A graduate student takes a selfie at the 2017 Graduate Commencement ceremony in the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex in St. Paul on May 20, 2017.

Studying Selfie Culture

Love them or hate them, selfies have become a part of the daily landscape, which may be most evident when traveling. For Shannon Twiss ’17, a study abroad trip to Barcelona in spring 2016 prompted her to reconsider what she knew about selfies and art.

She was taking an art history course and said she began to notice how many pieces of artwork of women were created by men. At the same time, she was traveling largely with other female students, who were taking selfies to document their trip.

“There’s this sort of negative perceptions of selfies, that it’s bad and narcissistic and pointless,” Twiss said.

But she wondered what it meant for young women to have agency over the “creation and dissemination of their own image,” and how participating in a “selfie culture” played into women’s understanding of their own identity.

“Whether we like it or not, [selfies are] a part of the cultural world we live in,” Twiss said. “Even if you think they’re dumb, I think it’s worth trying to understand this phenomenon.”

“[Taking a selfie] is such a fleeting yet routine action in our culture these days,” said Amy Finnegan, assistant professor and chair of the Justice and Peace Studies Department, who served as Twiss’ mentor. “We don’t think about the meaning behind it and that construction of self. Shannon gave young people an opportunity to reflect thoughtfully on what it means to them, and I find that tremendously purposeful.”

Twiss took those burgeoning questions and turned them into a research project, which was supported by an Undergraduate Fellowship for Research on Topics on Women and/or Gender-Related Issues from the Luann Dummer Center for Women.

“Some of the feedback on Shannon’s project I have heard from the fellowship review committee ... [was that it was] very interesting, timely [and] creative,” said Young-ok An, director of the center.

The study of selfies

Twiss began with a literature review. She then honed in on interviewing women between the ages of 18-25 about their selfie habits, and analyzed the types of selfies they posted on several social media platforms.

She identified some of the motivations for taking and posting selfies as communication; celebrating an event; looking good; self-love and body positivity; journal and documentary; and to show surroundings. She also learned that women will use platforms differently for what content they might post.

And while selfies often have a negative stigma attached to them, for the women she spoke with, they were empowering.

“We have more control over who sees and reacts to the way that we look as opposed to real life,” Twiss said. “That’s really powerful.”

Twiss added that while selfies themselves are relatively new, the concept of a self-portrait isn’t.

“Whether or not we realize it, when my contemporaries and I are taking and posting selfies, we’re standing on the shoulders of other women who have created self-portraits, whether that’s self-photography or a different medium,” Twiss said.

For Finnegan, cultivating curiosity and bringing it from a concept to a well-researched, critically-examined presentation is a vital part of a liberal arts education.

“If we’re all more curious about each other in general, it’s an attitude worth pursuing in terms of building peace,” Finnegan said. “Skills that are necessary to do research are tangible, useful skills for social changemaking.”