In the three months since it’s release, the video “#Selfie (Let Me Take a Selfie)” has been viewed nearly 100 million times on YouTube and has gone into heavy rotation. Although tongue-in-cheek, the video reveals some surprising nuggets of wisdom regarding social media engagement, particularly around Instagram. It also provides interesting insights into the underlying psychology of its users, particularly those of traditional college age. Colleges and universities are only now beginning to react to this trend. Some institutions have gone so far as to put in place “selfie bans,” while others have embraced it. Here are three lines from the song I find particularly illuminating:
“I only got 10 likes in the last 5 minutes. Do you think I should take it down?”
Instagram is rarely about photography. Yes, there are legitimate photographers using the platform and companies and institutions using it to promote themselves and engage customers, students and alumni, but for many, it’s also a game. A game that ties into self esteem and self worth. If you post a selfie and it doesn’t receive many likes or doesn’t receive likes fast enough, it is interpreted as your not being attractive, a sign that you are not “liked.” In this new medium, self worth is assigned a metric and that metric is how many likes you can get. This has been referred to in research as “friendship contingent self esteem” exhibited by “individuals whose value of themselves is contingent on how well their relationships with friends are succeeding.”
“Wait, pause, Jason just liked my selfie. What a creep.”
Liking is a form of speech. (U.S. Federal courts even ruled that it is constitutionally protected free speech.) It also means something. As in the previous quote, liking communicates something far more than just, I enjoy this. The pursuit of likes has spawned common hashtags on Instagram such as #TagsForLikes #TFLers #20likes and #like4like. Entire websties such as TagforLikes.com have arisen to provide suggestions on hashtags that can aid users in getting the most likes possible. The exchange of likes becomes part of the game.
This game, however, may not be as innocent as it seems. In one study, researchers looking at Facebook use created an “appearance exposure score” which was “calculated based on subjects’ use of FB photo applications relative to total FB use.” The study found that an “elevated appearance exposure… was significantly correlated with weight dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, thin ideal internalization, and self-objectification.” Instagram, a photo-only social network, likely magnifies this effect.
“That girl is such a fake model. She definitely bought all her Instagram followers”
The game doesn’t just end at likes, it also extends to followers. How many followers one has is also interpreted as a measure of worth. Similar to likes, “following” has spawned its own hashtags such as #follow, #followme, and #follow4follow. This last hashtag reveals an important aspect of the game. Following is a form of collaborative reciprocity. If you follow me, then I’ll follow you, and we both “benefit” by being more popular. If you unfollow me, then I will unfollow you. The actual Instagram app doesn’t tell you when someone has unfollowed you, but a mini-industry around tracking it has developed. The website Unfollowgram.com states that it’s the “best way how to manage and analyze your Instagram friends. Check who unfollowed you, who doesn’t follow you back and more.” Going to these extra lengths highlights the fact that Instagram and other social networks aren’t just about simple sharing. There is something else going on.
Some may decree selfies as a form of narcissism, which may be in part true, but there is an element of “natural” development in all of this. It’s natural in earlier stages of development to look for external validation, to trust more in the opinions of others over yourself, and to experience a rush of validation (that’s pleasurable) when others appear to be reinforcing a “truth.” Robert Kegan would call it third order thinking (and maybe a little second order too)… Marcia Baxter Magolda would call it relying on external formulas… and there are many other theories in which this behavior makes perfect sense. But when does it go wrong? When do these tools become unhealthy for individuals and maybe even “stunt” their development? For those of us that work with college students, these are the questions we need to be asking. The answer isn’t as simplistic as it may seem.
What do you think? What is going on here?