The research reveals three categories of selfie takers and dispels the notion that they are inherently narcissistic.
Don't count Harper Anderson, Steven Holiday or any of their fellow doctoral students as someone who likes to shine the spotlight on themselves.
Even though their recent study into the motivations behind taking selfies has received immense media attention around the world, they didn't do the study to promote themselves. In fact, it kind of emerged as a way to fill time during the summer.
“All of us in our group come from this diverse background of things we like to research,” said Holiday, a doctoral student in the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. “We were all reading different research and things in modern media that pointed out to us that selfies just keep coming up in everything we are doing. It was just a matter of time before we started talking about doing this research and it all just came together.”
Selfies have emerged as a tremendous phenomenon in the culture of people around the world, and this group of friends is constantly intrigued with researching aspects of what is not only popular but what has become ingrained into the fabric of everyday lives. What they focused on for this research was the motivation behind taking and sharing selfies, and what they found was somewhat surprising.
Those in society who do not frequently take and share selfies are thought to look at those who do as having a strong narcissistic personality. But Anderson, Holiday and the other three researchers, Matthew J. Lewis, Rachel Nielsen and Maureen Elinzano, all of whom earned their master's degrees from Brigham Young University, found otherwise.
While they found narcissistic qualities in pretty much all those who take and share selfies, they discovered that narcissism really doesn't play as big a role for people taking selfies as one might think.
“We never said they are narcissists and would never say that,” Anderson said. “People may see a correlation there but that is not the causation. A lot of what we are finding is just the beginning of new research.”
What they also found is there are three distinct categories of those who take and share selfies, each one with characteristics that might overlap the others but that also give a clear picture into the motivation behind the selfie-taker.
Finding and defining
According to Holiday and Anderson, in the research they found, the first self-photograph was taken in 1839 by photographer Robert Cornelius. But it has been only since the advent of both digital photography and social media that the selfie has gained popularity.
Technological advances like smartphones with front-facing cameras paired with social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have led to a generation that frequently posts its life online, whether it's showing themselves in front of a beautiful sunset, at a ball game or concert, or just hanging out with friends. Documenting one's life and where it's lived has become the new norm of society.
But, as the researchers discovered, there are different motivations for doing so. Those motivations place selfie-takers in one of three categories.
Communicators take and share selfies for the purpose of conversation with others, to start a back-and-forth dialogue in order to communicate and memorialize the events happening in their lives. Self-publicists have the same basic goal as communicators, but with the desire to have the focus of the picture on themselves to where it controls their public image. The images they share on social media are meant for one-way communication only. Lastly, autobiographers take and share selfies to chronicle their life and everything in it, regardless of who sees it or reacts to it. Their motivation is not in focusing on themselves but on ensuring history is recorded for posterity.
Those who have read the research and posted comments to various media articles have been able to identify themselves and their motivations into one of the three categories that emerged, researchers said.
“Now, within those three categories, certainly there are common characteristics in each personality,” Anderson said.
And that is where the researchers had to make sure they were not only asking the right questions but asking enough questions.
To ensure both a quantitative and qualitative approach to the research, the team employed a Q-sort method. That is where researchers choose an exhaustive list of statements on a topic that participants will rank in order according to their personal views.
Researchers for this project developed a list of 48 statements that answered the question behind the motivation for taking and sharing selfies. They culled the statements from anything they could find on social media, applicable threads on Reddit and from general interest articles on the subject. They meticulously refined all of the statements they found by removing any repetitive statements to arrive at the final list.
The way a Q-sort works is after they develop the statements, the researchers gather on participant fewer than the number of statements. The 47 participants in this particular study then took a stack of cards with one of the 48 statements on each card and were told to rank all the cards from “most like I believe” to “least like I believe,” continually negotiating the order with themselves and ending up with a unique sorting combination that represented their motivations for taking and sharing selfies.
Afterward, the participants were interviewed by the researchers regarding why they organized the cards the way they did. All this is placed into statistical analysis software to identify what characteristics participants shared and group them together into like categories.
Anderson and Holiday said they had no preconceived notions of how many groups they wanted to come out of the research, whether it was five or three or whatever. The statistical analysis just produced the number of groups that fit the data best, and the researchers qualitatively reviewed the groups to identify their unique characteristics, producing the names of the three groups – communicators, self-publicists and autobiographers.
“There were participants who came back to us after the study, some of them who had read through the research,” Holiday said. “They were able to identify which group they had been classified into from the description of the findings and agreed with the results.
Yes, self-publicist does sound a lot like someone who would be narcissistic, and there are some qualities of narcissism in a self-publicist. But both Holiday and Anderson said it's important to note the distinction, and Anderson used his sister as an example.
Asked by his family if anyone in the family is a self-publicist, he was quick to point out one of his sisters, who likes to post pictures of her and her dog when they go on hikes.
“That's her self-publicist motivation wanting to say, ‘This is why I am this person, I love being outside and hiking and being with my dogs and I want everyone to see,'” Anderson said.
That does not, however, make her narcissistic. She just likes showing everyone what she enjoys doing and is branding herself in a particular way. The issue comes, the researchers said, when a selfie shared on social media can be taken two different ways because there is no context to give that picture meaning.
“A couple of reporters and people we talked to have asked us to give them some pictures or examples of someone who is a self-publicist or an example of some celebrity who is a communicator,” Holiday said. “You can't. It all comes from their internal motivation.”
Anderson added that is where the sharing aspect comes into play and what a person is trying to communicate when sharing a selfie.
That motivation is key because many of the statements participants were asked to rank can be found in all three categories, and quite a few of them between the communicator and the self-publicist, which Anderson and Holiday are closest in similarity between the three groups.
Autobiographers, meanwhile, hold on to the memorialization function of selfies stronger than the other two categories, and their desire to record history is their driving motivation more than publicizing what's going on or communicating it to others.
Holiday said he was surprised to find the desire for preservation of history or moments was still as strong as it is considering the art of taking a photo, printing it and putting it in a shoebox or photo album for posterity is all but gone from today's society. Why bother? They're all right there on your phone or in the cloud.
“We still have this need to preserve something,” Holiday said. “And the autobiographers were definitely the ones who held onto that the strongest. It was also cool to see there are people like autobiographers who really don't care about the feedback. They want other people to see their selfies but they don't necessarily want any feedback from it. They just want you to see what the world looks like so that it can inspire you and be remembered.”
For Anderson, his biggest surprise was how some re-evaluated themselves after being somewhat shocked as to what category they fall into.
“That's why people got caught up with thinking it was bad to be a self-publicist, and it certainly is not,” Anderson said. “But for whatever reason, our research made people feel like they were being implicated in something terrible. You can be a self-publicist without feeling like you're just looking for attention.”
Just like there are varying degrees to how much of a communicator, self-publicist or autobiographer a person who takes and shares selfies can be, Anderson and Holiday tend to disagree as to just how the future of selfies is going to shape up and possibly how much it will affect each of the three categories of selfie-takers.
Anderson feels selfies as we know them are still just a fad and will eventually be replaced by the next technological advancement. Things like Facebook Live, where people can now share live video on their smartphones, could lead to the next breakthrough.
“Selfies will still exist, but I don't think they'll be as big,” Anderson said. “Maybe we will think of a way to develop the selfie stick to where it is more prominent in our culture and society and becomes a lot more normal.”
Holiday, though, disagrees, saying the selfie is so ingrained into society today that it has become as much of a permanent resident as the smartphone itself.
“For the moment, Facebook Live is returning us to some new kind of traditional photography where I have to show the world what is going on and I'm not in that picture,” Holiday said. “Personally, I think it's just because we haven't thought long and hard enough about how to put ourselves into the picture. I think people are going to start turning the camera around just like they would if they were at a parade, or the inauguration. People have this certain type of need to have themselves in that picture to show they were there.”
Both agreed, however, this should serve as just the exploratory research for others going forward, and there are so many other avenues to explore. For example, this research covered just those who take and share selfies, while ignoring those who don't feel the need to turn the camera on themselves. Why are those people motivated to stay out of the picture when they take and share photos?
Other aspects to investigate could include how the platforms themselves contributed to the rise of selfies and the profiles of the people who use them, and how motivations change between platforms.
Holiday feels the autobiographer category may eventually disappear and that the communication function will become more and more prevalent as different social media platforms like Snapchat, which focus on the communication purposes of selfies, continue to become more popular.
One thing is for certain. Two Texas Tech doctoral students and their friends from BYU have given the academic and pop culture communities something to think about when it comes to the motivations behind taking and sharing selfies. Holiday said part of the reason he chose Texas Tech to pursue his doctorate was the College of Media & Communication's reputation of research productivity and energy that fosters and encourages its students and faculty to seek out fascinating research such as this that advances theory and the understanding of the world around us.
“We are so much more complex than just being narcissists,” Holiday said. “And research like this helps give dimension to who we all are.”
The fact that their research caught a moment of the world's attention is fine by them.
“The only reason we researched this is because we were excited in the first place and wanted to study it and find out about it,” Anderson said. “So when people say you did something that really strikes me as interesting, I think it's great, fantastic. To be able to contribute to society in that regard is a really good feeling.”