The Science Of Selfies

Although the term “selfie” has not yet been added to the official Oxford English Dictionary, the act of taking this particular type of photograph has certainly invaded popular culture around the world, as mobile devices with front-facing cameras, selfie sticks and other accoutrements proliferate.

A team of researchers at Brazil’s UFMG and Korea’s KAIST attempt to define the phenomenon in a new paper titled “Dawn of the Selfie Era: The Whos, Wheres, and Hows of Selfies on Instagram.” Noting that their analysis of millions of photos and hashtags on Instagram shows that “the amount of selfies has increased by 900 times from 2012 to 2014,” the paper sets out to understand the selfie in its cultural and socioeconomic contexts.

Here are some of the key findings:

Selfies Are An Effective Way To Get A Response On Social Media, But Their Power Is Fading. In some cases, photos tagged “selfie” receive nearly 2-3 times more likes than other content types. The hashtag is important — the research suggests using it results in more engagement than a selfie photo on its own. But the response rate may be on the decrease — the authors note that the relative gap in engagement between selfies and other photos “decreases over time from nearly 3.2 times during the thriving initial spread to 1.3 times in 2014.”

Young Women Are The Most Prominent Group Depicted In Selfies Globally. To get a sense of the demographics of people posting selfies, the team used the Face++ tool, a free API and SDK for face detection, recognition and analysis to infer variables such as age and gender. The analysis shows that young women did indeed drive the popularity of the selfie, particularly in the initial stages of the phenomenon. But there is evidence that selfies now occur on a gender ratio in line with that of Instagram generally, which skews female.

There Is A Complex Set Of Relationships Between Culture And Selfie Behavior. To get at the relationship between cultures and seflie behavior, the team used geotags to identify the picture’s country of origin. This turns out a variety of interesting results. For instance, South Korean selfies are predominantly female, while countries such as “Nigeria and Egypt present a heavy male bias.” The researchers go on to validate the hypothesis that “women in countries with higher gender equality are more comfortable in sharing seflies publicly than in less equal countries.”

While it’s likely the term “selfie” will remain ubiquitous in global online culture going forward, the researchers do suggest excitement for them is waning. Nevertheless, the paper argues selfies “present yet many dimensions not explored in this research,” and propose future analysis such as looking into the emotions depicted and other methods of understanding sentiment. Perhaps future research might even explain fringe phenomena such as selfies on train tracks or selfies with bears. Until then, keep your selfie sticks handy.