The science behind the selfie

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WASHINGTON POST

Jennifer Lawrence, with boyfriend Nicholas Hoult at the Golden Globes, does the head tilt.

Washington - For a phenomenon born lately of the webcam and front-facing smartphone camera, the “selfie” has been subject to a significant amount of media dissection.

Instagram user Jennifer Lee from Oakland, California, is said to have shared the first shot of herself on the photo sharing app with the tag #selfie in 2011, and from there, a thousand highbrow think pieces and hand-wringing laments have flowed.

While selfie hubris surely reached a peak last year, being declared the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year, digital culture experts Lev Manovich and Daniel Goddemeyer wanted to put this technological self-documentation under a more scientific microscope. They launched their Selfiecityproject late last year to search for Instagram selfie patterns around the world. If you want to see a selection of women in glasses in Berlin who lean left, you’re in the right place.

For one week in December, their team gathered thousands of photos from Instagram. The photos, selected from New York, Bangkok, Moscow, São Paulo and Berlin, were narrowed down to 640 selfies from each city with the help of Amazon’s Mechanical Workers.

The images were subject to high-level face analysis with the help of Orbeus’s software, sorting by visual cues such as smiles, glasses, and orientation of the head. The result: a sophisticated data visualisation.

Their findings seem to confirm some of our preconceptions of the selfie. Selfie taking is the sport of the young: 23.7 is the estimated median age. More women than men take selfies, unless they’re over 30, in which case more men do.

National stereotypes also bear out. People in Bangkok and São Paulo smile the most in selfies, while Muscovites are predictably dour, smiling the least, and New York and Berlin somewhere in between.

What we should thank Manovich and Goddemeyer for most, perhaps, is their analysis of the head tilt. The above-the-shoulders sister of the Facebook profile picture pose, “The Awkward Lean”, the head tilt is clearly the definitive head angle of our time. The average amount of head tilt in a selfie is 50 percent higher for women than for men: (12.3 degrees vs 8.2 degrees). And, they tell us, Brazilians lean the farthest, with the average São Paulo woman tilting her head to a significant 16.9 degrees.

The selfie has been covered microscopically perhaps because its popularity seems to embody what society thinks to be the ills of the young: narcissism, over-sharing, and endless aping of celebrity culture.

However, Selfiecity found that only a small amount of the photos they analysed were actual selfies. They make up only about 4 percent of Instagram.

#Catsofinstagram might be a worthy study for the Selfiecity team, given that British internet users are almost three times more likely to share cat-related photos than selfies, according to research conducted by network Three.

Still, the age of the selfie is not over. Humans have never been able not to look at themselves. And when we have #selfiefriday, #selfiesunday, #selfieoftheday, and #selfiesfordays, and surely some day soon, the hologram selfie, the data need never stop flowing. – Slate/ The Washington Post News Service

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