What Do Our Selfies Say About Our Selves?

Feb 19, 2014 at 4:24 PM ET

The smartphone “selfie”: It’s our go-to form of self portrait, a James Franco favorite and an official word—at least according to the Oxford Dictionaries.

Selfies may appear to be a universal phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean they’re all created equal. And according to a team of data scientists, digital culture experts and art historians stationed around the country, the city we live in actually has a lot to do with what our selfies look like.

In a new data-visualization project titled “SelfieCity,” analysts studied 3,200 selfies taken on Instagram in five cities around the world. Using facial-recognition technology, the team characterized each city based on the sorts of selfies snapped by people there.

The result was a look at our distinctive societies, as told by our self-obsessed snapshots on Instagram. “We can learn so much about humanity, intercultural differences and personal differences by analyzing media,” says Moritz Stefaner, data scientist behind SelfieCity.

The scientists sought to understand the communal face of the cities—Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York and Sao Paolo—by looking at a few key features of the pooled images: the Instagrammers’ ages, degree of head tilt, gender and overall mood.

They discovered a variety of intriguing facts about selfie-takers, who are an average of 23.7 years old across cities. For example:

  • Selfie-taking is predominantly a woman’s game, especially in Moscow, where there are 4.6 times more female portraits than male portraits.
  • Sao Paolo residents grin the most in their pictures, and Moscow residents the least (this might explain facial expressions in Sochi).
  • Smartphone users in Sao Paolo are more inclined to angle their heads than their peers in other cities.

Approximately 4 percent of the 120,000 photos the team initially collected across the five cities proved to be self-portraits, yielding the team about 3,000 total images to study.

The study reveals the ways in which the selfie “serves as a means of individual and creative self-expression,” writes Alise Tifentale, art historian and curator involved in the study, in an essay titled “The Selfie: Making Sense of the ‘Masturbation of Self-Image’ and the ‘Virtual Mini-Me.'”

But Tifentale acknowledges that there’s a collective element, too. She continues: “By sharing a selfie Instagram users express their belonging to a community, or a wish to belong to one.”

You can perform your own analysis of the collection on the “Selfiexploratory” branch of the project’s website, where all 3,200 photos are featured.  Meanwhile, the SelfieCity group is already looking at ways to extend their project to learn more about our lives on Instagram. They hope to further analyze city-specific cultures based on the photos we take (of landscapes, photos and our pets) and who we take them with (our family members, significant others and friends).

The data, they imagine, could help marketing and advertising companies understand societal trends. Says Stefaner: “I think we’re just scratching the surface.”