Selfies and Online Dating

When we think of the “selfie” most of us imagine a close-up self-portrait, taken with a mobile phone, at arms length and just above eye-level (to hide the double chin), and posted on social media. But it turns out that isn’t the only type of selfie.

In the field of multimodal discourse analysis, researchers are pushing our understanding of what constitutes this self-portraiture.

Michele Zappavigna and Sumin Zhao have written a number of pieces on the visual genre of the selfie through their analyses of mommyblogs on Instagram, arguing that selfies are more than mere representations of a self, but also enactments of (inter)subjectivity.

Zappavigna, M. & Zhao, S. (2017). Selfies in ‘mommyblogging’: An emerging visual genreDiscourse, Context and Media (Special issue on media evolution and genre expectations). 20, 239-247.

Zhao, S. & Zappavigna, M. (2017). Beyond the self: Intersubjectivity and the social semiotic interpretation of the selfieNew Media and Society. 20(5), 1735-1754.

Zappavigna M. (2016). Social media photography: construing subjectivity in Instagram imagesVisual Communication.15(3), 271-92.

Through an examination of social photography, they developed a taxonomy, identifying four subgenres of selfies (presented, mirrored, inferred and implied selfies). These selfies are categorized by the photographer’s perspective rather than mere representations of the photographer’s face as the object to be gazed up.

Using this framework, a selfie is a photo that invites viewers to see the photographer, as captured by the self, or see what the photographer is seeing, as if through their eyes. In this way, the selfie is not a portrait of the self, but photos seen through the perspective of a self.

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One can’t research online dating and user profiles without considering the role of the selfie when it comes to connecting in the digital age as the selfie is an integral component in most dating profiles. Dating profiles are ripe with all sorts of selfies, not just the “presented selfie” that we have all come to know so well. As daters become more aware of the necessity to make more of themselves visible on profiles, the mirrored selfie has become a norm–with mixed results.

In interviews, research participants often talk about the importance of including a “body shot” so they have a better sense of the whole person and there are no surprises. Unfortunately, the “shirtless selfie in the mirror” that many men seem to think showcases their best features is consistently brought up by heterosexual women as a big turn off. In fact, even if he looks hot in that mirrored selfie, many women swipe left just because of the shirtless selfie and the connotations associated with the type of photo.

The shirtless selfie in the bathroom mirror was a problem because it was associated with vanity, but rather because it was interpreted as a reflection of the person’s focus on the physical and a desire for a perfect body–which few women felt they had.

When putting together a dating profile, people usually give some thought about which images to post as they consider how to present a desirable self to the virtual world. However, in trying to put their best face forward, people can’t predict how others will interpret the visual story they are attempting to tell.


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