Do you take selfies? Do you take them in public? Do you watch other people take selfies in public and judge them harshly, as if it is any of your business?
Or, uh, why does anyone have an opinion on the selfie behaviors of others? I don’t take them; Ashley does. Who cares?
This is our question on Why’d You Push That Button this week — with a long detour to defend Kim Kardashian, the tryingest social media pioneer and performance artist of our time — and we’re going to get to the bottom of it. We spoke to Alicia Eler, author of the brand-new book The Selfie Generation, and she broke down the subtle misogyny of maligning young women for making their own records of their lives. We discussed the Super Bowl “selfie kid” and those very annoying sports announcers from 2015.
Then we chatted with Racked executive editor Julia Rubin, who does not allow anyone to take photos of her at any time — never mind taking them of herself. Selfies are embarrassing, she says! As a fashion editor, Julia has had other jobs that required her to maintain a meticulous and glamorous Instagram, and that’s just not the life she wants to live anymore.
Finally, we spoke to Dr. Sarah Diefenbach, a professor of market and consumer psychology at the University of Munich. Earlier this year, she co-published a paper called “The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to Like Them Yet Everyone Has Reasons to Take Them.” There’s a lot of gold in there, but we were fascinated by her finding that people who take selfies are likely to justify it to themselves as a “situational” decision — e.g. “I’m at the opening of Jake Gyllenhaal’s first Broadway musical, I need a photo of me having this incredible experience, even though I don’t normally take selfies,” or “I’m having a special, unique drunk night with a dear friend and I look good and I need to document it just this once.” When they see other people take selfies, they assume the reason behind it is that the person is a selfie-taker, by nature. This is called the fundamental attribution error, and I vaguely recall learning about it in one of the many “communication” classes I slept or read Jezebel through in college.
Listen to the full audio of the live episode here, and read the transcription of Sarah’s interview below.
Kaitlyn: So, what we’re talking about today is: why do people take selfies in public? And why do other people feel embarrassed for them when they see it?
Ashley: I feel embarrassed when I take selfies in public, too, as a selfie-taker. So I feel like everyone feels embarrassed all around, even though we feel that we have to do it.
Sarah Diefenbach: Yeah so, what we term the “selfie paradox,” it’s more or less the ambivalent attitude toward selfies. Everybody is taking them, but also feeling embarrassed a bit and yeah, we put some empirical data to this. So, for example, we asked people whether they like selfies or whether they would wish for more or less selfies in social media. And here we had really the majority — so over 80 percent — who said they wish for less selfies in social media. But at the same time, we found that nearly everybody is contributing and yeah, 77 percent were reporting they were regularly taking selfies, so this was a first interesting finding. So everybody’s taking them, but nobody seems to like them.
In the next step, what our research explores are the possible reasons behind this. Psychological needs and mechanisms. And there we had this interesting finding that people rated others’ selfies as very self-presentational, so they saw this kind of narcissistic attitude in it, but few had it for their own selfies. So, on the contrary, people rated their own selfies as quite self-ironic. So, this is an interesting finding: when you are making and posting your selfies, the impression you make on others might be quite different than what you think it is and what you think is funny and could be a joke.
Kaitlyn: So, in the paper you mentioned that people were able to “justify” taking selfies. Could you explain that a little bit more, the ways that we justify it to ourselves? To me, if I was going to take a selfie in public, I would definitely have to walk myself through this thought process of, “Well everyone does it, it’s okay, I want a record of me being in this place, blah blah blah.” I would have to list off so many reasons before I could possibly do that.
Yeah, exactly. So, I think what you’re reporting, it also shows some of this ambivalent characteristic of selfies, because on the one side, we are well aware that it’s a kind of self-presentational issue. And we also found that it definitely fulfills self-presentational needs because of people who are very prone to particular self-presentation strategies in general — like showing their emotions or highlighting their personal strengths — they were also the more popular selfie takers. But on the other hand, you feel that you need some justification for it, so some popular justifications are, for example, documenting what is happening because normally you are also posting your selfie and giving others insight in your life, sharing your emotions, feeling connected to others, to your friends and family. Also, like I mentioned, this self-ironic aspect. Like, “Well, it’s just a little joke and I will bring a smile to others who see my selfie.”
Ashley: Yeah, I think that’s why sometimes when I see people who take selfies and take it really seriously, like they post it on their Instagram and the caption is not at all a joke.
Kaitlyn: Like a really serious song lyric.
Ashley: Yeah. It’s just like, okay. I don’t know, I do feel funny when I see people doing that, but I wonder how they’re justifying it. Just like, “I look good today.” Maybe that’s it, maybe they’re justification is “I just look good and I want to tell people I look good.”
Kaitlyn: Yeah. I was reading this book that quoted another professor who was like, people say that people who take selfies are narcissists, but that’s just insane because if you were gonna say someone who takes a selfie is a narcissist than we have to declare every person under the age of 30 a clinical narcissist. There has to be other reasons.
Kaitlyn: Than an actual mental problem.
I think yeah, you also shouldn’t blame the selfies for this phenomenon because it’s just one way of self-presentation, and I think it’s in some way a natural thing. People want attention and they always wanted attention and it’s a natural need, also, to get some confirmation from others. So, I think it would be too easy to say it’s just this narcissistic thing for everybody.
What we also wrote in the paper is that maybe it’s part of the magic of selfies that they have this ambiguous character and that you can see it as a really narcissistic thing and only from the self-presentation angle, but you also can see it as a new form of art or yeah, really telling others something about yourself. And there are also some authors who really highlight this more artsy interpretation.
Kaitlyn: So, you didn’t touch on this in your paper, but I’m curious if you have thoughts just as someone who thinks about selfies a lot, if there’s a difference between the feeling of taking a selfie in the privacy of your home versus taking a selfie in public where somebody might see you.
I think that there definitely is. I mean, we don’t have exact research on this, but of course when you’re in your home and nobody will see also how many selfies you made before you post the perfect one. I think this self-presentation will be more obvious, so my feeling would be that, for people, it’s a higher barrier to take selfies in public than in private. But at the same time, what we found is that taking selfies has become already so popular and so widespread that people see it more or less as normal. And what also is a critical aspect is that they are often destroying the moment for others. So when you, for example, are at a nice place or a building or something and this technology comes first... Taking your selfie comes first and everything is centered on taking the perfect picture and yeah, no matter if you destroy the view or are in the way of others.
Kaitlyn: The most interesting thing to me was when you were talking about how people have this quote unquote, “distanced attitude,” towards selfies where they don’t really feel good about taking them, they don’t really have a craving to see them, but if I continue taking selfies, even if I’m doing it ironically or engaging in the classic selfie poses ironically, my selfie still has the effect of escalating other people’s selfie behaviors. It’s kind of just spiraling out of control. We can’t undo it, whatever.
Yeah, I think this is exactly how the story goes. What we found when we asked people about the perceived consequences of selfies — for the society and are they promoting an illusionary world — they said that selfies are a threat to self esteem, because in some cases you may post a selfie and you are hoping for many likes but you’re getting negative comments to it. And so, in a reflective way, people really saw more negative than positive consequences of selfies, or saw these as more severe, but it seems that they don’t see themselves as part of this. They really take a distanced attitude and say, “But this is what happens to the world and all crazy people around me. They have fallen victim to the selfie hysteria, but for me it’s just from time to time and as a joke and I can handle it.” And if everybody thinks like this then yeah, we see the result as it is.
Ashley: So, do you think in the future, I mean, selfies aren’t new, this isn’t a new phenomenon, but do you think in the future, that these attitudes could change or do you feel like this is just something that humans are going to think till the end of time about selfies?
I think that it might go back a little bit, because in some years it won’t be so new anymore so maybe people will become more aware that they have to somehow deal with their resources and how they use them. Taking selfies might not be the most fulfilling activity for all ages but the basic mechanisms and this tendency that you will see more justified reasons for your own selfies and less justified for the selfies of others. I think this will remain the same because yeah, this all goes back to basic psychological mechanism and human needs and I don’t think this will change so quickly.