The debate about what motivates people (who are we kidding, this almost always means women) to take selfies has been raging since the invention of the front lens on camera phones that made taking them so easy. And while people have been taking (and painting) self-portraits pretty much forever, it wasn’t until camera phones made it a literal snap by putting the technology in our hands — combined with the advent of social media — that the selfie became ubiquitous. While some people have argued that taking selfies is a radical feminist act of self-love and body positivity, others have hypothesised that selfies are a sign of narcissism. Enter the student researchers at Brigham Young University, who decided to study people’s motivations for taking selfies after realising that their motives for snapping photos of themselves were much more complex than simple narcissistic tendencies would allow for. The results of their study, published in the journal Visual Communication Quarterly, found three main types of selfie-takers: communicators, autobiographers, and self-publicists. Their research involved asking their 46 study participants to arrange different statements about why one might take selfies in order from most to least like them, and then analysing their responses. Communicators are people who use selfies to engage their friends or social media followers in conversation. The example they cite is a selfie showing you wearing your “I Voted” sticker — like Shonda Rhimes — which can encourage others to exercise their rights and may open up a conversation about candidate platforms. “[Communicators are] all about two-way communication,” explained co-author Maureen “Mo” Elinzano.
Then there are the autobiographers, who use selfies as a way to document their lives. For this group, selfies are a digital scrapbook of sorts, keeping track of where they’ve been and who they were there with. Study authors explain that autobiographers still want people to see their photos, which is why they share them, but they aren’t necessarily looking for the kind of feedback people in the other two groups might be. Finally, there are the self-promoters, which is the group most people are thinking of when they mention narcissistic selfie-takers. This group, people like the Kardashians or Taylor Swift, “are the people who love documenting their entire lives,” said coauthor Harper Anderson. “And in documenting and sharing their lives, they’re hoping to present themselves and their stories in a positive light.”
However, one can’t help but notice that the people cited as examples of self-promoters are all women, and women are much more likely to be criticised for being vain or seeking validation through their looks. But that is more the fault of a patriarchal culture that places women’s worth in their external beauty than it is the women themselves — they’re just using the tools they have to survive (and even thrive) in a world that seeks to prevent them from doing so. As for the Kardashians? Their careers were built and depend on those selfies people are so quick to criticise them for so maybe it’s time everyone just let them live. If you don’t want to see selfies, you can always just keep scrolling. But please, keep posting your own. Now you’ve got research that proves you’re probably not a narcissist; you’re just trying to connect with your world, and that’s great.