leandra Medine of Man Repeller, who was recently named to Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative in Business list.

Leandra Medine, Manrepeller.

Social Behavior Put Into Context

“Social media provides an efficient way for celebs to self-franchise a content channel. Even if they are under the banner of a corporate entity when they socially speak, over the long term it is smart for celebrities to focus on building a personal social franchise. A social following is becoming a major factor when businesses are looking for endorsers. Similarly, it is not far-fetched to see television networks and movie studios that prefer headlining stars or emerging talent that have a huge Twitter followings over those who don’t,” says Jon Fahrner, CEO of social engagement platform, Bumebox, whose clients include Universal Sports, Paramount Pictures, Hearst Magazines, Marc Jacobs, and many entertainment companies. “They can take their social franchise with them on their next business venture. It will also be interesting to see how other forms of media cast their programming in relation to this.”

The social web is the perfect tool for discovering new voices with unique styles and perspectives too, it’s why many agencies and companies have started to build tools and softwares that allow brands to more easily find individual influencers that can help their social conversation. Selfies fall into this as a marketing and expression tactic within the social sphere. But those participating in it have an obligation to stay unique; continually serving up original content and ideas that stand out from the growing number of people doing it and remain desirable.

InTouch Magazine
“How many Twitter fans and size of a star’s overall social media presence is more important in casting director’s decision making process than just their talent alone,” says Staci Jennifer Riordan, Partner and Chair, Fashion Law Practice Group at Fox Rothschild, LLP.
“The reason they’re looking for this is that the casting directors wants to diverse their audience and ensure their show has as many viewers possible. A celebrity with a following is media channel, often with more “eyeballs” or views than the traditional network and thus is an alternative distribution channel in his or herself. A great example of this is NeNe Leaks of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. She crossed the line from Housewives to develop further show opportunities. Leaks now has roles on The New Normal, Glee and others. She leveraged her social following to do that, thus she remained relevant.”

Selfie Social Behavior Is Fleeting

While selfies have become the digital cultural phenomenon of the moment, they are fleeting.As with platforms, memes, and trending topics, one would hope the selfie pheonomenon would die, being replaced by something more meanigful. As Ankita Rao wrote inThe Atlantic, “In a selfie, the lens is skewed—it’s molded and edited to fit the boundaries of who we think we are.So we don’t, can’t, use selfies to self-reflect, because even our reflection in the mirror is truer than what fits in a Picframe.”

Moreover, is promoting and acknowleding vanity for the sake of consumption positive and social noise — or is there a more constructive way to reword self-expression on web that drives positive change in the world?