Month: July 2014

Rating the Unworthy

Despite the majority of this blog being about selfies, that’s really not all I study! My thesis is about how discourses of photography are used to discipline people. The popular discourse about selfies is just such an excellent example of this, in that it identifies selfie-takers as having certain characteristics, which then is used to excuse a sort of free-for-all of condemnation, criticism and humiliation. But selfie-discourse is far from being the only example which does this.

I recently saw a version of the Top Trumps card game, in which the topic was ‘mingers’.


For anyone not familiar with the term, ‘minger’ is a word used to identify a subject who is regarded by the viewer as excessively, almost comically unattractive. Besides the construction of a product which labelled individuals in this way, and used their (presumably unauthorised) personal photographs, I was struck by the sense in which judging people has been explicitly turned into a game. And as an example I discussed previously demonstrates (in which photographs of women were arranged into a hierarchy and scored from 1-10), photographs are an integral component of this process. The prevalent assumption that the photograph provides access to the ‘truth’ of a person’s nature is here used to excuse a range of insults, relating to the subject’s style and smell.

The purpose of a game of Top Trumps is to deploy the ratings on one’s cards in a way that betters those of your opponent. By encouraging the players to think about strategy and competition, the game normalises the categories it is using, so by using the odour score on the card, players are accepting the legitimacy of a connection made between a series of undesirable characteristics – all linked back to the image itself. 81sG5Yzq+xL._SL1500_Furthermore, the deeply unpleasant prejudices expressed through this game, against certain body types and gender performances, are both obscured and cemeted by the system of numerical scoring. As number values have been assigned to each subject prior to the game commencing, players can assume they are only deploying judgements that have already been made. But through the act of comparing scores, and doing so in a way which depicts one as the ‘winner’, players act to reify wider social processes of hierarchical ordering and marginalisation. The score is also used as a means to convert subjective opinion into objective ‘fact’, in which the assessment and grading of subjects is presented as producing a definitive and truthful valuation. The ‘ugly-o-meter’ in particular references this sense of objective measurement. The final score allotted to each subject, according to their ‘minger power’, reinforces the sense in which people – especially people of low status – can be feasibly assigned numbers.


Whilst we are encouraged to accept that these people, who look like this, are legitimate targets for mockery, through accusations of poor style or bodily hygiene, the viewer is kept safe from similar judgements. By making comparisons, sorting and ordering, players are placed in a viewing position that separates them from the people they are judging. The inequality reinforced by this distinction, between judge and judged, was conceptualised by Tagg, who noted the separation between those who have “the power and privilege of producing and possessing” meaning, and those who were reduced to merely “being meaning” (1988: 6, original emphasis). Through their reproduction on these cards, their valuation, and their use within a game of social ordering, these subjects are in the unempowered position of “being meaning”. Players, in contrast, produce meaning through accepting the assessments made by these cards, and through using them as a form of entertainment.

This last factor – entertainment – is most important, as it is evident across the range of examples of photographic discipline I have been researching, from duckfaces to involuntary pornography. It is not enough to grade subjects, or to share their images against their will – humiliation of others must now constitute a form of leisure, in which we are encouraged to enjoy mocking others through viewing galleries of ‘ugliest selfies’, or visiting sites such as People of Walmart. I am not going to suggest that enjoying laughing at other people is in any way new, but the affordances of social media make the process of collating and sharing images in order to do this much more straightforward. And perhaps most interestingly, is the degree to which the disdain for certain types of people, and certain types of photography, have been normalised online, to the point where the expression of prejudice seems little more than a game.

Zombie Selfies and Data That Won’t Stay Deleted

So a prevalent theme of selfie discourse relates to danger – selfie-takers presented as doing dangerous things in the pursuit of the perfect image or selfie-taking shown to be regulated by chance or by humans in ways that make it dangerous. But this week emerged a new danger, in the form of selfies that won’t stay deleted and can therefore return to haunt the hapless selfie-taker – zombie selfies, if you will.

Internet security firm Avast bought 20 secondhand phones from eBay, and found that even on devices that had been wiped using the factory reset option, there was still an awful lot of data left over. Avast found that:

 “of 40,000 stored photos extracted … more than 750 were of women in various stages of undress, along with 250 selfies of what appears to be the previous owner’s manhood. There was an additional 1,500 family photos of children, 1,000 Google searches, 750 emails and text messages and 250 contact names and email addresses.”

This news story is interesting in that it was repeatedly reported in a way that framed selfies as the most volatile and therefore newsworthy type of data. Headline after headline referenced  the dreaded prospect of “naked selfies” being released, unwittingly, into the public domain:

‘Factory wipe’ on Android phones left naked selfies and worse, study finds – The Guardian 11th July 2014
Naked selfies extracted from ‘factory reset’ phones – BBC News 11th July 2014
‘Wiping’ Android phones does NOT delete your naked selfies – The Daily Mail 9th July 2014

Snapchat has demonstrated in the past the considerable problems that stem from deleted photos being anything but deleted – and, if you ask me, the even greater ‘problem’ of claiming to create a technology that protects people, but that makes them susceptible to victim-blaming and humiliation when it doesn’t work. But this news story takes selfie-panic, and selfie-disgust, in a new direction.

Firstly, the story focuses on the selfies that the researchers found, adding almost as an afterthought all the emails, texts and contacts that were also retrieved in huge quantities. Not to mention the fact that there were photographs of children on the phones, which one might expect would cause considerable alarm. A few years ago, this story would have been reported in terms of the potential for identity theft which these phones represented. But attention has shifted within popular news discourse to focus on the selfie, using it as a kind of modern folk-devil to symbolise a range of social problems and anxieties.

Secondly, the prospect of ‘naked selfies’ that cannot be deleted recalls other, much older forms of social stigma that cannot be removed. Rather than approach digital technologies as offering something liberatory and fun, we are encouraged instead to view every act of photography as a potential burden that can mark us forever, the shame lingering long after we had hoped to eradicate it. This is simple fear-mongering, evident in The Daily Mail‘s assertion that wiping phones does not delete your selfies. The ‘you’ referred to is both assumed to take naked selfies, and chastised for doing so, the fear of shame being used as a means for curbing behaviour.

The not-so-subtle subtext of this story is that the limitations of technology are to result in limitations in our own photographic practice. This recalls Eric Schmidt’s laughable statement that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”.  If you don’t want everyone to see your naked selfies, then judging by this story, you must never take them at all. If we, as users, cannot ensure our own safety through doing what we assumed would wipe the phone, then extra preventative steps are needed.  Because if naked selfie-taking is not ‘safe’, or any behaviour one might assume, then presumably it should not be done at all.

Of course this is an absurd limitation on personal freedom, and conceptualises things in simplistic terms of safe / not safe. One cannot stay indoors every day for fear of what might happen outdoors, and the same applies here. Instead of presenting selfie-taking as something to be feared, and as an uncontrollable monster, we need a reframing of the conversation, that conceptualises data breaches such as this without resorting to shaming. But that would require a shift in the perception of selfies, away from corrosive notions of embarrassment or disgrace, towards an acceptance that – gosh!- some people like to take photos of themselves. I’m not going to hold my breath, though.

A Handy Summary of What We Know So Far

This week I came across a video entitled Should You Post A Selfie? It was made by the site College Humor, which gave me an idea of the balanced view of issues it was going to be taking.  But it really was remarkable how many aspects of selfie discipline this video managed to cram into less than three minutes.

A young woman stands in a bathroom, and is confronted by two reflections of herself – one pro-selfie (R1), the other anti- (R2). During this back-and-forth conversation, the cliches about selfies are reiterated, as if to provide a summary of where we are now in terms of selfie discourse.

The selfie is first suggested in the video as if it were an illicit activity, when the reflection (R1) urges her to “do it… take a selfie” to the sound of eerie background music. “Isn’t that a little narcissistic?” (cliche 1 – selfies are narcissistic) chimes in the second reflection (R2). R1 states that “selfies help young girls redefine the standards of beauty” (cliche 2 – selfies need to be resistant to be valid), which is immediately contradicted by her instruction to “stick out your tits and take a picture” (cliche 3 – selfies are inseparable from sexualised body display).

R2 expresses concern that “this is going to come across as some kind of pathetic plea for attention” (cliche 4 – selfies are attention-seeking). R1 counters this by likening the selfie to a self-portrait, created by artists, “like Van Gogh” (cliche 5 – selfies exist in relation to Proper Art). Furthermore, she adds, astronauts take selfies, to which R2 responds that this is justified because they’re in outer space, and this achievement therefore makes their selfies acceptable (cliche 6 – selfies are valid if taken by special people). R1 continues by reassuring the heroine that “no first draft ever made it to Instagram” (cliche 7 – selfies connote inauthenticity). R1’s advice to “let your body just fall the way it naturally does” results in a contorted pose (cliche 8 – selfies feature forced and bizarre presentations of self):

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 18.10.08

Again, R2 expresses concern about the image, suggesting it makes her look like “a raging narcissist” (just one image, really?). R1 angrily retorts that everyone does this, and that tagging it #nomakeup and sending money to a cancer charity would protect her from accusations of narcissism (cliche 9 – selfie-takers seek to validate themselves and escape criticism, making even donation a cynical act). R2 questions this practice of “paying money to be relieved of guilt” (cliche 10 – selfie-takers are guilty of doing something that requires forgiveness). Both R1 and R2 then state they “don’t give a fuck what other people think” and use their selfie-taking / non-selfie-taking as evidence of that (cliche 4 again – selfies are taken to generate positive peer attention).

R1 suggests that the heroine take a silly photo to connote not-giving-a-fuck, but proceeds to stage manage the process, suggesting “cute weird”, with “beautiful eyes” (cliche 11 – selfies are contrived and lack anything approaching spontaneity). This should involve looking as if she is unaware of having the photo taken (cliche 7 again). Lastly, she states “now hold up a sign about feminism, but still with great cleavage” (cliche 12 – even political statements are compromised by the selfie’s principle of sexual display. Selfie-takers are therefore excluded from feminist practice).

The heroine takes her picture and uploads it, captioning it by stating that she doesn’t “normally take selfies, but I’m just being goofy and living life, LOL, #cancerresearch” (cliche 12 again – the contrast between LOL and #cancerresearch implies that selfie-takers are unable to approach serious issues in an appropriate manner).

Cut to the photograph’s reception by two of her friends:

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 18.29.57

“She is such an attention whore” one states, adding “stop shoving your face in my feed”, before they both click ‘like’ and add positive comments (cliche 13 – selfies are part of an online culture of deception, where no-one says what they mean, but engage in activities which maintain their social position).

So there we have it – selfie-discipline approached from both the individual and social perspective, in which both the sub-conscious and the peer group combine forces to urge young women to stop taking selfies.


Sweetie, No-One Likes Selfies

I like The Oatmeal: a comic that is often as informative as it is funny, featuring pieces on Nikola Tesla and grammar alongside cartoons about cats. So it was a bit of a shame, but hardly surprising, to notice that one of its recent comics featured a rather unflattering portrayal of the selfie-taker:

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So of course the idea of being dumped for your Instagram filters is ridiculous, which is what makes this funny. But beneath humour like this is a sense in which the audience is also laughing because it is somehow true – people who take photos of their cats, or who overuse hashtags are annoying, right? And it is interesting that selfie-taking is not mentioned until the penultimate frame, as if to leave the worst crime until last. This comic therefore exemplifies a much wider conversation about photographic practice, and shows how this impacts upon social relations. The selfie-taker is such a maligned figure within popular discourse, that being dumped for taking selfies comes to make sense. Although this example makes a joke of it, as we’ve seen in other cases discussed on this blog, the devaluing of the selfie-taker becomes much more problematic when it normalises stereotypes and permits the expression of hatred.

For the arbitrariness of this discourse to become apparent, we only need to refocus the woman’s complaints in the comic above onto the types of books or television programmes the male character likes. Neither of these would be as funny because they haven’t been established as abject in the same way as selfie-taking, and the joke just wouldn’t make ‘sense’. This demonstrates how photographic practice has attained an unusual position within culture, in that it has become normalised as evidence to support prejudice.  Furthermore, the selfie is at the forefront of an interesting shift in how ‘truth’ is deployed in relation to photography, whereby taking certain pictures establishes the ‘truth’ of particular subjects, rather than being solely a question of what the image content depicts. As the comic above asserts, it’s not so much the content of the picture itself that marks certain subjects as laughable (or vain, undesirable, narcissistic, selfish, trivial, vapid and so on), but just the mere act of taking it.