If you use social media, chances are you’ve occasionally copped to taking a sneaky selfie. Self-portraits are nothing new: one of the earliest surviving examples was made by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten’s chief sculptor, Bak, way back in 1365 BC. Despite this, however, digital selfies are frequently held up as an example of vapid, vain millennial culture.
Several psychological studies have explored support the link between selfies and narcissism. So far, the results have been inconclusive (although they tend to suggest that selfie-posting men are more narcissistic than selfie-posting women).
But now, researchers in the US have shown that people’s motives for posting selfies often go beyond self-obsession and seeking validation.
As part of the study, published in the journal Visual Communication Quarterly, researchers identified three different kinds of selfie-takers – and found that they had very distinct motivations for posting photos online.
The first category, communicators, take selfies primarily to engage their friends, family or followers in a conversation. “They’re all about two-way conversation,” explained Maureen Elinzano, one of the co-authors on the study.
Someone like America Ferrera (above), who generally shares selfies with a message, is a classic example of a communicator. After casting her ballot for Hillary Clinton in the US election, the Ugly Betty actress posted a photo of herself and her husband Ryan Piers Williams on Instagram with the caption: “Democracy rules! One voice, one vote! Go get your vote on! #ivoted”.
Autobiographers are the second major kind of selfie-taker. These people see selfies as a tool for recording major events in their lives and preserving significant memories – and while they want other people to see their photos, they’re not necessarily looking for feedback or engagement.
Think of someone like trail runner Emma Timmis (above), whose feed mostly consists of photos of her adventures around the world: they’re important memories, rather than deliberate like-magnets.
The final group of selfie-posters, self-publicists, are actually the smallest category, say researchers. But they get the most attention – and like Kylie Jenner (above), that’s just the way they want it.
These “are the people who love documenting their entire lives,” says another of the study co-authors Harper Anderson, a Ph.D. student at Texas Tech University. “And in documenting and sharing their lives, they’re hoping to present themselves and their stories in a positive light.”
Co-author Steven Holiday says that before dismissing people who take selfies as empty-headed egotists, we should consider the different motivations they might have for posting a photo of themselves on social media: “It’s important to recognise that not everyone is a narcissist.”
Holiday adds that separating selfie-takers into different categories is a useful way of understanding modern communication. “It’s a different kind of photography than we’ve ever experienced before,” he says. “I can go on Facebook or Instagram and see that people have a desire to participate in a conversation. It’s an opportunity for them to express themselves and get some kind of return on that expression.”