We speak to Matthew Hart, a PhD student researching the selfie, about why there is an emotional and social upside of posting NSFW pictures of yourself online.
Since the iPhone gods delivered us the front facing camera, people have had a complex relationship with Selfies. To many, they’re seen as the domain of the fickle and self obsessed, something people do only when they’re clamouring for likes and validation. Their nude cousin invites even more debate, despite its unceasing omnipresence in our culture.
We’re all guilty of taking countless flattering self-portraits — most of which will never be seen by anyone except us. Clothes on or off, there is a creeping compulsion to document our own bodies. Few people are more interested in our collective obsession than Matthew Hart, a PhD student at Western Sydney University. His research looks at why young people post NSFW selfies on Tumblr.
To Matthew, naked selfies are more than an attention grab: they’re a key part of how young people use the Internet as a tool in self-exploration. i-D called him up to chat about how a naked selfie is a highly evolved act.
It feels like in recent years social media has become a scapegoat for so many issues — it’s making us isolated and depressed, and selfies are a symptom of a self-obsessed generation. But you disagree.
A lot of media and public discourse frames social media as being narcissistic and self-involved. But I see it at a means for young people to articulate particular desires; whether that’s forming intimate relationships or journeying towards body positivity. The nude selfie is just the boldest example. The standard practice is to crop faces out to make sure pictures can’t be traced back to them. But the people I speak to deliberately choose to not crop their faces out, or blur tattoos and distinguishing features. In a sense they’re being very brave.
Where are these images going?
Tumblr. Young people are able to find a very supportive audience there. Because of the social conventions of Tumblr — essentially “what happens on Tumblr stays on Tumblr” — there isn’t the risk of it leaking back out to Facebook where their friends, family, and co-workers would see it. Tumblr is a very creative online space where you’ve got a whole range of subcultures we can’t always find in real life. Young people can talk to body positive or queer communities and find other people who are going through similar life changes. They connect through selfie production.
If these naked selfies aren’t intended for a wide audience, what’s the point?
The selfie is a tool we use when we’re working towards body positivity or self-actualization. Young people could be going through a transition; they could be transgender, or simply managing many different personas at work or with friends. I think of it as an anchor. We live in such busy, hectic times we can lose track of who we are. But when you have this safe space, on the Internet, you can anchor yourself. You can come back and remember who you are and what’s important to you.
Young people have been exploring identity together forever.
How does the move online and the presence of selfies change that experience?
Selfies are very intimate. At the end of the day intimacy is one of the most important things to us. Whether it’s connecting us to family and friends or romantic partners, a very primary way of connecting is through taking photos — not just of each other, but also of ourselves. There is so much attention given to sexual selfies right now that we’re forgetting older generations took the same photos. They just hid their nude Polaroids under the mattress. Older people kept this stuff private, and younger people feel comfortable putting it on the Internet. We’re moving towards an increasingly visual culture, and the ways we communicate are relying more on visual mediums.
Why risk it though? What else are they getting out of it?
I think it has to do with “edgework”; which is essentially voluntary risk taking. Doing things that push boundaries. The classic example is the skydiver: they throw themselves out of a plane, risking their life for the rush. Taking nude selfies with your face visible is voluntary risk taking. They’re getting pleasure from challenging this social taboo — of putting their naked image out there. Certainly not all young people are doing it to chase that thrill, but a lot enjoy walking the boundary line.