In today's social media environment, it seems like every other photo in your feed is a selfie of some sort. Be it a beauty look, #OOTD, squad snap, or FOMO-inducing travel shot, the selfie is entirely ubiquitous. Hell, Kim Kardashian has taken so many she immortalized them in Selfish, an "art" book exclusively featuring her favorite selfies. But while it's easy to write off selfies as a sign of narcissism, the true motivation behind modern culture's obsession with digital self-portraits is far more complex than that.
Intrigued by the phenomenon, researchers at Brigham Young University performed a study on what different factors drive people to take photographs of themselves. Is it an act of egotism? A statement? A way to connect? Or something else entirely?
46 participants were asked to rank various statements about why one would take a selfie in order from most to least aligned with their personal behaviors. These responses were then evaluated by the researchers and the findings, published in the Visual Communication Quarterly journal, identified three archetypal motivations among those who take and share selfies: communicators, autobiographers and self-publicists.
Communicators share selfies as a way to connect with and open a dialogue with their followers. "They're all about two-way communication," explained co-author Maureen Elinzano. The recent election serves as a good opportunity for this kind of selfie-taker. The study cites the example of those who shared photos of themselves wearing "I Voted" stickers with the purpose of sparking political conversation or urging others to vote. Leonardo DiCaprio, whose Instagram is almost exclusively dedicated to environmentalist causes, would also be considered a communicator.
Those who fall into this category use selfies as a tool to document their lives and log significant moments and memories. The study describes autobiographers as people who want to share their photos in the public realm so that others may see them, but who aren't seeking the feedback and engagement that communicators are. For instance, NASA astronaut Scott Kelley who shared several selfies during his year spent in space. Or, popular bloggers like Chiara Ferragni, who routinely shares selfies of her daily activities, outfits, meals and travels.
Despite the commonly held belief that selfies are symptomatic of an ego unbound, self-publicists is actually the smallest of the three groups. "[Self-publicists] are the people who love documenting their entire lives," said co-author Harper Anderson. "And in documenting and sharing their lives, they're hoping to present themselves and their stories in a positive light." Think celebrity social media stars like Taylor Swift, models like Gigi and Bella Hadid, and, of course, the Kardashians.
So why is it important to understand selfies—and those that take them—better? "Because years from now, our society's visual history is going to be largely comprised of selfies," said co-author Matt Lewis. "To find out why people do it, that contributes a lot to the discussion on selfies and visual communication in general.
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