Sunday, 6 March 2016

Into the Ecobiotic Milieu!

“Selfie noun, informal (also selfy; plural selfies): a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” (OED, 2014)
Each day 93 million selfies (photos taken using a forward facing lens) are taken with Android devices (Kennemer, 2014). The portion posted online is hard to pinpoint exactly, but even a small percentage represents large numbers. In aggregate, the number is staggering. Anecdotally, a search for #selfie on Instagram produces over 270 million results and this is but one of many social network outlets for selfies.

To channel Adam Levin in “The Selfie in the Age of Digital Recursion” (2014), there are a half a billion* stories in the ecobiotic milieu. Here are five of them:

This selfie—and it is a selfie in the most complete sense—is interesting for a number a reasons. It hints at the the larger meta-narrative of the form. As Levin (2014) and others have pointed out, the selfie is but the most recent incarnation in an evolutionary chain of self-portraiture. There are competing claims of ‘first selfies,’ either as painting (Q: Did Rembrandt invent the selfie? A: [spoiler] No!) or more commonly (and more seriously) daguerreotype, but these ignore the social media aspect of the phenomenon. The act of uploading by its photographer/subject to an online social network puts a unique spin on the selfie. Whatever visual similarities might exist, the fully expressed selfie could not exist in 1600 or 1839. The network is an active ingredient.

The Powell selfie best demonstrates what ‘oldest selfie’ might actually look like, an image straddling technological eras and suggesting a story of technological progress spanning a single lifetime; beginning in the 1950s, existing as artifact for 60 years before realizing its ultimate destiny as a selfie when the world changed around it.

On a smaller scale, it tells its own story. It is a reflection both literally and figuratively: a pause in the present to reflect upon the mirror image of a younger self. This type of personal meditation could conceivably remain private and be meaningful to its owner. The act of posting suggests an intended interaction with the public. Here, it is an opportunity for an elder-statesman to self-identify with a new generation, to present himself as modern and foresighted (“I was doing selfies 60 years before you Facebook folks. Eat your heart out Ellen!”). At the same time it is playing 60 years of catch-up to flesh out his broad digital identity, his “online representation of self” (Miroiu, 2014, p. 5). It is both presentation and preservation of a past self as well as creation of a modern identity.

[selfie 2. s.r.h.ll.n]

This isolated selfie is not famous, nor particularly meaningful, nor globally ‘important.’ Without context it is difficult to categorize. The photo brings forward the problems of trying to derive meaning from a single datapoint. Is it sharing a story? The hashtags hint at a narrative without actually putting one forward, it is left for the public to fill in the blanks. It does not seem to reflect shared experience, except maybe on a meta level, the shared experience between poster and Instagram public. Is it narcissism/swagger (‘look at this’)? or merely ritual (‘here I am’)?

Though in one sense revealing, the photo reveals little. More certainly, the photo is, as Rutledge (2013) puts it “a small bit of the self, a little portrait [that] speaks to…immediacy, insignificance and impermanence.”

An informal shot, it is also a heavily constructed one. The subject is slightly off center giving energy to the photo and roughly corresponds to a ‘rules of thirds’ format: there is a strong vertical line following the symmetry of her face, tattoo, necklace, and chest. The horizontal thirds roughly correspond to her nose and heart tattoo. The horizon is perfectly level giving a solidity to the presentation. The slightly desaturated colours evoke older photography and suggest some degree of post production. It has the veneer of informality but betrays itself with technique. This Instagrammer is in full control of her presentation online and thus controls, as Miroiu describes it, the four image repertoires (subjective self image, idealized self image, photographed image and public image) (2014, p. 10). We, as an audience, either support that construction or undermine it.

It through experiencing multiple photos—selfies and otherwise—that a public is able to weave together a cohesive narrative and add necessary context to individual moments and develop a more complete understanding. This photo, or variations of it, repeated ad nauseum would tell a certain story that would be quite different than if it was one image among a more diverse portfolio.

This selfie represents a small moment of personal activism. Shopping at Old Navy, Rachel Taylor overheard a teenager and her mother making fun of clothing because of its size, which happened to be her size. Taken as body shaming, she left hurt, but eventually returned to take this selfie in the change room wearing the item of ridicule. She then posted the photo and her story to Old Navy’s Facebook where she was met with positive feedback from both Facebook users and Old Navy. The act of taking the selfie was both self-affirming as well as externally validating. This was not self-preservation in the archival sense (preserving a moment for posterity or eternity) but rather self-preservation in a more urgent sense: protecting one’s sense of self from harm.

This is not the act of a narcissist. It is a social media protest writ small. Rachel Taylor was standing up for what she believed in, and what she believed in was herself. Spontaneous and personal, she leveraged this experience to help build an awareness of a greater issues, i.e. body shaming. Though not directly tied to the idea of representation as found in DAK's “Decolonizing Representation of Women of Color!” (2014), the act was similarly about empowerment, identity, and representation. Rachel Taylor is saying ‘I am here. I am mine. Look at me.’ (DAK, 2014). As DAK concludes “[to] control our image and how it is presented is one of the many ways we reclaim our bodies and celebrate our identities” (2014).

 [selfie 4a. Miss Israel]

Miroiu (2014) introduces sociologist Erving Goffman’s idea of the performed self (video overview here). In short, individuals play different roles in everyday life according to their audience. In real life, we try to avoid situations where we must play competing roles to different audiences in the same space.

The above selfie speaks to clashing of identities. Taken by Doron Matalon (Miss Israel) at the 2014 Miss Universe contest, it seems to capture the personal side of the contestants. In one sense, it is a banal behind the scenes selfie of participants, human beings going through a shared experience of a beauty pageant.

The women wear other masks, they are quite literally labelled with another identity, their home country. In posting the selfie to social media, Miss Israel collapsed the public and the personal, conflating back stage and front stage (Miroiu, 2014, p. 4). In their public roles, Israel and Lebanon were at war and this image would cause a public stir. The combination of the people and their signs suggested an unintended meaning, an inadvertent nod to Katz’s statement “[a] selfie with a sign immediately personalizes a campaign and shows strong commitment from the individuals” (2014). They were no longer standing next to each other as contestants, they were side-by-side as countries.

 [selfie 4b. Miss Lebanon]

Saly Greige (Miss Lebanon) responded by posting a cropped photo on Instagram along with her account of the event, an attempt to regain control of her brand. Most certainly defensive, it was not misplaced: the selfie would be investigated by Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourism (Obeid, 2015) echoing a 1993 incident where then Miss Lebanon Huda al-Turk was stripped of her title for posing with Miss Israel (Sanghani, 2015). Her social media plea attracted support from her base though it is uncertain if it influenced the eventual outcome of allowing her to retain her title.

“The Ellen selfie,” as it has come to be know, wasn’t actually taken by Ellen. In fact, the impromptu group selfie wasn’t even her original intent. Staged as a comedy bit, Ellen was scripted to take a photo with Meryl Streep only to ultimately edge Streep out of the frame by putting her behind the camera. Bradley Cooper, misinterpreting the situation, took over and the rest was history (Fisher, 2015). But what does this say of group dynamics? Is there such thing as an ‘us-ie’, a group selfie? Whose selfie is it anyway? The person who suggests it (Ellen? Cooper?)? The person who frames it/snaps it (Cooper)? The person who uploads it (Ellen presumeably)?

I selected this selfie with hesitancy as it is all too familiar to most everyone by now, but perhaps that’s the point. More important than whose selfie it is or what it represents (celebrities celebrating celebrity?) is its effect. Retweeted over 3 million times and liked over 2 million, it has become famous for its virality. The interaction has become more important than the action, evoking Horning’s “[the] practice of selfie-making doesn’t eradicate the infrastructure of commercially exploitable identity that is embedded in the media tools for ‘expressing’ it” and “[what] they express depends less on what they depict than on how well they circulate” (2014). In that sense, it is not Ellen’s selfie, nor Bradley’s, but Twitter’s.

It is this tally of popularity that cuts to the heart of motive and the nature of selfie. The selfie may be used as an instrument to share of oneself (authentic, vulnerable, complex, human) or as a mechanism to facilitate the consumption of oneself (infinitely replicable on-demand self-promotion). It is this mix between the personal and the public where its power becomes potent.

*fixed for ‘billions’/‘trillions’ goodness


Browntourage, (Sept. 2014). “A *Different* Selfie Article: Decolonizing Representations of Women of Color,”­at­me/

Chumley, C. K. (2015, January 19). Saly Griege, Miss Lebanon, and Doron Matalon, Miss Israel, spar over beauty selfie shot. Retrieved March 06, 2016, from

Fisher, K. (2015, October 19). How Bradley Cooper Ruined Ellen DeGeneres' Famous 2014 Oscar Selfie in the Most ''Amazing Way'' Retrieved March 06, 2016.

Horning, R. (Nov. 23, 2014).“Selfies without the Self,” The New Inquiry,­utility/selfies­without­the­self/

Katz, L. (May 2014). “Say it with a Selfie: Protesting in the Age of Social Media,”­it­with­a­selfie­prote

Kennemer, Q. (2014, June 25). Android Has 1 Billion Active Users in the Past 30 Days (and Other Interesting Numbers from I/O). Retrieved March 06, 2016, from

Laccetti, J. (2016) Module 7: Identity, Representation & #Selfies [Class Notes]. Retrieved from:

Levin, A. (2014). “The Selfie in the Age of Digital Recursion,” Invisible Culture,­selfie­in­the­age­of­digital­recursion/

Miriou, C. (2014). “The Selfies: Social Identities in the Digital Age,” Proceedings of the Australian and New Zealand Communication Association Annual Conference, Swinburne University, Victoria 9­11 July, 2014,­conf­papers/796­the­selfies­social­identities­in­the­di gital­age/file.html

Obeid, G. (2015, January 24). Miss Lebanon keeps crown in spite of selfie controversy with Miss Israel. Retrieved March 06, 2016, from

Respers France, L. (2015, July 9). Plus-size woman stands up to Old Navy fat shaming. Retrieved March 06, 2016, from

Rutledge, P. (2014). “Making Sense of Selfies,” Psychology Today,­media/201307/making­sense­selfies

Sanghani, R. (2015, January 19). Israel v Lebanon: The dark truth behind 'that' Miss Universe selfie. Retrieved March 06, 2016, from 


 [bonus ‘selfie’. Curiosity Rover]

The aesthetic of selfie and formation of global identity.


  1. Mark, well done. I look forward to reading your posts because you have an incredible ability to both distill and advance the work we are doing in this class. I loved the photo you chose of Colin Powell and the connection you feel he is trying to make to a younger generation. I have also been thinking about camera timers, we used to take photos using them all the time. Distribution aside, is the difference with the selfie that one does not get to edit? Verify the moment you want to show has been properly captured? It used to be more of a logistical/technical need to use a camera in that way. I'd be interested in your thoughts on this.

    Your take on the selfie's two sides: "used as an instrument to share of oneself (authentic, vulnerable, complex, human) or as a mechanism to facilitate the consumption of oneself (infinitely replicable on-demand self-promotion)," is so succinct. Having done my assignment on Kim Kardashian West, I constantly felt like she only used it as a mechanism to "facilitate the consumption of oneself." I secretly wonder if she has an account with her authentic selfies, or if her authentic self is the one we see, she is always selling and sleeps in her makeup.

    I wonder if you are a celebrity/famous/selling something, can you ever have a selfie just to share? Where is the line between sharing and giving for consumption?

    You have definitely given me even more food for thought, thank you.

  2. Thanks!

    I think you're right about timers. As a user of timers myself, it feels quite different from a selfie. You have to set up the shot (you are absent from the frame), click the timer, run in place, wait for when *it* clicks, run back, and see what you got.

    In contrast, immediacy and control figure prominently in selfies. There is a real-time 'dance' in trying to frame your idealized self in a particular context and when you feel it, you jump on it with the capture. That's the biggest distinction between timer and live. After that, you still control which image of several might make it to social media to control your public image.

    Ironically, that's where you lose control. Once posted, the power shifts to the audience. They may choose to consume your image as-is, or they may re-interpret it as they see fit.

  3. ​As an aside, and for posterity, this post started out very differently, more closely attached to Levin's ideas about ecologies of Selfies as a unifying thread. It kind of went off in all directions and became… unsound. I ditched that approach and presented this watered down version (working title: "Just Answer the Damn Question!").

    In hindsight, some ideas still apply. The ecobiotic climate is fairly well covered in the above.

    The Ellen selfie was meant to evoke the ecotopic layer corresponding to the "interface-specific layer of app and website functionality" (Levin, 2014), but my argument of content-agnostic consumption as presented above more closely aligns itself to Mead's notions of 'play' and 'the game' as brought up in Miroiu (2014, p. 4). Platforms (IG, Facebook, Twitter) play the role of helpful assistant in production and distribution of content, but the real game is traffic, engagement, and competition between platforms. They don't care if you are #blacklivesmatter, #whitelivesmatter, or #alllivesmatter, so long as everyone is clicking and sharing.

    The ecotopic layer is better represented, I think, as an offshoot to the Miss Israel/Miss Lebanon pairing. These selfies, looked at side by side and wrapped by the common wrapper of IG interface, produce an utter sameness that papers over the seismic events at its core. On a personal level, these contestants probably have a lot in common. Politically, they are worlds apart. The political controversy is further subsumed by the IG wrapper and produces commonality again. Whatever their differences are -- and this event eventually led to a Ministerial investigation (!) -- they are ultimately just part of the IG universe, expressing a common identity with the audience as well as between themselves.

    If the ecotopic layer is defined by GUI and interaction, the ecoclimate is the network and the device in hand. The ready availability of the camera at hand via mobile device really distinguishes it from other forms of self-portraiture. Technology is not seen as foreign but as an extension of ourselves. As Elon Musk puts it: "We are already cyborgs. Just try turning off your phone for a while – you will understand phantom-limb syndrome." (Goodell, 2016).

    The Curiosity Rover selfie is not really a selfie -- a rover does not have the intent to take a picture of itself and share it. But the rover is instructed by engineers who, at some level, might see it as a product of their handiwork, an extension of themselves. It is human intelligence made manifest.

    As an audience, the pose is familiar. It evokes the aesthetic of selfie. That, along with our acceptance of technology as personal, helps us to anthropomorphize it ( We see pictures like the Curiosity Rover 'selfie' and it sparks our imagination. We look upon it and think "This is us. We are are there". As a species, we are facing unprecedented challenges that threaten our existence (climate change). Perhaps it is through fostering a global identity that we might stand up to the challenge?

    1. References
      Ferreira, B. (2015, May 01). Why We Love To Anthropomorphize Spaceships. Retrieved March 08, 2016, from

      Goodell, J. (2016, February 29). Inside the Artificial Intelligence Revolution: A Special Report, Pt. 1. Retrieved March 08, 2016, from

      Levin, A. (2014). “The Selfie in the Age of Digital Recursion,” Invisible Culture,­selfie­in­the­age­of­digital­recursion/

      Miriou, C. (2014). “The Selfies: Social Identities in the Digital Age,” Proceedings of the Australian and New Zealand Communication Association Annual Conference, Swinburne University, Victoria 9­11 July, 2014,­conf­papers/796­the­selfies­social­identities­in­the­digital­age/file.html