Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Theories of the Selfie: A Study of 5 Pictures

Paris Hilton and Ai Wei Wei 

This selfie of Ai Wei Wei and Paris Hilton subverts expectation.

The selfie of Ai Wei Wei and Paris Hilton subverts expectations: it’s a juxtaposition of a famed Chinese dissident and artist ("Ai Weiwei", 2012), and a Hollywood socialite. It’s a representation of high and low culture, respectively. Combined, Hilton and Wei Wei have over 5.8 million followers on Instagram.

The pair are posed in front of a “selfie wall” at Wei Wei’s latest exhibit, "Er Xi, Air de jeux”, at Le Bon Marche in Paris (Hilton & Wei Wei, 2016). However, it should be noted that the Hilton-Wei Wei photo has since been erased from Hilton’s account. I have presented a screenshot for posterity. By deleting the selfie with Wei Wei, I believe Hilton is showing concern for “identity consistency” (Jurgenson, 2012). Nathan Jurgenson postulates:
 “What if more people wore past identities more proudly? We could erode the norm of identity consistency, a norm no one lives up to anyways, and embrace change and growth for its own sake. Perhaps the popularity of social media will force more people to confront the reality that identity isn’t and can’t be flawlessly consistent”. 
As an early reality TV celebrity, Hilton has capitalized on her identity for economic benefit.The heiress has licensed her name to 17 different product lines, which collectively early about $10 million a year (McLaughlin, 2011). Perhaps, this is what Rob Horning (2014) calls "one’s self commoditized to suit the logistics of networks".

 Despite her success in commoditizing her identity, Hilton has long been criticized for perceived narcissism. As Pamela Rutledge (2013) explains, people who post selfies are caught in a conundrum; being perceived as having "either narcissism or low self-esteem". Hilton also seems to be an early adopter of the selfie, if this meme is to be believed.

In this quote from The O.C., Hilton calls the camera phone the “autograph of the 21st century” (Schwartz & Barrett, 2004). According to the Oxford English Dictionary’s blog (2013), this was about two years after the term “selfie” originated. This understanding of selfies echoes Susan Sontag's thoughts about the evolution of identity and photography:
 “Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form …Today everything exists to end in photograph” (as cited in Miroiu, 2014, p. 13). 
A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on
 The selfie with Hilton contrasts with other posts on Ai Wei Wei's Instagram account. As I write this, the artist is posting a series of pictures documenting the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean. In general, Wei Wei's body of work has focused on issues of human rights ("Ai Weiwei", 2012). I think his presence in the selfie with Paris Hilton adds gravitas, legitimizing the selfie as a meaningful form of self-expression.

 Essena O'Neil 

As discussed above, distributing selfies is often associated with narcissism. In Horning's (2014) words, "taking selfies is routinely derided as narcissistic, a procedure of solipsistic self-regard in which one obsesses over one’s own image". Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (2014) puts this into context: "The big problem with the rise of digital narcissism is that it puts enormous pressure on people to achieve unfeasible goals".

 For many young women, one of these "unfeasible goals" is to be pristinely beautiful (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2014). Take for example, Essena O'Neil. The young Australian was an "Instagram model", who spent increasing time and effort posting flawless pictures to social networking sites. However, in 2015, O'Neil deleted most of her pictures. On her website, O'Neil explains her reasoning:
 "[Social media and modeling] just wasn't for me. Have you ever looked yourself in the mirror and then to your horror can't recognise (sic), let alone even respect, the person staring back? That happened to me. Big time" (“Me?”, n.d.). 
 Now, O'Neil is reposting her old Instagram photos with revelatory insights. A post from November 2015, shows O'Neil looking alluringly into the camera. The caption reads:
 "This is the one photo that I feel people most recognise (sic) me from. But this isn't me at all. I had acne here. This is a lot of makeup. I was smiling because I thought I looked good. Happiness based on aesthetics will suffocate your potential here on Earth" (O’Neil, 2015). 

 By re-contextualizing her photos, O'Neil is working to re-claim her identity online. She calls the series "Behind the Image" and describes what went into creating the flawless pictures. O'Neil's experience with Instagram presents an extreme example of performative identity. Using a stage performance as a metaphor, sociologist Erving Goffman argues that the social self is performative. That is to say "the individual performs, in his everyday life, a role in front of an audience" (as cited in Miroiu, 2014, p. 4). By presenting what happens "behind the image", O'Neil is giving her "audience" a privileged view of her life and is trying to reconcile the disparate selves.

 As summarized in Miroiu's (2014) paper on selfies, "presentation of the self is constructed through interaction with others" (p. 4). Now, O'Neil says she's presenting the more authentic self online. As she rejects her mediated self, in a way O'Neil is subverting the expectations of selfies: that they are polished products to be "commoditized" (Horning, 2014).

Maisie Beech

A photo posted by Maisie Beech (@albinobambino_makeup) on

Maisie Beech is another young woman trying to gain control of her online identity. Beech is aspiring makeup artist and posts many of her looks to Instagram. In early 2016, Beech posted a picture with her makeup half finished. The right side of Beech's face is pale and blemished, while the left is covered in full makeup (Beech, 2016). The Instagram picture generated hundreds of comments and was picked up by the international press. Beech told the Daily Mail (Hodgkin, 2016) why she posted her makeup experiment:
 "I wanted to show that I like make-up and I wear it for myself, but I'll also happily get on the train brow-less if I want to. It's sad that this is how society is now. Make-up can and is a part of fashion and girls like to experiment and be creative, we don't wear make-up to hide our faces or deceive people." 

 Beech is implying that her made-up face is somehow more authentic than her cosmetic-free face. She says she wears makeup for herself, instead of to impress others, therefore she's taking control as the creator of the image and not as its subject. It's implied that Beech is "producing a reflection of your image in Instagram always involves an awareness of the presence of others, the knowledge that your selfie is flaking and refracting in their phones" (Droitcour, 2013). Like O'Neil, Beech is allowing the audience behind the curtain to reveal the private self. Again, this subverts the expectation that only the performative/public self is shared online.

 DJ Khaled 

 DJ Khaled is the latest celebrity to use social media to capitalize on his fame. As the social media site Snapchat becomes increasingly popular, DJ Khaled uses the platform to promote himself (DJ Khaled, 2016).

 All of DJ Khaled selfies have similar composition, likely because "the individual has limited options upon the choosing of the angel of view and depth of field" (Miroiu, 2014, p. 12). However, by appending his selfies with quotes and emojis, DJ Khaled is further individualizing his pictures. As a creator, he's taking as much control as possible in the dissemination of his digital self.

Truly, Snapchat is an ideal medium for the selfie, when you view a selfie "the documentation of a passing moment, not a larger expression" (Rutledge, 2013). Using Snapchat suggests that DJ Khaled does not want his selfies kept for eternity. After viewing a selfie for ten seconds, his audience then proceeds to the next. Due to the ephemeral nature of Snapchat, I have decided not to evaluate a single selfie but rather DJ Khaled's Snapchat account as a whole.

A common theme in DJ Khaled’s “Snaps” is the promotion of his DJ appearances, radio show and branded merchandise. DJ Khaled's self-promotional use of social media isn't unique. As Horning (2014) explains:
 "Posting selfies is often seen as part of an effort to build social capital, an effort to deploy the self in a social network to gain attention, reputation, influence, and so on. It instrumentalizes self-representation; selfies are a way to explicitly conflate ourselves with objects to be manipulated. " 

 DJ Khaled seems comfortable with his "commoditized self" (Horning, 2014). It recalls Droitcour's view of the selfie as "the residue of personhood’s digital and physical molting—images shed in square, flat flakes like bits of a snake’s skin, recording a body’s change" (2013). Indeed, DJ Khaled chronicles the minutiae of his life —from getting a pedicure to eating breakfast— in exhausting detail.

 (Further reading on DJ Khaled's influence online and on Snapchat's popularity with Millenials)

My Nieces

A photo posted by Gwyneth Dunsford (@gwynduns) on

I am reticent about sharing this selfie, because of the personal subject is portrays. Here are my nieces, aged five and 7, on a recent visit to Florida. It's an intimate pose, with the camera only a few inches away from their faces. As Rutledge (2013) explains:
 "Selfies are intimate because they represent a personal experience that is also social, taken for the express purpose of sharing. This gives selfies a level of self-conscious authenticity that is different from even a candid photograph—they are more raw and less perfect." 
 Indeed, this picture of my nieces is technically flawed. On the right, one girl's face is cut off. Both girls appear quite blurry. Their expressions suggest their curiosity about taking a selfie. To me, taking these pictures seems like a rite of passage. This is consistent with Rutledge's (2013) thoughts on selfies and development. In her words:
 "[Selfies are] ripe for exploration and identity experimentation, particularly among ages where identity formation and emancipation are key developmental tasks as well as for those who are still interested in looking at themselves. Both of these may contribute to why user demographics skew young." 
 Aside from the joy of taking a selfie, I don't think my nieces are acting self-consciously. They are more focused on the act of photography, than on the act of distributing the picture on Instagram. However, the act of distribution is critical to the selfie. According to Horning (2014), "the term selfie not only labels an image’s content... but it also describes a distribution process." By this definition, this photo of my nieces may not be considered a selfie. They created the picture, but did not distribute it. Due to their ages, the girls to not have their own social media accounts, so they haven't yet "commoditized [themselves] to suit the logistics of networks" (Horning).

 I think a more appropriate definition for this selfie comes from Droitcour (2013). To him, '"Selfie' is a diminutive of 'self.' Diminished, debased, made cute, it leaves room to acknowledge the flux of personhood" (Droitcour). Indeed, I believe this picture provides a quick insight to the lives of my nieces. Their smiles -- in this moment -- are preserved in a tranche de vie for all my 324 Instagram followers.


"Ai Weiwei: China's dissident artist." BBC News. (2012, July 20). Retrieved March 02, 2016, from

 Beech, M. [albinobambino_makeup]. “Just a pale girl with no eyebrows giving you the 411 on how to slay on a budget” [Instagram account]. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

 Beech, M. [albinobambino_makeup]. (16 January, 2016). “Mad ting” [Photograph]. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

 Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2014, March 13). Sharing the (self) love: The rise of the selfie and digital narcissism. The Guardian. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

 DJ Khaled [DJKhaled]. (2016). Snapchat for Android (Version [Mobile application]. Retrieved February 23, 2016, from

 Droitcour, B. (26 April, 2013). Selfies and Selfiehood [blog]. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

 Hilton, P., & Wei Wei, A. [parishilton]. (n.d.). #SelfieTime in #Paris with my friend @AiWW at his #SelfieWall at @LeBonMarcheRiveGauche [screenshot of Instagram]. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

 Hodgkin, E. (2016, January 25). Teenager who posted selfie with make-up on just half her face to show the power of cosmetics is shocked as trolls call her natural look 'ugly' and ‘disgusting’. The Daily Mail. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

Horning, R. (2014, November 23). Selfies without the self. The New Inquiry. Retrieved February 16, 2016, from

 Jurgenson, N. (2012, November 26).“Glad I Didn’t Have Facebook In High School!” - Cyborgology. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

McLaughlin, K. (2011, June 01). Paris Hilton on sex tape: 'I'll never be able to erase it’. CNN. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

Miroiu, C. (2014.) #Selfies: Social Identities in the Digital Age. Proceedings of the Australi and New Zealand Communication Association Annual Conference, Swinburne University, Victoria 9-11 July, 2014. Retrieved February 16, 2016, from

O'Neill, E. [essenaoneil]. (21 November, 2015). "This is the one photo that I feel people most recognise me from. But this isn't me at all. I had acne here. This is a lot of makeup. I was smiling because I thought I looked good. Happiness based on aesthetics will suffocate your potential here on Earth" [Photograph]. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

 O'Neill, E. (n.d.). “Me?” [blog]. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from O'Neill, E. [essenaoneil]. (n.d.). Posts [Instagram page]. Retrieved February 25, 2016, from

Rutledge, P.M. (6 July, 2013). Making Sense of Selfies. Psychology Today. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

 Schwartz, J. (writer) & Barrett, D.M. (director). (24 March 2004.) “The L.A.” [Television series episode]. The O.C. Los Angeles, CA: Warner Brothers Television. “The L.A.” (n.d.). Internet Movie Database. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

"The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013". Oxford words blog. (n.d.). Retrieved February 24, 2016, from

 Wei Wei, A. [aiww]. (n.d.) Posts [Instagram account]. Retrieved March 2, 2016 from


  1. I've been reflecting on your post since you wrote it a few days ago and would like to bring up a couple points and get your thoughts on it. On Paris Hilton and Ai Wei Wei: before the selfie, do you think this would have been the kind of photo she would have taken, and then after realizing there was limited (or negative) pr value in it, she would have destroyed it or stuck it in a shoe box somewhere? Or would an event like that be better covered by photographers or society page types because they would have to do it themselves as the Paris Hiltons of the world wouldn't do it for them? What I am getting at is does she really have more control over who sees what now than she would have had she been a celebrity in the 60s?

    I also loved the photo you used of Maisie Beech- it's an excellent example of how someone can show as much, or as little, of themselves through photographs. There are so many aspiring makeup and hair artists on Instagram it's no wonder that she claim her face is more authentic made up than bare. However, many people say they are wearing makeup for themselves but where do they get the idea to do it but from others? Surely a critical mass of people didn't think up trends like contouring or select the bushy eyebrow (this year) or the thin eyebrow (last decade) based on their own personal preferences without any outside influence. I'd be interested to know what you think about that.

  2. That Maisie Beech photo is powerful, thanks for sharing it.

  3. Thanks for the response, Jenn. You have asked some tricky questions!

    I think that Paris Hilton has more control over image than she would have in another era. I agree with Horning that "the term selfie not only labels an image’s content... but it also describes a distribution process” (2014). Hilton — like prolific selfie-takers Kim Kardashian-West and their ilk—can control how and when she distributes her digital self.

    Does that clarify my argument?

    As for setting fashion and makeup trends, I think influencers have a large role. For example, in winter 2014 a beauty editor at Vogue probably decided that they liked the look of bleached eyebrows. All of a sudden, Kylie Jenner, Miley Cyrus et al. have bleached their brows (Guglielmetti, 2014), and then the trend trickles down to the masses. The idea of these “influencers” impacting trends recalls this clip from The Devil Wears Prada (Lin K, 2014); a roman-de-clef about working at Vogue:

    [blockquote]“It’s sort of comical how you think that you have made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when in fact, you are wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room” (Frankel, D., Finerman, W., McKenna, A.B., 2006). [/blockquote]

    So even though Maisie Beech thinks she is doing her makeup for herself, she’s unconsciously influenced by the dominant trends. That said, I think this is really a chicken-or-egg argument.


    Frankel, D. (Director), Finerman, W. (Producer), & McKenna, A. B. (Writer). (2006)."The Devil Wears Prada”[Motion picture]. United States: 20th Century Fox.

    Guglielmetti, P. (2014, February 19). "Let's Talk About This Whole Bleached-Eyebrows Trend (See the Latest Celeb Example!". Glamour. Retrieved March 8, 2016, from

    Horning, R. (2014, November 23). "Selfies without the self". The New Inquiry. Retrieved March 8, 2016, from

    Lin K. (2014, April 18). “The Devil Wears Prada blue sweater scene” [video file]. Retrieved March 8, 2016, from