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The Selfies Research Network Syllabus

The Selfies Research Network Syllabus

Co-authored by Theresa Senft (New York University, USA), Jill Walker Rettberg (University of Bergen, Norway), Elizabeth Losh (University of California, San Diego, USA), Kath Albury (University of New South Wales, Australia), Radhika Gajjala (Bowling Green State University, USA), Gaby David (EHESS, France), Alice Marwick (Fordham University, USA), Crystal Abidin (University of Western Australia, Australia), Magda Olszanowski (Concordia University, Canada), Fatima Aziz (EHESS, France), Katie Warfield (Kwantien University College, Canada), Negar Mottahedeh (Duke University, USA)

For The Selfies Research Network
August 2014

Website version here



This six-week syllabus has been created for teachers, students, or anyone on the internet wishing to think critically about the use of “selfies” in popular culture.

For the purposes of this course, we’ll define the term “selfie” as any photograph an individual (or a group) takes of themselves, regardless of whether that photo is privately held (or is thought to be privately held), transferred to others, or is displayed via social networks like Facebook and Instagram.

Throughout this course, we focus on two questions: First, how do selfies “speak” as cultural objects? Second, what methods might we develop to better understand what is being said? The fact that “selfie” was Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2013 indicates that the selfie is a topic of popular interest. Yet for scholars, the selfie phenomenon represents a paradox. As an object, the selfie lends itself to cultural scorn and shaming. As a cultural practice, however, selfie circulation grows by the moment, moving far beyond the clichéd province of bored teenagers online.

With this syllabus, we provide a week-by-week guide designed to teach how to think critically about selfies. Although the weeks can be taught in succession, they can also by used in a modular way (i.e. just teaching two weeks; teaching one week, skipping another, etc.) Regardless of the week in question, students will be given assignments in which they are asked to: analyze case studies from recent press coverage of selfies produce and curate their own digital images read scholarship on networked images, representation, and politics engage in guided online conversations with students from different schools and countries write a self-reflection document in which case study material, production work, readings, and/or guided conversations are synthesized.

Although there will be overlap at times, each week of this syllabus has been designed to dialogue with specific topics and themes, as follows:

Week One: Identity, interpellation, and psychoanalytic critiques using selfie culture.(Conversation leaders: Terri Senft from New York University, USA and Gaby David, EHESS, France)

Week Two: Branding, celebrity, micro-celebrity and critiques of consumer culture using selfies.(Conversation leaders: Alice Marwick, Fordham University, USA and Crystal Abidin, University of Western Australia, Australia)

Week Three: Biometrics, facial recognition and dataveillance critiques using selfie culture. (Conversation leaders: Elizabeth Losh, University of California, San Diego, USA and Jill Walker Rettberg from University of Bergen, Norway)

Week Four: Sexual expression, dating, and gender-based critiques using selfie culture. (Conversation leaders: Kath Albury, University of New South Wales, Australia, Magda Olszanowski, Concordia University, Canada and Fatima Aziz, EHESS, France)

Week Five: Staging Subalternity (subaltern as “Self”), Subaltern Representation (subaltern as “Other”), “Criminality” and Race/Nation based critiques using selfie culture.(Conversation leaders: Radhika Gajjala, Bowling Green State University, USA and Olivia Samerdyke, Bowling Green State University)

Week Six: Place, Space and “appropriateness” critques regarding selfie production and circulation. (Conversation leaders: Terri Senft, New York University, USA and Katie Warfield, Kwantien University College, Canada)


Learning Outcomes

By the end of this course, students should feel comfortable conversing about selfies in the following ways:

Selfie as discourse: What is the history (or histories) of the selfie? How do these histories map to contemporary media and scholarly discourses regarding self-representation, autobiography, photography, amateurism, branding, and/or celebrity?

Selfie as evidence: What are the epistemological ramifications of the selfie? How do selfies function as evidence that one attended an event, feels intimate with a partner, was battered in a parking lot, is willing to be ‘authentic’ with fans, or claims particular standing in a social or political community? One uploaded, how do selfies become evidence of a different sort, subject to possibilities like ‘revenge porn’, data mining, or state surveillance?

Selfie as affect: What feelings do selfies elicit for those who produce, view, and/or circulate them? What are we to make of controversial genres like infant selfies, soldier selfies, selfies with homeless people, or selfies at funerals? How do these discourses about controversial selfies map to larger conversations about “audience numbness” and “empathy deficit” in media?

Selfie as ethics: Who practices “empowering” selfie generation? Who does not? Who cannot? How do these questions map to larger issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, religion and geography? What responsibilities do those who circulate selfies of others have toward the original creator of the photo? What is the relationship between selfies and other forms of documentary photography, with regard to ethics?

Selfie as performance/presentation of self: While this aspect might be considered self-evident. We must pay attention to the tension between spontaneity and staging in the way that selfies serve as a performance and presentation of self in global and social media contexts. Also – when does the selfie as genre become a standard and format for staging authenticity in marketing and social activist campaigns across cultures? To what effect and what purpose?


Week 01: Identity and Interpellation

Although the creation and distribution of selfies strikes some as a newish phenomenon, the practices of self-portraiture and diary writing are actually quite old. What do we gain when we represent our physical and mental presence through images and words, and risks underlie these practices? In what ways are these gains and risks distributed equally across the population? In what ways are they distributed unequally?

This week, we will talk about how sociologists and psychoanalysts have approached the notion of the self as a media object. We begin by discussing with sociologist Herbert Mead’s notion of the identity as projections of the “I and the me”; move to Erving Goffman’s thoughts about presentation of self as an act of “everyday performance,” and end with psychoanalyst Luis Althusser’s argument that our sense of identity stems from how we identify (or do not) with a limited set of roles assigned to us by dominant culture (he called this process ‘interpellation’.)

Compulsory readings
Saltz. J. 2014. “At Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie.” New York Magazine. Online at

Woodward, K., 1997. “Questioning Identity.”

Senft, T. 2014. “Selfie Lucida.” Talk given in London. Online at

Supplementary readings
Ebsco’s “Research Starters” Brief on Mead’s “I and the Me” at

Althusser’s thoughts on interpellation in “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus,” from Lenin and Philosophy.

Introductory chapter from Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life


Week 02: Branding & Celebrity

This week, we will investigate selfies and selfie culture in relation to branding, celebrity, micro-celebrity, and consumer culture theory. The following sections will lay out some key theoretical points, the assigned readings on theory and ethnography, and some case studies that will allow you to think through the concepts discussed. The remaining sections are instructions to your three assignments for this week, namely, an image production and praxis assignment, a discussion question, and a prompt for your reflection essay.

This week, we will look at the impact on individuals of the large audiences made possible by social media technologies. In other words, when average people can potentially command audiences previously only available to politicians or celebrities, how does that affect subjectivity, identity presentation, and social interaction? We will begin with Theresa Senft’s theory of “micro-celebrity,” and how the celebrity subject, or the corporate brand, becomes a model for certain types of online interaction. Marwick and boyd further claim that how people imagine their audience online affects how they choose to edit and present themselves. Using the celebrity selfie as an object to think with, we will examine the idea of the “edited self” and how both celebrities and “regular people” draw from consumer culture and advertising to present themselves online.

Compulsory readings
Senft, Theresa (2013) Microcelebrity and the Branded Self.

Marwick, A. and boyd, d. (2011). “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” New Media and Society 13(1): 114-133

Supplementary readings
Abidin, C. (2014) ‘#In$tagLam: Instagram as a repository of taste, a brimming marketplace, a war of eyeballs’ in Mobile Media Making in the Age of Smartphones, Marsha Berry and Max Schleser (eds), Palgrave Pivot. 

Manning, Paul (2010) ‘The Semiotics of Brand’ Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 33-49

Marshall, P David (2010) ‘The Specular Economy’ Society 47(6): 498-502

Marwick, A. (2014, in press). “Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy.” Public Culture, Winter.


Week 03: Dataveillance, Biometrics & Facial Recognition

We may create our selfies with a human audience in minds, but our images are also increasingly read by non-humans. Facebook and other sites use facial recognition software and biometrics to find photos of faces and determine who they depict. Our selfies are collected by the NSA and other government agencies, by commercial companies like Facebook and sometimes by criminals as well.

Compulsory readings
van Dijck, José. 2014. “Datafication, dataism and dataveillance: Big Data between scientific paradigm and ideology”. Surveillance and Society 12(2). You can also watch van Dijck speak on this topic at

Losh, Elizabeth. “Beyond Biometrics: Feminist Media Theory Looks at Selfiecity.”, 2014.

D Boyd, A Marwick – International Communication Association, Boston, MA, 2011. Social steganography: Privacy in networked publics


Week 04: Sexuality, Dating & Gender

How do selfies reinforce or transgress certain forms of subject formation and create conditions for alternate modes of sexual expression? How do age, gender and identity factor in image-making practices? How do they change the way we perceive other people’s selfies? This week we will consider the role selfies play in shaping and reflecting sexed and gendered subjectivity. We will consider the ways that selfies have become central to mediated sexual cultures, from flirting, to dating, to hooking-up.

The readings by Albury et al and Hasinoff look at the social and political tensions around young people’s practices of sexual self-representation. While much of the public discourse around sexy selfies focuses on young women, the readings from Tiilden and Lasen and Garcia contrast the ways that men and women create and deploy selfies on dating sites. Aziz explores the ways that our social networks can influence our interoperation of selfies and profile pictures.

Compulsory readings
Albury, K., Funnell, N. and Noonan, E. (2010) The politics of sexting: Young people, self-representation and citizenship. In Media democracy and change: Refereed proceedings of the Australian and New Zealand Communications Association Annual Conference, ed. K. McCallum. Canberra, July 7 – 9.

Aziz, F. (2014). Visual Transactions: Facebook an online resource for dating. Études photographiques, 31.

Lasén, A. and García, A (2012) “‘…but I haven’t got a body to show’: Self-pornification and male mixed feelings in digitally mediated seduction practices.” Paper presented at Sexual Cultures. Theory, Practice, Research Conference. Onscenity Research and the School of Arts and the School of Social Sciences at Brunel University, 20-22 April 2012, London UK.

Tiidenberg, K. (2014). Bringing sexy back: Reclaiming the body aesthetic via self-shooting. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 8(1), article 3.

Supplementary readings
Sexual Citizenship: Richardson, D. (2000) “Constructing sexual citizenship: theorising sexual rights.” Critical Social Policy 20(1): 105–135

Gender politics and self-representation: Olszanowski, M. (2014). “Feminist Self-Imaging & Instagram: Tactics of Circumventing Sensorship.” Visual Communication Culture, 21(2), 83-95.

Social networking: Donath, J (2007) “Signals in social supernets.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13 (1) Semiotics: Streeter, T. (2012).

Semiotics and Advertising and Contemporary Culture. (interactive learning site) Chandler, D. (2014). Semiotics for Beginners. (comprehensive webpage)

Hasinoff, A. A. (2012). Sexting as media production: Rethinking social media and sexuality. New Media & Society, 1461444812459171.

Mowlabocus, S. (2010). ‘From the Web Comes a Man’: Profiles, Identity and Embodiment in Men’s Sex/Dating Sites’ in Gaydar Culture: Gay Men, Technology and Embodiment in the Digital Age, Surrey: Ashgate, 83-116.

Online Dating & Relationships (2013)

Couples, the Internet, and Social Media (2014)

Teens, Adults and Sexting: Data on sending/receiving sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photos by Americans (2010), Amanda Lenhart, Rich Ling, Scott Campbell


Week 05: Subaltern, Criminals and Others

As we start off Week Five accompanied by the Wikipedia primer on the Subaltern as well as all the other reading materials, we are going to look at and analyze selfie production practices that somehow impact or intersect with subaltern social groups and individuals, those outside of the hegemonic power and discourse. As you proceed to work on the assignments and do the readings we want you to think about the following: 1] Is it possible to identify a selfie “genre” for way that people present themselves online? Does this way of presenting one’s self garner more attention from the young people of the world, thus making it an effective marketing format? If so – what would you say are the practices that are unique to how such a selfie genre functions? 2] How might particular selfie practices subvert or reinforce stereotypes about the people on the periphery (economically, socially, culturally) ? Might selfie practices be understood as tokens of agency and discourse production?

Compulsory readings
Definition of Subaltern

Definition of Western Gaze: See – The Western Gaze: On Photography in the Two-Thirds World

Sites of Playful Engagement: Twitter Hashtags as Spaces of Leisure and Development in Kenya

Microfinance in Online Space: A Visual Analysis of

Reconstructing Gendered Narratives Online: Nudity for Popularity on Digital Platforms

Ruddy Roye: Photography as Voice for the Voiceless + Can the subaltern take a selfie?

InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism

Supplementary readings
Can the subaltern speak?

Cyberculture and the Subaltern

“From Haverstock Hill Flat to U.S. Classroom, What’s Left of Theory?” What’s Left of Theory? Ed. Judith Butler, John Guillory, and Kendall Thomas. New York: Routledge, 2000. 1-39. – (digital version unavailable but you can find this in a library)


Week 06: Space, Place and “Appropriateness” Debates

When we produce selfies and circulate them among our friends, we often think of our images as anchored to specific places, spaces, and times. Yet once our selfies circulate through social networks, they enter what danah boyd calls the space of the “super-public,” potentially spreading to audiences far beyond their original viewers, and lingering on in ways that are difficult to predict.

This week, we’ll explore selfies using Henri Lefebvre’s notion of space as three-pronged process, simultaneously conceived by professionals (aka representations of space), lived in everyday (aka spaces of representation), and perceived by everyday people (via spatial practices).

Compulsory readings
Merrifield, A. (2006) “Space”in Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction_ New York: Routledge. Pp 99-120

Boyd, d. (2012) “Super Publics.” Online at

Supplementary readings
Hjorth, L. 2013. “Social, Mobile and Locative Media.” Understanding Social Media. Understanding Contemporary Culture Series, Sage

Elden, S. “Henri Lefebvre and the Production of Space.” Note: For this project, you may skip down to: “The Production of Space” and “Critical Reception” in


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