Saying it with Selfies

photo of women taking selfie

Hundreds of years ago, if you were wealthy, you might commission miniatures of yourself to send to prospective marriage partners. For your grand house the rich would adorn them with paintings depicting themselves in a pose of their choice.

Beautifully painted antique miniatures can fetch eye watering amounts of money in auctions. Like all selfies, today or in the past, it’s the image you wanted to portray of yourself.

The millions of selfies taken today on our mobile devices are under the investigative research processes of  scientists from the University of Bamberg who want to find out the semantics of selfies.

Tobias Schneider, lead author of the study in Frontiers in Communication and PhD student at the Bamberg Graduate School of Affective and Cognitive Sciences explained:

“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.”

Previous studies have established that people taking a selfie have three main aims: self-expression, documentation, and performance. Asking people to describe their first impressions of a sample of selfies the researchers then worked out how different types of selfie are understood by viewers.

From this a data base was compiled – Selfiecity – 1001 selfies, self-portraits without any text, taken by a mobile camera, using an individual’s own hands or a selfie stick. 

They then established 5 different categories or ‘semantic profiles’ which in order of popularity are:

  1. ‘aesthetics’: pictures that showed off style or aesthetic experience
  2. ‘imagination’, pictures that led the respondents to imagine where the selfie-taker was or what they were doing
  3. ‘trait’, images that elicited personality-related terms
  4. ‘state’, pictures that looked at mood or atmosphere
  5. ‘theory of mind’, images that caused the respondents to make assumptions about a selfie-taker’s motives or identity. 

Tobias Schneider said:

“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.

“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.”

Professor Claus-Christian Carbon, senior author added:

“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.”

Click on this link to access On the Semantics of Selfies (SoS) published in Frontiers in Communication.

This miniature self-portrait by the artist Sarah Biffin, also known by her married name, Mrs Wright, bears the following inscription on the back: ‘Painted by Mrs Wright – born without hands or feet’. It is a remarkable and incredibly detailed portrait by a courageous woman, who taught herself to sew, write and paint using only her mouth to steady her needle or brush. This miniature measures just over 10 cm in height and has been painted in watercolour on paper. Like many portrait miniatures, it is set in a gilt-metal frame and has a little eye for a chain, which would allow the owner to wear it like a piece of jewellery. Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Fiona Grahame

Categories: Science

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