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How do we use selfies to communicate?

In the age of social media, selfies have become a big part of our daily communication. These digital self-portraits have surged in popularity alongside smartphones.

But, even though selfies have become ingrained in our culture, we still don’t understand how people use them to communicate. This is the central focus of a new study from the University of Bamberg.

Selfie meanings 

“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,” said study lead author Tobias Schneider.

Earlier studies established three primary motives behind taking selfies: self-expression, documentation, and performance. While some scientists used hashtags and metadata to extract selfie meanings, the photo itself often remained unexplored.

How the research was conducted 

To investigate, the Bamberg team presented a group of study participants with random selfies and noted their first impressions. 

“Most research addresses direct visual factors, neglecting associative factors that viewers have in mind when browsing through our selfie-oriented world,” said study senior author Professor Claus-Christian Carbon. “Here we used personal reports and associations to describe and categorize selfies in a systematic way.”

Using a database called Selfiecity, the team created a dataset of 1,001 selfies. These images were free from any text and taken using mobile cameras or selfie sticks.

Overall, 132 online participants were presented with a variety of selfies, which were randomly generated. The individuals recorded their spontaneous reactions. 

Semantic profiles 

Based on thousands of reactions, the researchers identified 26 categories of selfies. A subsequent cluster analysis grouped these into five primary “semantic profiles.”

The largest of the semantic profiles was named “aesthetics”: pictures that highlight style or aesthetic experience. This category was closely followed by “imagination”: selfies that provoke viewers to speculate about the selfie-taker’s surroundings or activities.

The third profile named “trait” includes selfies that elicit personality-related terms. The last two profiles are “state,” focusing on mood or ambiance, and “theory of mind,” pushing viewers to surmise the motives or identity of the selfie-taker.

Study implications

According to the researchers, the results suggest that participants were picking up on visual language which we use to communicate different aspects of ourselves – whether that’s our mood or a new outfit.

“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,” said Schneider. “It shows how effective selfies can be in terms of communication.”

“Research never ends. 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.”

“We definitely need larger, more diverse, and cross-cultural samples in the future to understand how different groups and cultures use selfies to express themselves,” added Carbon.

The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Communication.

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