Reflecting on celebrity selfies

Last week I taught Week Two, the “celebrity selfie,” to my undergraduate social media seminar. I want to talk a bit about what worked and what didn’t.

Worked: Imitating Celebrity Selfies

This was a fun assignment for the students, and they worked hard on it, but I also think it was valuable for two reasons: it revealed the labor of taking a ‘million-like’  selfie, and it encouraged a mimetic process which required them to deeply examine camera angles, framing, lighting, and the like. One student, in imitating a Kylie Jenner selfie, wrote:


I started off by putting on my John Lennon esque sunglasses, and finding a place where the light was coming in slightly from behind me and to one side of me. I wanted to create that blown out background and face effect with natural lighting, which is why I opted to take this selfie mid-day. I already had on a very simple makeup look, just like Kylie has in the photo, and I did my everyday hairstyle, which worked out well for this particular Kylie photo. Kylie’s facial expression in this photo doesn’t look happy, but it doesn’t look too serious. She has a pursed lips/smirk combo, so I mimicked that and added an eyebrow raise for good measure. I held the camera at a medium distance away from my face, turned it slightly down and made sure that there was a blown out background. I taped on the background of the photo to focus on the light behind me. Her body was turned diagonally and her somewhat titled face was looking straight forward, so I tried to do the same.

After a few takes, I finally picked one that was close to Kylies selfie. I first cropped the photo in the Photos app on the iPhone, and made it a 3 x 2. After cropping, I brought the photo into the app Squaready, which gives you a plan white square to place your photo into. It’s great if you want to include the whole photo and not crop it into a square for Instagram. I off-centered it, gave it a small border and saved it back to my photos app. Then I put the selfie into Instagram and played around with the settings (brightness, saturation, highlights, shadows) for the desired look. After enhancing the blown out effect, my selfie was complete!

This reveals the “invisible labor” of the celebrity selfie; not only in terms of posing, but in manipulating light, expressions, and the body, and then running the photo through a variety of apps in order to get the same effect.

We had a very valuable discussion about “authenticity” in selfies. My students argued that all selfies were posed and edited. A selfie was authentic if it was taken by the individual– that was all that was required to be a selfie. Filters and lighting effects were viewed as completely legitimate, and while Photoshopping selfies was looked at a bit askance, the line was very blurred.

Didn’t work: conflating celebrity and branding

It was very difficult to tease out the lines between “celebrity” and “branding”. Terri (Senft) and I (Alice Marwick) have slightly different definitions of micro-celebrity, and although we both recognize the importance of branding to the  process, Terri sees micro-celebrity as a type of branding whereas I see the two as distinct. Since I had assigned both Terri’s piece and my own piece, I think this was a little confusing. I also think that in order to talk about the self-brand online, you really need to talk about how the “brand” has moved into the realm of connotation and affect rather than “brand names” and product differentiation. Ultimately we didn’t really talk much about how celebrities relate to audiences in the digital age but focused on self-presentation. This might just be too much to pack into a week.

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