People have used self-portraits as a way to express themselves. With the advent of digital cameras, this age-old practice has taken another form: “selfie.” We’ve all seen and taken them, but despite their widespread prevalence, their underlying messages remain largely unexplored. A team of scientists wanted to explore selfies more deeply, and they conducted a study that showed that our selfies can be divided into different categories.
[Related reading: What are the differences between selfies and self-portraits?]
A scientist duo at the University of Bamberg published a paper titled “On the Semantics of Selfies (SoS),” showcasing their research. Tobias Schneider, the lead researcher of the study, points out, “Although the term ‘selfies’ is now celebrating its 21st birthday, and although selfies are known in art history for nearly 200 years in photography and more than 500 years in paintings, we still lack a clear classification of the different types of selfies.”
Scientifically capturing the essence of selfies
Prior studies have suggested that selfie-takers primarily aim for “self-expression, documentation, and performance.” While many studies have leaned on hashtags and metadata to decode the intent behind selfies, they often overlook the image’s intrinsic value.
But the Bamberg wanted to go beyond the hashtags and observe the message of the images themselves. They analyzed participants’ first impressions of a range of selfies. “Most research addresses direct visual factors, neglecting associative factors that viewers have in mind when browsing through our selfie-oriented world,” said Professor Claus-Christian Carbon, senior author. “Here we used personal reports and associations to describe and categorize selfies in a systematic way.”
The findings of the selfie study
The research was based on a curated set of 1,001 selfies from the Selfiecity database. These selfies, devoid of any text and captured using mobile cameras, were presented to 132 participants. An algorithm ensured each participant reviewed a diverse set of 15 selfies, jotting down their spontaneous reactions.
After processing the collected data, the team identified 26 primary categories based on participants’ impressions. After a deeper dive through cluster analysis, they established five distinct “semantic profiles” or selfie categories:
- Aesthetics: Highlighting style or aesthetic appeal.
- Imagination: Stirring viewers to ponder the context or story behind the selfie.
- Trait: Evoking personality-based terms.
- State: Reflecting a particular mood or ambiance.
- Theory of Mind: Pushing viewers to infer the selfie-taker’s motives or identity.
Schneider remarked on the study’s surprising find:
“We were quite impressed how often the category ‘theory of mind’ was expressed, because this is a very sophisticated way of communicating inner feelings and thoughts. It shows how effective selfies can be in terms of communication.”
However, the researchers note that these findings may not have universal applicability. “We need more free reports on selfies, more descriptions of how people feel about the depicted persons and scenes, in order to better understand how selfies are used as a compact way of communicating to others,” Schneider said. Carbon added that the scientists need “larger, more diverse, and cross-cultural samples in the future to understand how different groups and cultures use selfies to express themselves.”