Photo by Johan Mouchet

Selfies vs. Self-Portraits: A Question of Meaning

“We’re living to document our lives,” wrote Mark Fischetti in Scientific American. With smartphones in our pockets, always with us, it seems we can’t really help it. We take pictures of our food, record the places we go and the routes we take, make posts about our joys and travails—and, of course, share photos of our faces.

Photo by Askar Ulzhabayev
  • emphasize the present moment
  • emphasize external appearances
  • manifest a networked sense of self
  • are rooted in sharing, communication and consumerism
  • may be motivated by narcissism and exhibitionism
Annibale Carracci, Self-Portrait on an Easel in a Workshop, ca. 1605

This is not just an academic distinction. It may be, to put it a bit dramatically, a difference between life and death.

Life expectancy in the United States on the decline, making us unique among postindustrial nations. This is because so-called deaths of despair are on the rise, which stem from a sense of meaninglessness in one’s life.

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939

How might we democratize self-portraiture in a way that preserves its capacities for healing and meaningfulness?

That question remains to be answered, but there have been some inklings. One lies in work around Slow Art, which brings the Slow movement into the art world. Slow Art seeks to engage the public more deeply with art objects. Perhaps similar tactics could be used to engage selfie-makers more deeply in their practice — a kind of Slow Selfie? Next, Holger Winnemöller and his colleagues at Adobe Research have been working on automating certain aspects of the creative process while still leaving space for the user to experience agency and creativity, such as with the PaintCan system. Could there be similar systems devised for smartphone self-portraiture?

Prof in information science at Drexel. Runs a lot. Researches and teaches at the intersection of information technology, ethics, and art+design.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store