My Picture is Worth 1,000 Words

How social media profile images of myself online represent who I am in real life.


In this analysis of my own profile images throughout my social media career (beginning in 2007) I examine how images I have posted reflect who I am in real life. When analyzing my personal images I will also pull resources and examples from the readings by Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson and Joseph Reagle.

As Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson writes,

“Autoethnography [is] a relational research approach that offers a variety of modes of engaging with self or perhaps more accurately with selves, in relation to others, to culture, to politics” (282)

This process looks at how people act and present themselves in different situations and environments. The idea of an “online self” is how we present ourselves online in any media such as social media profiles on Facebook and Twitter to our own web pages or even the way we would respond to a comment online versus in reality. The way we shape ourselves online is reflected by our own lived experiences, specifically in relation to the culture or cultures in which we are a member. Looking at the culture we come from social media is a collaborative portion of society.The way we are raised shapes our behavior and personality which in effect shapes how we act online. Although we may be one person in real life Web 2.0 allows us the ability to transform ourselves completely through an online space and ultimately to express ourselves in a way that might not reflect our physical lives very accurately. As we continue to present every detail of our lives to the online world and its millions of followers we also partake in a collective ‘new society’ that strives for comments, likes, and approval of the posts they put online.

These images below are all forms of communication that are part of my ongoing identity performance that is self-focused and particularly on my online self. My online-self is formed by my experiences, both past and present, that I feel are ‘worthy enough’ to get posted on the web.

Self — a body, as a member of society, as a production and producer of culture.


Young Maggie | 2007

| Pre-school Margaret |

  • Posted: November 7, 2007
  • Caption: *angel
  • Likes: 93

This image was my first profile picture on my Facebook page — in 2007. I did not edit the photo at all, nor did I change anything about the photo before posting it online. When I posted this image I wasn’t very sure why I wanted it as my first profile image ( I was only 12 at the time and I had absolutely no self-esteem issues or confidence issues). It wasn’t for likes, attention, or approval but I think I posted it just because I could. Sometimes I will go back and change my profile image to this one because I do enjoy getting more likes on the image — and because I have to admit it is very cute. This adorable photo is significant to me because, for me, it is one of my favorite images of my childhood. The fact that it is in black and white, I have a sly smirk on my face, and my one eyebrow is raised is very comical for me. It is as if on this particular picture day at Park pre-school young Maggie was absolutely up to no good. When I look at my comments on the photo I feel it establishes my “cred” online — I received many comments that were all positive.

Joseph Reagle states:

“Commenting is not simply an external annoyance that can be easily dismissed — just as giving and receiving feedback can entail significant emotional work, online commenting can be an important part of the emotionally laden construction and understanding of people’s social selves” (pg. 125)

We live in a world where we share so much about ourselves and we are doing so in order to craft a new sense of ourselves that continues to be the subject of comment and approval of others. We enjoy getting attention for things we put online because we feel a sense of gratification and popularity. Gaining approval from friends, family, and peers is a major portion of growing up — especially for teens and younger kids. These responses we receive from our online friends are seen as a valuation of one’s self; meaning one like equals more self-love and self-appreciation. This process of receiving and giving likes or comments to our peers affects our self-esteem.

“Among scholars, self-esteem is understood as the self-evaluation of one’s worth; which is part of self-concept or the totality of thoughts and feelings about one’s self” (Reagle, pg. 125).

Our sense of self is then determined by how we present ourselves to the world and how we are received in return. Commenting and liking are a form of self-love and sometimes when an image or a post does not rack up on likes the user feels unloved or hurt — because they aren’t receiving the attention they believed they would receive from their peers.


| High School Margaret |

Meeting Bieber | 2011
  • Posted: June 22, 2011
  • Caption: Photo Credit: Justin Bieber
  • Likes: 92

This photo encompasses my entire high school career. I was (past tense) obsessed with Justin Bieber and this was the first time I got an actual selfie with him. My friend and I had ventured uptown to the Late Show with David Letterman studio on 54th and Broadway to specifically wait outside the back entrance and, hopefully, see Justin. We waited for 2 hours and when he showed up we were both too excited. He is the one taking the photo, and as you can tell from my face I couldn’t even smile because I was shaking so much. The moment I got home I changed my profile picture on Facebook so that every single person I was friends with could see that I had finally met the, then, love of my life. I had not edited the photo in any way and this selfie of myself and Justin was real life — in that moment. I posted the image to craft a narrative about a real life experience that meant so much to me. This image was posted to showcase a memory and a lived experience. I wanted the attention and the excitement from my friends. At the time I felt that posting the selfie would confirm that all the joy and happiness I was feeling was OK and approved by my peers (essentially to confirm that I was not a complete loser standing outside for Justin Bieber). My friends seemed genuinely happy for me and that in turn made me happier.


The entire purpose of a selfie is to share the image with our peers in some social media platform. Selfies are posted and meant to gain attention and approval from others. With all the editing tools and apps on our phone we have complete control over how these images look and what we do with them. We then tend to find it a big deal when there is an unflattering image of ourselves online. In this case we are not in control over our presentation and therefore we immediately try to gain back control by un-tagging the image from our profile (Reagle, pg 126). Although we have a multitude of choices to make us feel better about ourselves (dieting, working out, makeup, plastic surgery) all of these procedures do not necessarily make us happier people. The gratification we receive from comments and likes on a post are temporary and do not last forever.


Oktoberfest | October 2014

| Study Abroad Margaret: Vienna, Austria |

  • Posted: October 5, 2014
  • Caption: ein prosit, ein prosit
  • Likes: 90

This image was posted the day after I got back from Munich, Germany for Oktoberfest. I studied abroad the Fall semester of my junior year and therefore I had to attend Oktoberfest. I was living in Vienna, Austria where I purchased my very own dirndl (or the traditional Austrian/ German dress). I posted the image to show all my friends at home, in Philly and NYC, that I had visited the most elaborate beer festival in the world — and that I was doing it in style. The image was meant to tell everyone on Facebook that I was abroad and that I was having the time of my life. I did not edit the photo at all and this was a very accurate portrayal of my life in the moment.

When I look at my profile images that I use on my social media profiles, both in the past and the present, I notice there is a personal narrative behind each image and I am representing myself in a different way each time I post a new image. As autoethnographers we choose which images we want to make public, ones that are attractive or show us in a positive way, and we hide other images that do not highlight our strengths physically or mentally.

We craft our own personal narratives through social media — or at least I know I do.


Venice, Italy | December 2014

|Study Abroad Margaret — continued |

  • Posted: January 5, 2015
  • Caption: ♡
  • Likes: 77

This photo was meant to highlight my experience abroad — as well as to “tell” my Facebook friends that I was in a relationship. I did not edit the photo at all. This image captures such an incredible and fond memory of mine. The caption of the photo tells a story. I had crafted my own personal narrative that I expected my friends and peers on Facebook to notice and understand. In the online environment I was now in a relationship — and people knew with whom and possibly where we could have connected.

Another component to social media and this idea of the online self is social comparison. With all of the sharing of images and opinions, we have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to people who seem to be doing better than us or having more fun than us. In the online world it is so simple to find oneself comparing bodies, personalities, and other physical abilities to those we follow on social media. When I posted this image to Facebook I found myself comparing my relationship photo to friends of mine who had photos with their significant other. It is a vicious cycle where there is constant judgment and observation of others all because it is so easily accesible to us. People are choosing to share what they are doing at all times of the day. Most of the time we follow and compare ourselves to people we do not know personally, such as Kylie Jenner or Jennifer Lawrence.


|Birthday Margaret: 21 |

Birthday | July 2015
  • Posted: July 28, 2015
  • Caption: clearly up to no good
  • Likes: 105

I posted this photo to Facebook the day after my 21st birthday. My facial expression is quite similar to the photo of me in pre-school. The only editing I had done to the image was change the brightness so that you could see my face clearly. I thought I looked pretty, I liked the candles on my cake, it was my birthday and I wanted to post a picture to show everyone on Facebook that I was finally 21! My boyfriend, Cory, and I had gone out to dinner and when we came back to my apartment my mom had the cake sitting out in the kitchen. We were sitting in the living room, right before eating the cake, when Cory had taken this picture. The picture is not that significant, besides it being my birthday, yet I still find the photo attractive. Just because I find the photo attractive and I like it is enough justification for me to post it.

Selfies are posted with the intention of increasing one’s self-esteem and that can be a good thing.

From Allen-Collinson she elaborates on this idea we form our own monologues on social media. A monologue in itself is a “self-narrative that seems self-sufficient, telling what the author/speaker knows and to what the listener must attend” (Allen-Collinson, pg. 285). With this image of my birthday I was creating a monologue to be presented online. From my assumptions I felt that people would see the image, know it is my birthday, know I was going out for drinks later, and that I looked good. I constructed this story within my head and when I began to receive likes and comments on the photo my story was confirmed by others. The likes and comments were substantial proof that the story I constructed was real and the satisfaction that came from this approval was good enough for me. The story was physically real and I felt it described my actions and thoughts in my life at the time.


All of the images that I included in this analysis represent my life at a specific time. The memories and experiences that are portrayed through these photographs are all encompassed within a time frame and they all represent positive moments in my life.

Erving Goffman’s 1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life examines this concept that we are all actors performing in a play onstage. Nowadays when it comes to our private and public selves we are more inclined to share parts of our lives online. Our online selves are edited and constructed in a way that, usually, present ourselves in a positive way. Looking at Goffman’s thesis there is a ‘back stage’ us and a ‘front stage’ us (Reagle, pg. 125). At the back stage we are free from expectations of an audience, but while on stage we actively manage the impressions that others have of us. We are constantly trying to control others perceptions of us and with our online profiles we have the ability to control everything about our lives — we decide what to share and we decide how to edit our images and posts. A large majority of people will more likely post pictures of their vacation in the Bahamas with friends rather than sharing a photo of oneself crying in bed alone. The ability to edit and alter our profiles and our images online is a beautiful thing for so many people because it allows for a new and creative form of self-expression. Although we all might be actors in a play who have the ability to edit and share things as we like, there is no harm in posting things that are important and substantial to oneself.


References

Allen-Collinson, Jacquelyn. “Autoethnography as Engagement.” PDF on Dropbox(2015): 281–297. Web.

Reagle, Joseph. “Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web.” MIT Press(2015): n. pag. Web.