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The Social Psychology of the Selfie


The “selfie.” I kind of cringe every time I hear that word, imagining Myspace-style angles, duck faces, peace signs and dirty mirrors. I’m not alone either. Many are hesitant to take and share photos of themselves, for fear of looking vain, vulnerable or being scrutinized.

But still, photo sharing sites like FacebookInstagram and Tumblr are filled with self-portraits. Some upload entire albums to Facebook of their Mac Photo Booth sessions. Others take filtered pictures of what they wore that day, or caption a closeup with mild to severe self-deprecation.

Among the many self-portraits are ones of celebrities, like Justin Bieber or Kim Kardashian. When I asked comedian Chelsea Peretti why, another frequent self-sharer, she jokingly responded “loneliness and desperation for attention are crucial ingredients.”

Self-image is important, and not always in a narcissistic way. It’s how we define ourselves, and present for others to see. We rely on others’ perceptions, judgments and appraisals to develop our social self.

How we see ourselves in the mirror versus a regular photo is different. The mirror shows a reverse view, but also shows you alive and with movement — as Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, points out.

“For some, this presents a more attractive (and therefore satisfactory) image as the movement and life tend to overcome flaws that might be more noticeable to an individual were the person to see him or herself in a photo,” says Dr. Rutledge.

Technology is adapting, providing us with better tools to present our self-image. How often is the front-facing camera in a phone used as a compact mirror, compared to FaceTime or Skype? How many photos of yourself have you taken with your phone, and how many would you actually share online?

In an age of hyper sharing and high engagement, how has social media affected our self image?

Looking Behind the Selfie


The opinion of others has been a part of identity development for more than a century. The “looking-glass self” is a psychological concept that suggests we develop our sense of self based on the perceptions of those we interact with, said Andrea Letamendi, a doctor of psychology at UCLA.

“Now that we can interact with hundreds — no, thousands — of people simultaneously, we’ve strengthened the impact that others have on our self-value,” says Dr. Letamendi.

The profile picture or avatar is a way for people to present a certain side of themselves. It also puts the person in control of their own image.

“I’d certainly rather post a photo I took as opposed to one someone else took most of the time,”wrote a member of the BodyAcceptance subreddit.

Has that single chosen image become the most important representation of our online identity? It is the first place the eye is drawn to on a Facebook profile. Studies have shown that the comments on your Facebook profile picture strongly affect your level of perceived physical, social and professional attractiveness.

Dr. Rutledge says that many have argued there is no difference to how we adapt to present ourselves in real life.

“Is this different than how we adjust if we are going to a party versus a job interview or a family picnic?” asks Dr. Rutledge.

One of the differences between our self-image in real life and online is more ability to change our look, and also mask our identity. Even when a person posts a photo of you on social media, you can untag, delete or modify the photo to keep social presence more consistent with the self-image you want others to see.

Technology has also allowed us to shape who we are and highlight specific features in ways we couldn’t do as easily offline.

“This may mean routine photoshopping to create a more ‘likeable’ self, or simply choosing photos that seem more like the visual self we want to present,” says Dr. Letamendi.

Instagram is another example. Filters make any photo look more appealing than what the image actually looks like, let alone what the naked eye would’ve seen. There has been limited psychological study on the app, but one in particular showed active users were concerned with both personal production and social reception. A combined search of various hashtags, such as #selfie, #self and #selfportrait, will produce millions of results.

How Online Anonymity Hurts Self-Esteem


Anonymity now has a large influence on the feedback people receive about their image on social media.

We know how people respond to an image influences self perception. Today, the chance of being scrutinized is greater because more people interact through a protected, anonymous filter, potentially making any self-esteem issues more sensitive.

There are forums — like the subreddit amiugly, which has more than 22,000 subscribers — that allow anonymous users to give constructive criticism on self-submitted portraits. Most of which is positive, but this further suggests the desire to maintain an image that’s accepted by society before the self.

Social Comparison

A recent study showed more online photo sharing from people whose self-esteem is based on “public contingencies,” defined in this instance as others’ approval, physical appearance and outdoing competition.

Humans are naturally competitive. Visual social platforms, like Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr allow quick and frequent access to others’ profiles. We can see what old high school friends that you haven’t talked to in years have lost weight. We know what coworkers and extended family are doing more-so than we could offline. This encourages social comparison.

Dr. Rutledge says this is a normal feature of human behavior, and that comparison doesn’t stop when people shut the laptop or phone and go to school or work.

“It is only problematic when someone fixates or over-compares to their detriment, but that is not a function of the photos as much as the individual struggling with self-esteem,” says Dr. Rutledge.

How to Overcome Your Social Self-Image

If you find yourself obsessing over the image you have or have not presented accurately online, Dr. Letamendi suggests limiting access to sites, especially those that are more likely to present negative feedback.

“People who tend to have low self-esteem and depression are more likely to engage in recurrent distorted cognition about the self (such as negative self-statements). Finding ways to interrupt those thoughts can prevent them from reinforcing a negative focus on the self may be helpful in improving self-esteem and lifting mood,” says Dr. Letamendi.

There are also easy ways to improve self-portraits, specifically ones that don’t require Photoshop. Photographer Leanne Surfleet says the lighting is always important.



“The main thing with a self-portrait is you are trying to show the viewer something about yourself,” says Surfleet. “You, on your own, can be a powerful statement.”

Knox Bronson, founder of P1xels, an online iPhone art gallery, suggests looking into the lens and be natural.

“Also, smile,” says Bronson. “It’s okay to show some teeth. Unless you are going for the moody poet look.”

How has social media changed your self-image? Are we utilizing it to present us for the better or worse? Share your thoughts and tips in the comments below.

BONUS: 10 Ingenious iPad Self-Portraits

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    1. Tim Knezevich

    Beautiful lighting adds a quiet grace to Tim Knezevich’s fantastically done infinity illusion.

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    2. Alexander Small

    Alexander Small adds another layer to his self-portrait with the addition of an iPhone that effectively highlights his intense eyes.

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    3. PBody

    PBody gags himself in his perfectly aligned and very well done self-portrait.

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    4. Ryan Pendleton

    The thinking behind Ryan Pendleton’s fun shot is to show how sometimes gadgets can enslave their owners. Although as a self-confessed iProduct fan, Pendleton says he “happily succumbs” to such enslavement.

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    5. Chris Deakin

    Photoshop ninja Chris Deakin has combined two separate images to create his pixellated take on the iPad self-portrait.

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    6. Jonathan Vazquez

    There’s no Photoshop in Jonathan Vazquez’s portrait that uses multiple Apple devices to great effect.

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    7. Ted

    Ted is the first to admit his neck isn’t aligned perfectly, but we’re certainly not going to hold that against him as we enjoy his cool camera-themed creation.

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    8. Andrei Popa

    We’re impressed with this pic, in which Andrei Popa puts himself inside his iPad.

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    9. Corey Weekley

    There’s a real sense of fun in Corey Weekley’s photo. We especially enjoy the little bit of hair sticking up from behind the iPad.

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    10. Tim Sismey

    Finally, not actually a self-portrait but a portrait of one of Tim Sismey’s iPhone developer
    buddies, this makes great use of multiple iOS devices to create some serious quirk.