Is the ‘selfie’ a mere craze or a real mode of self-expression, reflecting a society undergoing a thorough digital disruption?

Taking a selfie is "like making a sort of public statement"

Joint interview with Joëlle Menrath, a sociologist who heads up the consulting and applied research firm Discours et Pratiques, and André Gunthert, associate professor at leading French research and higher education institute EHESS, who specialises in visual and digital cultures, during a broadcast of L’Atelier Numérique (Atelier Digital) radio show.

L’Atelier: Joëlle Menrath, you’ve carried out a study for the French Telecoms Federation. What does the Federation think of the ‘selfie’ trend?

Joëlle Menrath: It’s a trend that has been much mocked, but it has become phenomenally popular – even to the point of having an entry in the Oxford dictionary! But this practice has met with quite a lot of moral disapproval and this is perhaps what makes it especially interesting. Perhaps the disapproval is what has made it so popular if we believe the argument that our society is now beset by catastrophic egotism. But if you look back in history, there’s nothing really new about such disapproval. When photography had just been invented, or a few years later anyway, Baudelaire came out with a tirade about what he called a disgusting society rushing, Narcissus-like, to gaze at a photographic reproduction.

But the selfie also serves to break down all the formality of the visual codes. Can we spot this by analysing digital images?

André Gunthert: Yes, you can, because it’s a fact that taking a photo of yourself is not a natural thing to do, especially from a practical point of view. When you take a selfie you have to twist the camera round and people can really see that’s what you’ve done. How it differs from a painted self-portrait, where you don’t actually know that the artist has painted him/herself, is that a selfie always shows signs that the photo has been taken by the subject him or herself – a bit of your arm showing, your shoulder sloping towards the lens, and so on. Celebrities are now also following this popular visual trend because the selfie projects a more intimate image, the more natural feel of an amateur photo. The aim is to let their fans get more intimate with them, to make themselves more accessible.

Joëlle Menrath: Nowadays it’s also a sort of entry ticket to the social networks. If you don’t put a picture in the profile box, a little icon is left there in its place. So these days you do need a photo of yourself. But it’s not so much that taking photos of yourself means you’re in love with your own appearance, it’s more that the selfie avoids you having to ask someone else to “take ten photos of me until I get one of me I like.” You have to realise that this is not a particularly spontaneous thing to do, especially among teenagers, who take 15, 20, 30, 40 photos until they finally find just the angle they like…or until they find a standard pose they’re looking for. And they often like using the same pose as their friends as a way to express their friendship. A bit like wearing the same type of clothes.

Viewed like that then, a selfie isn’t necessarily something narcissistic at all. It’s more a way of fitting into the group or expressing belonging…

André Gunthert: It’s more complicated than that. I think we have to distinguish two things. First of all, when we’re talking about a profile picture or an avatar, you can use an image other than a photo of yourself – a portrait, a painting, an ad, etc. So in a way, using a selfie for your avatar is like making a sort of public statement, because the attraction lies in the very fact that it’s a poor-quality photograph, simply because when you take a selfie you haven’t got much control over the shot, you can’t arrange the composition and you don’t apply the same skill level as someone else taking a photo of you. Selfies are pictures with built-in faults, and we appreciate them for those faults. This is what makes them natural, what gives them their special character. Secondly, these pictures can also be used on messaging services and chat channels. Circulating pictures in this way – and you can’t keep track of it – serves a whole series of purposes: showing off your new hairstyle, trying out a pair of glasses and what-all-else. There are many other ways to use a picture. But what bothers people is that in our Western tradition when you see a face, when you see the depiction of a face, you’re inclined to believe that it’s actually intended as a portrait, which is not always the case. In actual fact you need to see the context in which it was taken and is being used.