What Your Selfie Really Says About You

This week at Refinery29 Canada, we’re dialling into one of the most intimate (and infuriating) relationships in our lives: the one we have with our phones.
Everyday, 93 million selfies are posted online, and every 10 seconds, 10 are posted to Instagram. It’s a selfie world, and we got here really, really fast. Just think about it: Within the last decade, phone makers introduced front-facing cameras, Snapchat brought us social-media filters with cute animal ears, and the selfie stick became a game-changer for tourists everywhere.
But if there’s one thing that’s updating faster than your Instagram feed, it’s our collective notion of privacy. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, only 9% of social-media users were “very confident” that social-media companies would protect their data. Yet, we keep using these platforms to share selfies. And why not? Too easily dismissed as pure narcissism, research has shown that selfies serve a range of purposes for people who snap them — they’re a form of self-expression and can help us connect with one another.
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Since we’re not about to give up on taking photos of ourselves anytime soon, we enlisted Toronto-based technology journalist Takara Small (firmly millennial-age but not selfie-obsessed), to talk about how your Instagram feed may be saying a lot more about you than you think, how selfies can actually improve your safety, and why the selfie craze may (finally) be slowing down.
How many selfies do you take on the average day?
I’m not a good example of my age group because I don’t really take that many selfies. I haven’t managed to perfect the smize, no matter how much I try! But if I’m looking at my friend group, I’d say the average is 10 to 15.
I love your honesty. Do you think you aren’t a big selfie-taker because you know so much about tech and privacy?
Maybe subconsciously. Amongst my friends, I’m known as the Debbie Downer because I’m always talking about security and privacy risks and a lot of people just want to live their life and not think about the ramifications of how their data is being used or misused. But I’m usually addicted to my phone in another way, which is responding to emails or contacting people.
For those of us who do post more often, what advice would you give when it comes to privacy?
Usually when you talk about selfies and privacy and security, it’s divided into two spaces. There’s the physical and the digital. If you want to start with the physical space, it’s critical that individuals are spatially aware when taking photos. I’ve seen people take photos with their social insurance number or credit card in the background. People can use that to impersonate you. Your health card, credit card, all that stuff, make sure it’s not physically in the area. Bills are the same thing.
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What you said about not having a credit card and bill in the background of a selfie, people might be like, “Duh!” Do you see mistakes that are subtler?
When people take photos in front of landmarks or buildings that disclose where they live or where they are, that’s a mistake. A lot of my friends work late hours and they’ll take a photo entering or leaving the building with their security pass as part of their (Instagram or Snapchat) stories, and those are physical aspects that anyone can easily put together. What happens in the online space can easily be replicated in the physical space. So, if someone is stalking you online, it isn’t that unrealistic to think it couldn’t happen in the real world.
What about the digital aspect of our selfies?
Geotagging is something I suggest people remove (from posts). It’s easy to do as the default setting on your phone. If I’m going to upload something and I want someone to know where I am, I can geotag it on that social-media platform. Also, people automatically sync their photos to the cloud. That is one thing that I don’t think anyone should do.
Why?
It means that you’re automatically allowing anything to be uploaded. Let’s be honest: Sometimes you don’t want personal photos shared, especially when there are data breaches. I know a lot of people share a cloud with their roommates or friends or family. When it’s automatically uploaded, it means anybody, and any devices attached to them, can see it.
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I resisted the cloud for so many years. But just like anybody else, I have so many photos and videos. What do you do?
Because I don’t take a lot of photos, when I do take images, I just upload it onto a hard drive and it’s categorized into separate folders.
Very old school.
Yeah. But that’s what Ido. I have the newest iPhone and there’s a lot of space on there. I do cull them, though. I’m like, “why am I taking 20 photos of a sunset?” I don’t need to see what my sushi looks like. So I just delete and then erase from the recently deleted folders. A lot of people don’t go and permanently delete it.
It would be permanently deleted in 30 days, anyway, right?
Yeah, but I just do it immediately, in case I lose my phone.
Is there anything you’ve seen that’s a great use of selfies?
One interesting thing is using the selfie as a form of security. If you’re in a situation where you feel unsafe, an easy thing you can do is pretend you’re taking a selfie but actually taking a photo of what’s around you or who’s behind you. And send it to someone. I’ve done that before.
Have you?
If I’m coming home late. Toronto is safe but I’ve been walking and maybe a man is following too closely, I just turn on my phone, pretend I’m taking a selfie or putting on lipstick and I’ll literally take photos of the person behind me. Or if there’s a car, I’ll take a photo of the licence plate. It looks like I’m putting on eyeliner but I’m not. I’ll send the photo to a friend or my boyfriend and I say, “I’ll call you when I get home, but this is a back-up.”
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You said earlier that you don’t take selfies, but I’ve taken selfies with you! So when are you inspired to take them?
I consider a selfie, by definition, when it’s just you. With other people, it’s not a selfie. To me, that’s a group photo.
When you take pics with your friends, do you share them?
Usually not publicly. I think the default these days is to err on the side of privacy rather than sharing everything. That’s become a new trend. For a long time, the idea was to share the minutiae of what you’re doing and rack up those follower counts. If I’m out with a friend and we take a photo together, I don’t need to share that in order to see the value in it. I’m not judging anyone who does that, that’s just me personally.
We’ve talked a lot about what not to do, but do you have tips for what you should do when you’re taking selfies to put yourself out in the world?
I don’t necessarily agree with this, but these days people are trying to build a brand for themselves, especially if they're young — the job market doesn’t provide the security it did for our parents. So, people take selfies as a form of career insurance to showcase the work they do and their skills. When taking selfies, you want to stand out. Therefore, replicating what every other influencer or individual is doing isn’t going to achieve that purpose. You want to take a photo that includes something different, or have some type of artistic element you can incorporate in editing. The power of hashtags cannot be overlooked either. You have to go beyond taking a nice photo, you have to attract an audience that will appreciate it and end up sharing it that much further.
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