I gave my first lecture yesterday to the MA Researching Social Media module at Sheffield University. It was about using discourse analysis to examine the ways in which photography – and technology use more broadly – is discursively constructed online. After going through some of the background theory on Michel Foucault and Stuart Hall, we looked at examples, predominantly drawn from my research into the discipline of women’s use of selfies. I then suggested that students do some research themselves, and consider how products such as selfie sticks or Google Glass are popularly perceived. There were some interesting examples – one student found a YouTube video that depicted a University of Sheffield graduation ceremony as viewed through Google Glass. The students identified some of the connections being made in the video – between technology, masculinity, education, the subject’s proud statement regarding having an MSc – and how this positions the use of Glass as a specific form of self-recording, which is separate from more supposedly feminine practices of selfie-taking. On closer inspection, it seems that this is a common practice, and there are numerous such videos on YouTube. In one video, the wearer is a subject of interest for other attendees, and is photographed by them, again prompting questions about different uses of technology enabling different cultural capital.

This example – that I would not have found had the students not made me aware of it – demonstrates the value of students’ collective experience and knowledge, which made a real contribution to the lecture. It also demonstrates that students can teach me things that usefully expand upon and inform my own research topic.

Another interesting example found by a student was an article in the Daily Mail, regarding the use of selfie sticks, which stated:

“The trend for trying to take a good selfie is nothing new but with the evolution of the selfie stick or monopod people are trying so much harder to get that perfect photo… Despite the help of a three-foot metal stick people are still getting it wrong and end up with the stick actually in the photo.”

Besides lamenting that selfie-takers were ‘getting it wrong’ with their use of selfie sticks, the article also asserted (with nothing approaching evidence) that such incompetency was particularly prevalent in the Philippines and China. The students rather astutely observed that the Daily Mail’s latent xenophobia was being undermined somewhat by the images illustrating the article, which showed westerners using selfie sticks, and ‘getting it wrong’ according to the newspaper’s own standards. We then discussed the Daily Mail’s arbitrary list of selfie rules:

  1. Don’t have the stick in the picture.
  2. Capture the best angle, try turning your head a few degrees to the right or left, your features will appear less flat
  3. Show off something new in your selfie like haircut or new item of clothing
  4. Enhance one of your features e.g. wear lots of mascara or a bright lipstick and keep the rest natural
  5. You need good lighting for the best selfies.
  6. Use the phone’s back camera because it will take a higher resolution picture.
  7. Think about what background you want, the best selfies have something interesting behind the subject.

The students’ comments on this list – its slant towards women, its use of vague concepts such as ‘best selfies’ and ‘good lighting’ – demonstrated that they were beginning to pick up the basic principles of discourse analysis, in terms of “what was being ‘said’ in what was said”.

Furthermore, giving this brief introduction to discourse, and related concepts such as power/knowledge and discipline, reaffirmed my belief in the importance of using ethnography to study social media. The examples we studied predominately demonstrate how technology use is discursively employed to evidence stereotypes and justify social divisions. An ethnographic approach (as used by the Imaging Sheffield project) would, in contrast, enable subjects to describe for themselves why they use photography – and, I hope, to perhaps contest the Mail’s ludicrous assessment of selfie stick use as ‘wrong’!

‘Picturing the Social: Transforming our Understanding of Images in Social Media and Big Data research’ is an 18-month research project that started in September 2014 and is based at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. It is funded through an ESRC’s Transformative Research grant and is focused on transforming the social science research landscape by carving out a more central place for image research within the emerging fields of social media and Big Data research. The project aims to better understand the huge volumes of images that are now routinely shared on social media and what this means for society. This project involves an interdisciplinary team of seven researchers from four universities as well as industry with expertise in: Media and Communication Studies (Farida Vis and Anne Burns, University of Sheffield), Visual Culture (Simon Faulkner and Jim Aulich, Manchester School of Art), Software Studies and Sociology (Olga Goriunova, Warwick University), Computer and Information Science (Francesco D’Orazio, Pulsar and Mike Thelwall, University of Wolverhampton). The project is part of the Visual Social Media Lab.