Month: May 2014

My Fair Selfie

A variant of this essay appears in The New Inquiry.

Every time I see a new instance of selfies being used as a justification for curbing the freedoms of young people, and young women in particular, I think that maybe now I have found the perfect example of photographic-discourse-as-discipline. But then I finally got round to watching the trailer for the new ABC show Selfie, and everything else just pales into comparison. Selfie-discipline, in the form of mainstream entertainment, cannot be any more overt than this.

The selfie is a modern folk-devil. Constructed within popular discourse as a trivial type of image, the selfie is predominately associated with a set of negative female stereotypes relating to narcissism, vapidity, and sexual impropriety. To see how this discourse works and to uncover its implications for social control, we need only consider the trailer for ABC’s upcoming new sitcom Selfie, which will premiere in the fall.

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The show will focus on Eliza Dooley, an updated version of the lead character of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and its musical theater remake, My Fair Lady.  Whereas Shaw’s Eliza was marked by certain working-class clichés — such as her strong accent and unrefined manners — today’s equivalent embodies the “problem” of modern femininity, in that Eliza’s confident entry into the virtual public sphere is presented as emblematic of her lack of restraint in other areas of her life. It is this absence of feminine discipline that is seen as the problem: She lacks the social graces and controlled appetite (relating to food, sex, or self-representation as signified by selfies) that continue to be expected of young women.

The story of Pygmalion is an apt template for exploring the discourse of the selfie. Both express a marked disdain for women and a desire to control them, replacing their inappropriate untutored modes of self-expression with compliance to a system of male-issued rules. The fable of the errant subject’s correction consolidates gendered power relations, offering tidy narrative satisfactions and conventional rewards for the women who submit to discipline.

In the Selfie trailer, we see Dooley making advances on a married man, vomiting in public, and displaying poor social skills by forgetting a coworker’s name — all of which makes her eligible for correction and education at the hands of Henry Higenbottam, reimagined in Selfie as a PR expert. But what chiefly conveys her apparent need for correction is her selfie-taking. In the same way that class made Shaw’s Eliza deserve her correction, today’s Eliza requires it because of her social-media use, which is culturally understood as a manifestation of her problematic femininity. The selfie is interpreted as not just an act of self-representation but also of self-promotion, and as such conveys the “problem” that Eliza, a modern empowered woman, represents: namely, that she is overconfident and self-interested, and does not automatically prioritize the needs of others. Selfie-taking symbolizes the loss of certain qualities of feminine passivity: modesty, privacy, and selflessness.

The use of selfies to flesh out Eliza’s character and orchestrate the show’s narrative arc relies upon a shared social understanding of what selfies are presumed to mean, a social construction that has emerged via numerous articles, blog posts, forum comments, and memes. Rather than celebrate selfie-taking’s potential for negotiating and performing identity, the practice is positioned alongside women’s use of sexting as indicative of a dangerously out-of-control feminine sexuality. This moral panic is evident throughout dominant cultural discussions of the selfie, such as in the news coverage of a security company retrieving personal data from secondhand cell phones, despite having been restored to their factory settings. Although there were emails, contacts, and messages on these phones, the majority of news outlets emphasized the presence of naked selfies, implying that this type of data was the most dangerous and problematic. Stories such as this one strengthen the association between selfie-taking and reckless sexual display, which is presented as inherently and supremely dangerous. This has become so normalized that viewers can be counted on to approach the ABC show with an understanding of the selfie as troublesome and trivial, connoting a devalued subjectivity, already in place.

In the moralizing discourse about selfies, the assumption that narcissism is behind the practice establishes a cyclical association between the image and female subject, in which each is enlisted to reinforce the low status of the other. A music video by The Chainsmokers exemplifies this connection: Aa woman stares at her reflection and engages in a quick-fire monologue relating to her own appearance, relative to other women. Her speech is broken only by the repeated refrain “But first, let me take a selfie,” used to indicate a female subjectivity that is laughably self-absorbed. When recycled throughout popular discourse, this stereotyping comes to have a disciplinary function, in that it defines selfie takers (predominantly conceptualized as young people and women) as legitimate targets for correction.

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In the Selfie trailer, Higenbottam says he wants to turn what he sees as a “vapid social media-obsessed narcissist” into a “woman of stature.” The correction Eliza receives is assumed to be validated in viewers’ eyes by her pride at being “Insta-famous.” When Higenbottam prevents Eliza’s selfie-taking by physically restraining her, insisting that “you think that you’re getting it, but you are in fact missing it,” the apparently urgent need to reject the selfie and the deplorable subjectivity behind it is made explicit. As viewers, we are invited to share in this moment of physical correction, understanding that it is not just the selfie that is being discarded but also the objectionable personal qualities that it symbolizes. This prohibition in fact demonstrates Higenbottam’s contempt for Eliza, which is matched only by his compulsion to remake her as his ideal, purged of her supposed vices.

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Higenbottam’s intervention in Eliza’s selfie-taking references the popular understanding of mediated experiences (and those who have them) as somehow of less value than the “real thing.” The contradiction, of course, is that in instructing Eliza to reject what appears to him as fake, Higenbottam fabricates his own model of authentic femininity. This demonstrates how legitimacy is strategically denied to the selfie-taker, rather than it stemming from any inherent poverty in their experience or their choice of how to document it. An example of the scorn directed at social media users appears in the show Shut Your Facebook, in which subjects are reprimanded and mocked for the unrestrained qualities of their online presence. It is not so much authenticity that the show demands, but compliance with a set of social norms, regarding self-control and humility.

Ultimately, both this show and the stereotype of the selfie demonstrate a fantasy of female obedience, in which the self-definitions of women (as represented by both the selfie and by Eliza’s earlier transformation from school nerd to glamorous vamp) are undermined in order to facilitate male satisfaction. It is through becoming malleable and passive, and by rejecting the agency represented by the selfie, that Eliza finds redemption.

The discourse of the selfie is therefore not predominately a question of what selfies mean but how their denigration can be used to reinforce hierarchies and elicit compliance with social norms. Furthermore, the disdain directed at selfies permits the expression of a specific form of misogynistic hatred, which is concealed beneath a veneer of photographic discussion.

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In the space of three minutes, Selfie’s trailer shows the heroine being molded to conform to society’s ideals of refined femininity: she appears more demure in appearance and manner and is shown laughing with co-workers and socializing with her peers. Eliza is told that the process is “working”, and that she is transitioning into social acceptability. To demonstrate Eliza’s elevated status, we see her and Higgins going out on a date and play fighting in the rain. Rejecting the selfie evidently brings romantic rewards as well as societal approval. The Selfie trailer thus features both the naturalization of regulation, and the legitimation of hatred. Whether there will be ultimately any agency for Eliza Dooley outside this dynamic will become apparent once Selfie airs in the fall. Whether there will be any for selfie-taking women in the wider world may remain an open question.

Selfies and Hatred

A video made by the PBS Idea Channel on You Tube addresses the question “Why do we hate selfies?”

The title of the video itself is interesting, in that it starts from a point at which hating selfies appears to be an accepted part of life, a fact. Rather than actually question the hatred, the video is normalising it. Even the description of the video calls selfie-taking “the lowest common denominator of the art of photography”. So this stance is hardly going to be neutral.

The explanation for selfie hatred follows a familiar enough path, arguing that the main problem relates to the low status of the selfie as a ‘bad photo’. These ‘bad photos’ are taken too easily by too many people, meaning that photography has “devolved into a skillless visual art…blergh”. But there is no critique about what this perception of selfies reflects, about why this kind of criticism suggests that photography (and by extension public participation) be reserved for those who are ‘good’ at it, and who are approved.

The presenter suggests that “a selfie isn’t exactly a photo and maybe that’s why so many people hate them”, before asserting that “the selfie isn’t a photo, but a block of text communicated in photographic form”, and should instead be viewed as a speech act. Firstly, the selfie does not have the monopoly on communicating meaning visually, so it can hardly be separated off for that reason. Secondly, these divisions between what is and isn’t A Photograph use exclusion as a means for preserving the value of other types of photography (and I would argue, other categories of photographer), in contrast. By maintaining that the selfie isn’t a photograph, this video contributes to the accepted marginalisation of selfies, and selfie-takers. This is compounded by the video’s final point: “don’t hate the selfie, hate the…selfie-taker”.

Actually, that’s so important I’m going to repeat it on its very own line:

“don’t hate the selfie, hate the…selfie-taker”

That this video, purporting to be defending selfies, makes such a statement is unbelievable, primarily because it doesn’t follow up on it. For me, this is the crux of the ‘problem’ of selfies – that they are a very thinly-veiled means for criticising other people – particularly young women. So I was disappointed that a video claiming to address this very issue misses the point entirely.

Conversely, for me, selfie-hate rests on making a connection between the devalued image, and a maligned subject, whereby a cultural norm of ridiculing selfies enables the free and open expression of hatred that extends well beyond photography. Therefore, the answer to “why do we hate selfies?” is another set of questions, concerning “why do we hate selfie-takers?” and “why do we hate young people, or women, or anyone that isn’t doing something which I specifically find interesting…?

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The Ur-Selfie

I’ve held off writing about Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar selfie for a while now. Partly because I like to consider things for a while before I write about them, but also because there’s just too much else going on in selfie-land to be up-to-date all the time (could people stop doing new stuff just for a moment and let me catch up? No? Ah well.)

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But something I read about Ellen’s selfie shortly after it was taken stuck with me. It was just one line of comment, on the website Jezebel:

Selfies: officially over, now that this one has been taken. Everyone go home, no more selfies. (2nd March 2014)

And it just struck me as interesting, that this gathering of celebrities, crowding in to take a picture together, was being used in this way – to tell readers, albeit informally, to stop taking selfies. The implication being that once a group of film stars does something, we can’t hope to do any ‘better’, and therefore should stop. The Ur-Selfie had been made, and all we could do now was just look at it. This sense of selfie-taking being a competition is unique within photography – who, for instance, would say that since Ansel Adams photographed Yosemite, no-one else should do so? But of course it’s not a question of quality, it’s a matter of accessibility to the public sphere – something selfies seem to override with infuriating pervasiveness. Telling people to stop taking selfies because celebrities have done so, is tantamount to reserving public life for only those who are famous. The rest of us should presumably know our place… This reflects an interesting correlation between cultural practice and interest – because a lot of people globally were interested in the Ellen selfie, it is received as a valid instance of an otherwise maligned photographic form. But because few people are interested in the selfies taken by someone they do not know, then this becomes something abject and marginal. The accusation of selfies being narcissistic has always struck me as odd, seeing as outrage at something which one doesn’t find interesting is perhaps more suggestive of self-interest, in that it suggests a wish for the world to be tailored to you, and you alone.

The comment above, however, does not reflect what intrigues me most about Ellen’s selfie, which is that when watching the actors assemble to take their picture, we can see the excitement that photography brings extends even to those who might well be relentlessly over-documented otherwise.

What this relates to most is choice – these stars here have the choice to be included, and are falling over themselves to do so. Whereas any one of these stars is probably all-too-aware of the relentless scrutiny of photographers following their daily lives, in this context, when they are asked and when they can decide for themselves and have agency, photography becomes fun again. Because taking photographs with other famous people is probably still exciting, even if you’re famous yourself (we can see Liza Minelli, for instance, in the background – also wanting to join in). And because capturing the moment, especially one that feels silly and frivolous, is immensely enjoyable, just because. Kevin Spacey waves two fingers behind Julia Robers’ head, who herself goes pink with laughter. It’s certainly messy, and a few of them look far from their best, but unlike with a paparazzi shot which seeks to capture the off-moment, to make a story about it, here that isn’t the point. They were joining in with something, and clearly relishing it. Meryl Streep’s excited “I’ve never tweeted before!” testifies to the fun one can have doing something widely regarded (and maligned) as trivial, and ephemeral.

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Apart from this agentive quality of this image, and of selfies generally (you can hardly force yourself to take your own picture), I enjoyed watching how the Ellen selfie became re-appropriated. Their referencing of a common cultural moment, in itself became a cultural moment. A few of my favourite re-imaginings are here:

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The Apparent Obviousness of Selfies and Narcissism

As my previous post touched on the way in which selfies are naturalised as narcissistic (one need only look at the regularity with which studies claim to ‘prove’ the connection) I thought I’d collate some of the pictorial examples I’ve been finding of this.

The selfie is presented in a medicalised context, as either a catalyst for illness, or as a laughable solution to it (and thereby implying that selfie-takers are insecure etc):

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The selfie-taking woman is emblematic of the “Me Me Me Generation”, and illustrates a “unit to accurately measure narcissism”.

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And as if the point was not clear enough, there is also Nero, with fiddle, taking a selfie as Rome burns in the background. Truly, the selfie is for self-obsessed, ludicrous loons, yes?

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This link has been perpetuated so extensively in popular discourse that the ‘truth’ of the narcissistic selfie-taker has been naturalised, and made self-evident. I argue that this connection is due to a number of factors. Firstly, the word itself permits a variety of puns, all of which perpetuate a theme of egotism: selfie-obsessed, selfie-ish, selfie-interest, no selfie-respect. Secondly, women are discursively associated with selfies, and with narcissism, forming a link between the two. Thirdly, without the conventions and connotations of formal portraiture, the selfie lacks the relatively stable cultural value of its precedent, and can therefore be used to evidence whatever prejudices the critic might have.

The popular diagnosis of narcissism reflects a poor understanding of the complexities of the psychological disorder itself, but rather is used as shorthand to chastise those whose self-interest is perceived as crass. The following infographic, below, claims to demonstrate how social media is making us more narcissistic. But it does not make a connection of any kind between the symptoms it suggests, and social media practice such as the selfie.

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How, for instance, can the selfie be assumed to evidence being ‘quick to anger’, a ‘refusal to take responsibility’, or being ‘above the rules’?

But the ‘actual’ link between photographic habits and psychological conditions are largely irrelevant once the norm has been established – we must instead question why the selfie is repeatedly framed in this way, what uses it serves, and who benefits from this.

Save the Poor, Helpless Selfie-Taker

A public service announcement-style video on You Tube features a number of gay men taking selfies. It presents them with a mournful song in the background, and tells us how many selfies per day are taken by gay men, and how long each takes.

We are urged to feel dismay at their plight, as if for animals in distress – and the video’s made-up charity, the gAySPCA, is a reference to animal welfare. So what does this video add to selfie-discourse?

Firstly, it maintains that people who take selfies are to be laughed at, referencing what I argue is a prevalent cultural norm for mocking subjects because of their photographic habits.

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Secondly, it relies on the popular understanding of selfies as above all not masculine. Selfies are for girls, because they’re vain and trivial – and here, gay men are being included too. In fact, the number of examples we see of selfies, from dogs, cats, squirrels, inanimate objects and so on, it seems the only way they are kept marginal and devalued is by being repeatedly presented as effeminate, and ridiculous.

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Thirdly, the video – albeit humour – perpetuates the prevalent understanding of what selfies ‘mean’, psychologically.

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Usually, this relates to narcissism, but here we see that the message relates to insecurity – the selfie-taker is therefore presented as problematic, and an object of pity. By watching this video, the viewer is being positioned in a superior position to the folorn subjects of this faux-concern. The video claims to be helping gay men who “cannot leave the house until their daily selfie has received enough likes”.

Overall, the video constitutes another example of discipline, in that it encourages an explicit understanding of certain people as pitiful, as a result of their cultural practices.

 

Selfies and the News

I’m sure we’ve all noticed just how often the word ‘selfie’ appears in the news. There are two ways of looking at this – firstly, it seems to be a trigger for journalists and newspapers to run with a story which otherwise might be a bit of a non-event. Secondly, it is used within modern-day morality tales, in which selfie-taking is solemnly reported as causing another death, another injury, another social problem. I’ve collated a few of them here, just to show the scope and theme of these stories.

The Daily Mail is really in a category of its own when it comes to selfie scare stories. Here we have tales of attacking squirrels, and police dogs, who reacted badly (and in a way perhaps that the Mail might defend) to being included in a selfie.

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There’s also the story of a young man who was kicked in the head by a train engineer as the train passed behind him: depending on how you view selfies, this is either apt punishment for standing too close to the train / videoing yourself, or an unprovoked attack. Tech magazine Gizmodo (along with numerous commenters) certainly seemed to think the former:

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Another story relates to a participant in the Houston Bull Run who was photographed filming his experience:

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But although this is presented as part of a wider trend for ‘dangerous selfies’, in which subjects record themselves in perilous circumstances, as we see from the subject’s own video, there are countless people at the bull run who are not recording themselves. Doing dangerous things is therefore something that people seem to want to do anyway, whether or not they record it, and it is the rationality of this that should be questioned, not whether they film or photograph themselves doing so.

A further story details a young woman’s death in a road accident, which is assumed to have been caused by taking a selfie whilst driving. As with the story above, it is not so much dangerous behaviours themselves which are reported, but dangerous acts of photography. Would, for instance, this woman’s death be reported quite so widely if she had crashed whilst on the phone, or whilst reaching for something in the glovebox? Probably not, as these behaviours have not been discursively constructed as problematic in the same way as selfies.

The story of a woman’s cosmetic surgery procedure is given an added twist by virtue of its connection to selfies – the feature implies that cosmetic surgery itself is now accepted, but that it appears dubious and somewhat desperate when the reason given is to ‘look better in selfies’.

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As Triana Lavey herself describes, she was not happy with the way she looks, so she wanted to change that. The selfie dimension is rather secondary, being a result of her dissatisfaction rather than the cause, as it is suggested. But she acknowledges the importance of one’s photographic representation – in terms of generating self-esteem, and for participating within social media. Her statement that she feels like herself, but Photoshopped, is certainly very interesting, and merits another post in itself, in that it reflects the influence of not just photography, but photographic technologies, upon perceptions of the self.

Lastly, and my favourite, is the suggestion that taking selfies has led to an increase in teens getting head lice. Quoting a ‘California-based lice expert’, The Independent reports Mary McQuillan as saying “Every teen I’ve treated, I ask about selfies, and they admit that they are taking them every day…I think parents need to be aware, and teenagers need to be aware too. Selfies are fun, but the consequences are real”. But as every researcher knows, correlation does not equal causation, and she might as well have asked her patients if they attended school / had friends / went to parties, and extrapolated from that.

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As Dr Richard J. Pollack from the Harvard School of Public Health contests, such a suggestion is “ridiculous” and is “a marketing ploy, pure and simple”. Whether as a marketing tool, or as newspaper click-bait, these examples are only the tip of the iceberg in demonstrating the role which selfies play in generating interest, even if it is mainly confined to shock-value.

 

 

The Curious Confusion of #Selfie

A music video entitled #SELFIE by The Chainsmokers is a brilliant illustration of the discipline and marginalisation of the selfie-taker in popular discourse.

It depicts two women in a bathroom at a nightclub, one of which maintains a rapid-fire monologue throughout the whole song. Her topics of discussion are intentionally framed as vapid and insecure: her concerns over a man’s attention, another woman’s dress and what photo filter will make her look tanned. Most importantly, she finishes each section of the song by stating “first, let me take a selfie”.

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And so the connection is cemented, between the devalued character of the vain mean girl and the act of taking a selfie. Of course she takes selfies, the narrative implies – she has these other negative qualities, all of which have been normalised in connection with selfies. We look at her and are encouraged to cringe, to reject, to criticise.

But then the video takes something of a volte-face, in that we then see a compilation of scores of fan-submitted selfies. Smiling faces and funny outfits abound, making an awkward contrast with how selfie-taking has been presented so far.

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Having seen so many ‘regular’ selfies, people just enjoying depicting and seeing themselves, how can we then continue with the original narrative of the song? But apparently unaware, or uninterested, in the contradiction being set up, the song returns to the woman in the bathroom and her complaints and neuroses. Further compilations of user-submitted images appear, elicited by the band themselves as a means for their fans to join in with the fun. This perpetuates the sense of confusion, in that the band are both mocking selfies and selfie-takers, yet also acknowledging their use for subjects as an enjoyable form of participation. At the end of the video a caption suggests watching again if the viewer did not see a selfie they submitted – an outright affirmation of people’s enjoyment of seeing themselves depicted within socially-recognised spaces. The contradiction here, the hypocrisy, is evident in the screenshot below, where fans are encouraged to send in images, whilst a band member wears a t-shirt declaring “Go Fuck Your #Selfie”.

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This statement is an example of the conflation between selfie-taker and image, where a insult directed at one is a thinly-veiled form of attacking the other. It’s OK to tell people to “Go Fuck Your Self”, as long as it’s done with a wink, and via the dismissal of a certain photographic practice. Again, photography becomes a vehicle for expressing outright disdain for others. This disciplinary function of this video is clear, in that it manages to encourage subjects who (presumably) enjoy taking selfies to accept and join in with their own regulation. They therefore take selfies as part of a wider process of undermining selfies, demonstrating how discourse acts to normalise subjects’ disdain for their own practice, let alone that of others.

In contrast, a version of this song has been recorded which shifts the context to Whitby Goth Weekend.

A young Goth woman performs a similar monologue, but with quite a different tone. Here, the mockery is far more gentle, and contains nods to subcultural cliches (she can’t decide between two black eyeliners) and anxieties (“does this corset make me look mainstream?”)

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As someone who has spent many happy years going to Whitby Goth Weekend, I view this character as someone to relate to, not to distance myself from. Her exclamation that “cobbles and stilettos – are they trying to kill me?” will ring true with anyone who has walked those streets in unsuitable shoes. Although she is still a parody, and a cliche, she is not abjected in the same manner as the character she references, and we do not therefore view her selfie-taking quite so negatively (which, in turn, does not act to consolidate her lack of value).

The gender normativity of the original becomes apparent, in that the Goth woman’s interest in a male character does not dominate the narrative to the same extent. Furthermore, other subjects are seen taking selfies within the video, and compilations of images are also featured throughout.

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The Goth selfies included in this video underscore what, to me, such images serve to do more widely, in that they feature an enormous diversity of identities and make them publicly visible. The notion that selfies are all too alike, or all serve the same purpose, seems to be based on prejudice rather than experience, as even a cursory look at feeds of selfies on sites such as Instagram acts to demonstrate the opposite. Furthermore, the Goth version of #SELFIE forms an important counter to its original, as it demonstrates how to make a humorous parody without being vicious or glaringly hypocritical.

The Fabulous ‘Theorizing the Web’ 2014

I’ve spent the last week in New York, having gone over to speak at Theorizing the Web 2014. And what a tremendous conference it was, featuring a diverse range of papers in a friendly and supportive environment. Addressing topics such as Big Data, gaming, memes and sex work, the speakers conveyed complex theoretical positions, but in a way which was intended to still be accessible to the lay person. And that’s what made this event so special, for me – this aim to convey academic research and the work of creative practitioners in a way which was inclusive. I was also impressed by the organisers’ commitment to their anti-harassment statement, which ensured the space remained safe and welcoming for attendees.

The panel I was lucky enough to be on was superb: Apryl Williams provided a great overview of the selfie, as well as some interesting new research; Ofer Nur looked at erotic selfies, and Molly Crabapple presented a fascinating insight into the use of photography by jihadis, including an unexpected crossover between Pinterest motivational rhetoric and the slogans used to encourage others to take up arms. My talk went as well as I could have hoped – despite my nerves, and slightly going over time. The reaction from people afterwards was very encouraging, and I can now return to writing up my thesis with a real spring in my step. And I’ll certainly be attending next year!

There’s a recording of our panel here:

And some photos of our panel appear below, with credit to Aaron Thompson:

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We also took the opportunity to indulge in a bit of selfie-taking ourselves (with thanks to R. Stuart Geiger):

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Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 16.04.50And the back of my head made a frequent appearance…

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