In the age of selfies, there’s more to happy snaps than narcissism, study shows

Are you a communicating selfie taker, an autobiographer or just a self-publicist? US research identifies three categories of selfie-takers and finds ego is not our only motivation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 January, 2017, 6:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 5:30pm

Friends do it, world leaders and entertainers do it, you probably do it and we – abashedly – admit to doing it occasionally too. Taking a selfie is commonplace in social media culture these days. But while it is often criticised as being narcissistic, a new study from master’s students of communications at Brigham Young University in the US suggests that individuals’ motives often extend beyond self-obsession and showing off.

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“It’s important to recognise that not everyone is a narcissist,” says co-author Steven Holiday, who collaborated with four colleagues. Through surveys and interviews, the researchers identified three categories of selfie-takers: communicators, autobiographers and self-publicists.

Communicators take selfies primarily to engage their friends, family or followers in a conversation. For example, Anne Hathaway’s “I voted” selfie on Instagram, which encouraged her followers to fulfil their civic duty. “They’re all about two-way communication,” explains co-author Maureen Elinzano.

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Autobiographers use selfies as a tool to record key events in their lives and preserve significant memories. Nasa astronaut Scott Kelly, for example, who returned to Earth in 2016 after a year on the International Space Station, chronicled his trip with a number of shots, including a full-blown space suit selfie. Autobiographers, the researchers say, want others to see their photos but aren’t necessarily seeking the feedback and engagement that communicators are.

Self-publicists –those like Taylor Swift or the Kardashians who love documenting their entire lives – are actually the smallest of the three groups, says co-author Harper Anderson. “And in documenting and sharing their lives, they’re hoping to present themselves and their stories in a positive light.”

Self-portraits are not a new phenomenon but social media has so proliferated their use and accelerated their popularity in recent years that in 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary named “selfie” as its word of the year.

While research studies often look at the motivation for posting selfies, few examine the effect of viewing selfies. A recent study by mass communications researchers at Penn State in the US found that frequent viewing of selfies through social networking sites like Facebook is linked to a decrease in self-esteem and life satisfaction.

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Published online in the journal Telematics and Informatics, the Penn study involved an online survey to collect data on the psychological effects of posting and viewing selfies and groupies.

“People usually post selfies when they’re happy or having fun,” says Penn researcher Ruoxu Wang. “This makes it easy for someone else to look at these pictures and think his or her life is not as great as theirs.”

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Study co-author Fan Yang adds: “We don’t often think about how what we post affects the people around us. I think this study can help people understand the potential consequences of their posting behaviour. This can help counsellors work with students feeling lonely, unpopular or unsatisfied with their lives.”