As I have written about previously, I was born completely deaf in my right ear. As a result I have a ‘good side’, and a ‘bad side.’ Back in the 90’s I was at a formal function sitting at a table, and I had to reposition myself so I could sit in a seat where I could hear the discussion, and I said to the person next to me, ‘Do you mind if we swap seats so I can sit with everyone on my good side’. A middle aged woman at the table over heard me and her eyes lit right up ‘You have a good side too! I have a good side too.’ She angled her face so that only the left side of her face was facing me: ‘See!’
I had to explain that, no I wasn’t Mariah Carey– who famously only likes to be pictured facing one way (see the video at .23sec mark below where she has an existential crisis from being forced to have her ‘bad side’ face first), but I in fact have a hearing disability.
But wanting to put your ‘best ‘ side forward is not new- museums and art galleries have been full of self-portraits for a long time. So while the art of self-portraits is nothing new, the prevalence as a genre of photography and the publishing of it is (Marwick 2015, p.141). The difference we are seeing here is the shift from using cameras for “photographing others for self-consumption, to documentation of the self for consumptions by others”(Schwarz 2010, p.165). So when this is combined with the social media- now for the first time in history, we have some level of agency and autonomy in how we are represented to the world in recordings: Welcome to the age of Selfie.
Whilst posting or exchanging selfies is often dismissed as frivolous and self-absorbed, the relationship between subjectivity, practice and social use of those images seems to be more complex than this dismissal allows (Tiidenberg & Gómez Cruz 2015, p.78).The value we place on how we like to present ourselves to the world is not just confined to the likes of Mariah Carey, but can be viewed in monetary weight also: Facebook paid US$1 billion for Instagram- a company comprised over at that time 13 employees, yet 150 million users in 2012 (Marwick 2015, p.137). If we break that down to a per user price: that’s US$6.67 for each account. That is pretty valuable.
But are the values that exist within the tech industry where social media apps are designed, the same as ours? And if so does this permeate online culture and affect the way we use it?
A survey of art books and exhibitions shows that when composing self portraits, people are more likely to paint their left cheek than their right (Humphrey & McManus 1973, p.271). One theory for this being right handed and positioning the mirror on the left, but another theory suggests that this bias may be due to psychological bias ‘due to right-hemispheric dominance for the expression of emotions’ (Bruno Bertamini & Protti 2015, pp.1-2).
A study then of 3200 selfies taken from various cities around the globe- Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York and Sao Paulo- shows us that this trait is in fact still prevalent in selfies now that they are taken with cameras as opposed to paintings. By analysing the 3200 self-portraits spontaneously uploaded by the selfie takers on instagram the study observed that standard-style selfies show a left-cheek bias, whereas mirror-style selfies show a right-cheek bias (2015, pp.6). The results were consistent across the different cities and ‘provide[ed] remarkably convincing evidence for a, presumably unconscious, culture-independent preference for displaying one’s left cheek’ (2015, p.6).
Alice Emily Marwick writes that:
“The technology scene outwardly values openness, transparency, and creativity, maintaining a vestige of meritocracy. But Silicon Valley has long prioritized entrepreneurship, technical knowledge, and wealth. The mixture of these two sets of ideals peculiar to Web 2.0 creates a climate in which participating in the culture of technology, sharing personal information online, and commanding a large audience have become modern status symbols” (2013, p.76)
What I take from that is this: This is a question about technological determinism. Yes, clearly the values and ideals set amongst the people that develop the media and tools in which we are not only interacting and engaging with each other- but using to show ourselves in what we perceive to be our best light. Much like the lady at the formal function who had a best side, and blessed Mariah Carey- we are all programmed to want to show our best foot forward to the world. We are all hard wired this way. The perceived proliferation of selfies is not a sign of increased narcissism; it is simply that now we have the tools to put our best cheek forward considerably more easily and perhaps too much so.
2014, SelfieCity, selfiecity.com, viewed on 1st of April 2016, <selfiecity.net>.
Brendan, 2014, ’15 Selfies Taken At Wildly Inappropriate Times’ Smosh, <http://www.smosh.com/smosh-pit/photos/selfies-taken-wildly-inappropriate-times>
Bruno, N, Bertamini, M, & Protti, F 2015, ‘Selfie and the City: A World-Wide, Large, and Ecologically Valid Database Reveals a Two-Pronged Side Bias in Naïve Self-Portraits’, PLoS ONE, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 1-6.
Humphrey NK, McManus C 1973, ‘Status and the Left Cheek’, Nature, vol 243, no. 5405, pp. 271-272.
Juzwiak, R 2013, ‘Watch Mariah Carey Suffer a Crisis While Attempting to Preserve Her ‘Good Side’’ Gawker, http://gawker.com/5975358/watch-mariah-carey-suffer-a-crisis-while-attempting-to-preserve-her-good-side.
Marwick, AE 2013, Status update : celebrity, publicity, and branding in the social media age, New Haven Yale University Press, 2013.
Marwick, AE 2015, ‘Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy’, Public Culture, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 137-160.
Schwarz, O 2010, ‘On Friendship, Boobs and the Logic of the Catalogue’, Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 163-183.
Tiidenberg, K, & Gómez Cruz, E 2015, ‘Selfies, Image and the Re-making of the Body’, Body and Society, vol. 21, no. 4, p. 77-102.