The selfie has become a ubiquitous symbol of modern pop culture. According to Oxford Dictionaries, usage of the word increased so significantly last year (17,000%), the publisher selected “selfie” as its Word of the Year for 2013. Even world leaders seem to have adopted the trend, as evidenced by the widely shared images of President Obama and the Pope Francis in social media.
Not surprisingly, the selfie trend has also piqued the interest of academia. Last week, a team of independent, university-affiliated researchers launched a new project examining the sociological underpinnings of the selfie. Their project, titled Selfiecity, analyzes selfies taken from five cities – Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York, and Sao Paolo – with the objective of understanding how these self-taken portraits differ across age, gender, and culture.
To facilitate their research, the team, led by Dr. Lev Manovich of CUNY’s Graduate Research Center, used multiple systems, including Mechanical Turk. They started by randomly selecting 120,000 photos from Instagram over a period of one week (20,000 – 30,000 from each city). To sift the selfies from the photos collected, the team published a HIT to Mechanical Turk and asked 2-4 Workers to review each photo. Once two Workers agreed that a photo met the required criteria, the image was labeled a selfie. The team then published a second HIT, this time asking three Masters to estimate the age and assume the gender of the subject in the photograph. As a final step, the team used automatic face analysis to algorithmically evaluate the subjects’ emotional expressions based on eye, nose, and mouth positions.
So, what insights did the selfies analyzed reveal on modern society? To learn more, you can find the results of the team’s research and more detail on their methodology at Selfiecity.net. The site also features interactive visualizations, along with theoretical essays discussing selfies in the context of the history of photography and the function of images in social media.