The Five Ws of Selfies

Selfies are the daily bread for most social media users nowadays. For a while now, I’ve struggled to figure out: why are they so popular?

At first, selfies struck me as mostly for and by teenagers. Yet it turns out even though the trend dominates among young media-users, it’s catching on with all generations. The hashtag #me is the third most used hashtag on Instagram, home to this unprecedented phenomenon.

But what exactly is the psychology behind a selfie? I bring you the 5 W’s of selfies.

What is a selfie?

A self-portrait. A personal statement. A narcissistic remark, say many. A picture showing the author in daily, rather mundane activities ranging from getting morning coffee to the #OOTD (Outfit Of The Day). Would Van Gogh or Frida Kahlo have crafted a self-portrait featuring their morning coffee?  Should we even dare to compare 20th century self-portrait painters with our 21st century selfie snap-shooters? How much have the self-made protagonists changed since?

And that takes us to…

Who selfies?

The self-obsessed? That might have been true back when a self-portrait took real time and effort. Now, it takes seconds to “create” a selfie. So what differentiates the aforementioned artists from the everyday selfie-holic? My answer: the meaning behind the picture.

Frida Kahlo is famous for the graphic nature of her paintings. If we attempt to interpret them, we will find raw emotion, life experiences and frustrations: a true testament to her being. Au contraire, when glancing at a selfie nowadays, the meaning intended by the photographer is not as profound. New make-up or a good hair day alone can trigger a selfie session.

That’s why social butterfly seems like a more appropriate label. No matter the age, if you long for 15 seconds of fame or instant gratification, you are at risk of becoming one of them.




When do you selfie?

As a witness to the numerous morning posts that feature Starbucks, daily commutes and the classic #OOTD,I can tell you the selfie-holic gets an early start. As the day continues and the lunch hour approaches, foodies get their fix of food and the predictable lunchtime selfie. Selfies seem to be dependent upon the activities that follow the picture, but I can tell you a selfie when working out at the gym is one of the hardest to resist.

Where do you selfie?

If you have a smartphone available and a thirst for attention, you have the perfect conditions for a selfie. Whether it’s worth sharing or not (and I’d err on the latter), a selfie will occur. Location is trivial as long as the protagonist has the desire to shine. It can happen in the bathroom as you are beatifying yourself or, as millions of spectators witnessed, at the Oscars, where the most re-tweeted selfie ever originated.

Why do you selfie?

The most important question of all.

Psychologists have concluded that self-esteem might be at the root of this new trend. A study by the University of Indiana concluded, “…Selective self-presentation, afforded by digitally mediated environments can have a positive influence on self-esteem.” We do it because through selfies, we can control what others see and how we are perceived. The author can use many alterations or “filters,” even props to achieve the self-image they wish to portray.

Thus we find ourselves back at the origins of human nature: the struggle for identity. As Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D. from Psychology Today, puts it, “From one semantic perspective, a selfie is a ‘little’ self, an aspect of identity.” Selfies are just one more form of self-expression. As social creatures, we will always seek to express ourselves and forge our identity. It seems technology will be an aid to us no matter the trend, no matter the platform.