Arts and Entertainment

To thine own selfie be true

Penn State English class takes deeper look at the selfie

Credit: flickr user David PhanAll Rights Reserved.

Kim Kardashian does it. So do Ariana Grande and Rihanna. Even President Obama and Pope Francis have it down. The art of taking the perfect selfie isn’t complicated, but there are a few tried-and-true rules: Don’t take the photo from below the chin, but not too high either. Lighting is everything, and filters (except for Instagram’s Kelvin) can be your best friend.

While celebrities have turned the photographic genre into a branding and money-making venture, the rest of us are also posing and posting away. It’s estimated that 1 million selfies — photos taken of oneself usually with a smartphone or webcam — are shared every day across major social media platforms, and that millennials between the ages of 20 and 35 will take more than 25,000 in their lifetimes.

While the exponential rise of the selfie is a recent phenomenon, Leisha Jones, an assistant professor of English in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts, says people have been capturing self-portraits for centuries and that there’s more to the practice than sheer vanity or narcissism.

This spring, Jones taught an English course (English 105: American Popular Culture and Folklife) examining the genre and its cultural, historical and social implications. She invited her class to help her suss out her big questions and examine their own preconceptions through the lens of gender, age, race, sexuality, nationality and more.

Jones, who researches visual culture and girl studies, was particularly curious about why women and girls report taking more selfies than men and boys, what happens when people are the initiator and object of an image, and the effects of sharing selfies as a life practice and form of personal branding.

“I taught a course on social media about a year ago, and it seemed to me that the selfie merited its own look since so many people (young women especially) practice selfie-taking every single day,” Jones said. “As a culture, we need to step back a little and see what it is we’re doing — and not strictly why we’re taking selfies, but how this practice affects our daily lives in regard to identity production.”

Over the course of the semester, Jones’ students explored theories of identity and self-expression in class and blogged about their findings in Sites at Penn State portfolios. They also captured selfies related to specific themes and shared their photos with Jones and classmates using private Instagram accounts created for the class.

“It’s not a photography course, so we don’t talk about lighting tips or head angles, but we do capture selfies as a way to think through the concepts we’re working on, whether it’s privacy or selfies as a form of confession,” Jones said. “I want the classroom to be a safe place for students to learn to examine others’ selfies, but I also ask them to take risks by turning the camera on themselves.”

For a 20-year-old, Emily Strohm, a sophomore in the class who is studying chemical engineering, takes very few selfies. She admits that before enrolling in the course she thought selfies were superficial, but changed her mind as the semester progressed.

“Coming from an engineering and science background I’m used to working through problems with a lot of data and numbers,” Strohm said. “But in this course, we do a lot of reading and discussion, which requires you to speak up and think outside the box. It helped me think about selfies in a new way and to appreciate them as part of popular culture.”

Strohm says one of her favorite assignments was visiting the Palmer Museum of Art (a place on campus she had never been before) on #MuseumSelfie Day to snap selfies with the artwork. Though controversial, Strohm says the purpose of the global crowdsourcing event is to raise awareness for art collections and museums by posting images to Twitter and Instagram.

“My goal at the museum was to take selfies with works of art that feature a woman or a feminist symbol that seemed to exude power,” Strohm said. “Before I took this course I never would have done anything like this, but the class has exposed me to ideas that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about — and now whenever I see a selfie I analyze it like a book.”

In class, this analysis took shape by exploring selfies of the past and present and how people use the medium to represent themselves and connect with others. While the earliest known photographic selfie is believed to have been captured in 1839 by daguerreotype, artists have been creating self-portraits for centuries by replicating what they saw in the mirror — and wanted to show the world.

Today, Jones says that social media and the widespread availability of smartphones and cameras have given almost anyone the ability to participate in the act of producing self-portraits. Inspired by Theresa Senft and investigators from the Selfies Research Network, she has found that one of the reasons creating and sharing selfies is so popular is because it offers people a means of expanding their identities by revealing multiple, sometimes contradictory, selves.

“With social media, the boundary between real and digital life is disappearing and more sides of the ‘self’ are simultaneously in play,” Jones said. “When you post a selfie and people respond with a ‘like,’ it also creates a kind of feedback loop where they validate and acknowledge you, which helps you recognize yourself as ‘you’. Selfie takers, especially millennials, seek this reassurance by maintaining online profiles, sharing selfies and quantifying ‘likes,’ only furthering the drive to share.”

Jones believes the intersection of selfies with such issues as online privacy, data valence (or the monitoring of facial features), gender roles, dating and hook-up apps, and children’s relationship with social media also merit a deeper look.

“The study of the selfie is relatively new, and English studies is a great lens for this exploration,” she said. “To me, selfies are not fluff; anything that millions of people all over the world are doing every day has to be about more than wanting to look hot or beautiful in a photo. I think it’s an easy criticism of certain selfie practices to write it off like that. While there are a number of overlapping cross-cultural characteristics among selfies, the genre can reveal much about the singularity of our own culture. And I still have a lot of questions.”

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Last Updated June 15, 2016