Thinking with selfies

Kath Albury @KathAlbury
continues our edition of ‘The Person in the (Big) Data‘ by talking about her research into young people and sexting. Instead of educating those who worked with young people about social media and the digital, Kath developed an innovative Selfie Workshop with colleagues where she got participants to produce and reflect on their own selfies through the lens of introductory media theory. Instead of telling educators about sexting and social media representation, Kath facilitated an experience in which they would be directly involved. This kind of embodied learning is a wonderful way of generating new data about the social implications of mediation and offers the opportunity to engage directly to empower the community under study. 

Having undertaken a range of research investigations into ‘hot button’ issues such as Australian pornography producers and consumers, young people’s use of social media for sexual health informationyoung people’s responses to sexting, and selfie cultures, I am regularly invited to address sexual health promotion professionals (including clinical staff and teachers) seeking to better understand ‘what media does to young people’.

In the process, I have become increasing concerned that while online and mobile media practices are now ubiquitous (if not universal) elements of young Australians’ everyday sexual cultures, many sexuality education and health promotion professionals seem to have had little (or no) access to foundational training in media and communications technologies and practices.

Consequently, the Rethinking Media and Sexuality Education project sought to investigate the desirability and utility of providing sexuality educators and health promotion professionals with an introduction to the theoretical and methodological frameworks underpinning my research on media and sexuality.

Rather than discussing young people’s media practices directly, I shared some frameworks for thinking critically about media, gender and sexuality without seeking to quantify ‘impact’ or ‘effects’, and invited participation in a series of exercises adapted from the Selfie Course, with the aim of offering a prototype toolkit that might be applied across different professional settings and contexts.

How do selfies communicate a desire for intimacy? Participants in the Selfie Workshop are tasked with creating selfies for different audiences and contexts. (Pic used with permission from creator.)

The workshop introduced participants to a range of media theories (including Stuart Hall’s ‘encoding/decoding’ model ), followed by hands-on exercises drawn from the Selfie Course, particularly the Sexuality, dating and gender module, which I co-authored with colleagues Fatima Aziz and Magdalena Olszanowski. In the context of the Rethinking Media workshop, I briefly acknowledged the stereotypical ‘duckface selfie’, then moved on to introduce other selfie genres that were clearly read as an expression of ‘identity’, without revealing the photographer’s face. These the pelfie (a pet selfie), a range of body part selfies (such as the foot selfie, aka felfie), and the shelfie – a self-portrait featuring the contents of the photographer’s bookshelf.

The first activity was adapted from ‘The Faceless Selfie’ which my Selfie Researcher Network colleagues and I described as an exercise exploring the ways that “people navigate the ubiquity of online surveillance while simultaneously wishing to connect with others on social media sites”. This activity invites participants to use their own mobile phones to create a selfie that their friends or family would definitely recognise as them, without showing their faces.

After creating images featuring jewellery, coffee cups, bags, shoes and hands, participants were invited to reflect on how and why they chose to photograph themselves in this way, and whether they thought particular people might be more or less likely to recognise them in the pictures. On participant reported particular difficulty with this exercise since she didn’t have access to any sports equipment, and without it, she wasn’t really ‘herself’. This prompted a highly engaged large group discussion as to whether or not the self that adults show in the workplace is a ‘real’ self – provoking a further reflection on the common critique of young people’s ‘inauthentic’ performances in social media.

The second selfie activity revisited Hall’s work (introduced in the first hour of the workshop) then invited participants to apply the semiotic concepts of denotative and connotative reading to the online article Which Look Gets the Most Tinder Matches?  .  The article presents three differently styled headshots of the same young woman, ranging from ‘boudoir shot’ to a ‘girl-next-door’ picture. The author notes that this ‘natural’ picture “screams WIFE ME”, and indeed attracted the most Tinder likes.

Workshop participants were then invited to work in pairs to ‘style’ each other’s ‘Wife Me’ shots, that is, to create headshots and/or selfies for use as a dating website profile picture – again, using their own phones. Participants were specifically instructed to create images that conveyed a sense of ‘marriageability’ (as the participants understood it). As intended, this instruction provoked laughter in the first instance, followed by a lively search for the appropriately ‘marriagable’ backdrop within the workshop space. Some participants used props such as tea towels, office sinks and plates of cakes to create exaggerated portraits of ‘domestication’.

The Faceless Selfie: an exercise in communicating identity and maintaining ‘privacy’ within networked publics. (Pic used with permission from creator.)

Others worked in pairs to create both a selfie and a styled portrait of each partner, prompting interesting participant reflections on how they perceived themselves versus the way their partner saw them. One young heterosexual male observed that it was difficult for him to create a ‘marriageable’ image, since he did not see himself as needing to make himself attractive to women in this way. This observation prompted a broader discussion around self-presentation of sexuality and gender within social network sites and within dating apps and platforms evoking Lasén and Garcia’s ethnographic work on heterosexuality, selfies and masculine codes of self-representation.

As the workshop was intended to not only gather data for my project, but to facilitate knowledge exchange that would support participants in their workplaces, I contextualised this exercise within a discussion of ways that classroom teachers or health promoters might use selfie exercises to explore issues of identity, sexuality and gender with young people.

Ethics were a focus here, and we discussed the ways that the humour implicit in the ‘marriagebility’ requirement in the second exercise might support students to create images that interrogated sex/gender norms without compelling them to expose sensitive aspects of their own identities. One participant from a youth drug and alcohol drop-in service suggested that ‘faceless’ selfie exercise would be useful in her workplace to allow her clients to create and share images without breaching their anonymity.

Not only were the selfie activities an engaging and productive tool for eliciting adults’ perceptions of young people’s media practices (as well as their own), initial feedback regarding workshop’s potential as a ‘professional development’ activity was positive overall. However, some participants expressed practical reservations regarding institutional barriers to adapting selfie exercises in their workplace context:

The idea of using selfies as a way to have people critically reflect on and analyse their social media behaviour is really good. The ideas of encoding/decoding and circuit of culture are also really useful concepts.

All activities would need to be approved by the executive of [my] organisation. This can make things quite difficult, as there is a perceived view (outdated) that phones should be put away, on silent etc.

Workers and families have opportunity to support young people as they develop their sense of self and to interact with others. This doesn’t have to be viewed as risky behaviour to be stopped.

Finally, while participants in the Rethinking Media workshops did not share their images, we explored the possibility of creating a group Instagram account, to facilitate an experiential discussion of the affordances of that platform (including filters and hashtags). While this approach seems to have a good deal of potential for generating rich data, I am mindful that even a ‘private’ Insta account would be subject to the platform’s Terms of Service, and that any researchers or educators working with selfies on Instagram (even with adults) would be wise to take note of Tim Highfield and Tama Leaver’s cautions regarding potential pitfalls of these methods.

Kath Albury is an Associate Professor in the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW Australia. The Rethinking Media and Sexuality Education project was funded by a UNSW Goldstar Grant, with the support of Family Planning NSW and True Relationships and Reproductive Health, Queensland. Thanks to Paul Byron and my colleagues of the Selfie Researchers Network and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation for theoretical and practical assistance on this project.

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