Face Value: Has the Pandemic Eased Our Loathing of Selfies?

Thumb through a nineties photo album and marvel at all the wonderful sights you’ve seen in your life. The Eiffel Tower. The Statue of Liberty. The Pyramids.

Scroll through a noughties Instagram feed and you’ll likely see those monuments again – only this time, with a big, manufactured, cookie-cutter grin in the foreground.

Ah, selfies. After successfully entering the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, the term ‘selfie’ has pervaded popular culture ever since, with more than 1 trillion photos taken around the world each year.

A world where selfies took hold

After the likes of the Kardashians, smartphone manufacturers and Oscar-winners took over, the world was quick to respond. Before long, everybody’s ‘feed’ was filling up with self-taken photos, aided by the advent of selfie sticks, filters and long-suffering influencer widows.*

So, why do we love taking selfies so much?

There’s a lot of online literature on the psychology of taking selfies. Indeed, even the definition is contentious. *Some argue that a selfie is a photo taken by the person in the photo, while others claim it’s a photo of a single person – it doesn’t matter who took it.

Regardless, the outcome is the same. It’s a picture of you – likely including your face – most probably on the internet. And according to Psychology Today, we have a number of motives for taking them:

  • Narcissism – almost one-third of us are comfortable in our appearance and confident enough to share it.
  • Sharing and connecting – almost one-quarter want to share our experiences with friends.
  • Selfesteem boost – more than 15 per cent do it to “feel better”.
  • Memories – one-twentieth of us like using selfies to chronicle our experiences.
  • Conformity – a troubling 3 per cent do it simply to fit in.

We know why we take selfies. But how about the way we perceive them? And are they an essential element of a personal brand?

Crunching the data

You know we love a good data crunch here at Katie Lingo, so I decided to put my Instagram feed through its paces with the help of data vis extraordinaire Craig.

For transparency, we ran my feed from January 1 to August 9, 2021. For brevity, we excluded other social media platforms as we have studied their impact before. We also excluded videos and only looked at the first photo in carousel shots.

The results

These speak for themselves. The median and mode value for likes was 26, with the highest number at 103 and the lowest at four.

This likes-per-month line chart below illustrates how posts with selfies (the orange line) completely kick the ass of posts without – despite the top score being a screenshot of a tweet. Well, it was from Kathy Burke. I’d like it too.

Avg likes per month selfie v no

The same applies to comments – though the data set is far narrower, with a median of three per post. Comparing both data sets, we can see that three-quarters of posts with more than 26 likes were selfies – correlating nicely with comments, where 73 per cent of those over the median were selfies.

Avg comment per like selfie v no

It’s illustrated further here in this likes-and-comments scatter graph. Note how the orange crosses tend to score highly, while non-selfies sit glumly in the bottom left-hand corner.

Likes & Comments Selfie vs No

If we line them up post-by-post, the results are even plainer to see. Selfies always win.

Posts all year

But wait – aren’t we supposed to hate selfies?

Look at any article online pre-pandemic and you’d be inclined to believe we do. Here are a few stand-out quotes:

The Selfie Paradox

Participants expressed a distanced attitude toward selfies, with stronger agreement for potential negative consequences than for positive, and a clear preference for viewing more usual pictures instead of selfies on social media.

The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to Like Them Yet Everyone Has Reasons to Take Them. An Exploration of Psychological Functions of Selfies in Self-Presentation. Front. Psychol., 2017.

Less Likeable and Less Successful

An experiment on hundreds of real Instagram users has now found those who post a lot of selfies come across as less likeable, less successful, more insecure, and less outgoing. These negative perceptions were even more inflated when the selfies focussed on physical appearance, such as flexing in the mirror.

Science Alert, 2019 – reporting on a study by Washington State University.

One Guardian article from 2015 even highlighted the disproportionate hatred towards women’s selfies…because patriarchy. Sigh.

Back to the drawing board – do we like selfies again?

Fast forward to 2020 and 2021, and it seems we’ve come full circle. Once again, I used my data to look into our attitudes a little deeper:

  • On Twitter, 13 per cent of respondents “could not stand” selfies, while 16 per cent “loved to see the smiles” and 71 per cent were “indifferent/depends”.
  • On LinkedIn, selfies were liked and hated in equal measure. Twenty-seven per cent voted “go away” while the same number voted “love to see those smiles”. Thirty-eight per cent said they liked them if they knew the person.

Granted, the questions were worded slightly differently due to character limits, but they were open to discussion. Twitter users who were indifferent said that there was “a fine balance between just enough and too much”, while LinkedIn users said they can be “overdone”.

But our post-pandemic positivity lends itself to more analysis.

A study in the Social Neuroscience Journal tells us that we naturally pay attention to faces more than anything else. A spokesperson for the Georgia Tech College of Computing adds: “Even as babies, people love to look at faces.

“Faces are powerful channels of non-verbal communication. We constantly monitor them for a variety of contexts, including attractiveness, emotions and identity.”

Breaking down the selfie

Reader, I went back to my data. While the median number of likes was 26, the median for group photos was 31 – with 60 per cent of all group photos exceeding this figure. Do we love group selfies because we’re a social species?

Such is my dedication; I even ran my face through an AI attractiveness checker.

(Hint: don’t.)

attractiveness score

The best-liked photo on Instagram that isn’t Kathy Burke’s tweet scored a paltry 5.3 out of 10. Yup – can’t be attractiveness.

I also casually perused my male friends’ profiles and found that their selfies scored better, so it’s not a gender thing. However, achievements fared higher here – running marathons and such. (I hasten to add that post-August selfies of my own running efforts also scored well.)

So, what’s the verdict? Why have we gone full circle to ‘like’ selfies again?

Why we like selfies post-pandemic

Between psychology, evolution and my narcissistic data, I posit three theories:

  1. People want to feel connected in an isolated world.
  2. People love seeing group shots as they indicate the world is healing.
  3. People want to support each other in their achievements – any achievement is huge post-pandemic!

Should I use selfies to boost my brand?

Our data suggest that selfies are a great way to promote engagement. That’s great news for photographers – if we’re to believe the selfie definition includes shots not taken by you. But if we’re to consider science and our survey data, we should:

  • Post pictures with others where possible.
  • Avoid selfie overkill or risk decreased engagement.
  • Keep it authentic – people love to see smiles, not over-filtered ickiness.

There’s no guarantee we’ll keep loving selfies as the world opens up, but it’s good to know there’s less pressure. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be professional.

Just be yourselfie.

Katie Lingo
by Katie Lingo
23rd October 2021