Over the last decade, selfies have become a majorstay of popular culture. Although the hashtag #selfie first appeared in 2004, it was the release of the iPhone 4 in 2010 that helped the images go viral. Three years later, the Oxford English Dictionary included the word "selfie".
We use selfies for various purposes, usually in social or professional. According to a research by 2018, 82% of American adults under 34 had posted a selfie on social media. Until the start of the pandemic in public gatherings, an entire industry was dedicated to creating events and museums selfie.
Given this huge popularity, in the last four years the phenomenon has begun to attract the attention of the cognitive sciences. Recent studies have shown that the way we take a selfie - and the specific angles we choose - varies depending on what we intend to do with them.
The left bias
From the 1970 decade we know that in historical western portraits, artists preferred to depict the left cheek of their models, especially when painting women. A study of 2017 showed that in taking selfie photos, people tend to turn their smartphone to photograph their left cheek.
Some patterns have also been identified in the way the models position their cameras vertically. Another study of 2017 for selfies posted on Tinder found that when looking to connect, women most often choose to take selfies from above and men from below.
His colleagues Alessandro Soranzo and he looked at how this might differ on a different platform. They surveyed 2.000 selfies posted by a random sample of 200 different Instagram accounts - ten selfies per person. For each selfie, they recorded the user's gender as shown in the photo and whether they took their selfie from above, below or in front. They found that all users - regardless of gender - tended to place the camera over their head.
These differences in camera position create different types of selfies. The question is why. How do these choices relate to why selfies are used on the platforms where they are posted?
Most "how to get the best selfie" guides emphasize that photographing your face from an angle and above makes you look better.
This is confirmed from a study where the authors found that men taking selfies below were, in part, an attempt to look taller and therefore more masculine. Women who take selfies from above are said to achieve the opposite. They look shorter but more feminine.
Elsewhere, the research examine the first trends in selfie poses and how some related to the angle and composition of your face so that it looks slimmer and more attractive.
Trying to explain why a painter would prefer the left side of the model's face, the researchers explored various versions. The artist could be left-handed or right-handed, and then the model would sit in relation to the painter. There may have been a superiority of the left half-field of view in face recognition: in other words, could a profile painted on the left side of the canvas be more easily perceived?
However, the data were vague in all of these theories, except for the possibility, according to the study authors, of a key visual preference. Maybe, as they suggested, we just find the left side more attractive than the right.
In the selfies, both the left and the right show the same left-cheek bias. This prevalence suggests that we know, instinctively, that the appearance of our left side is the best choice.
Recent data provide a clearer reason why this may be the case. The left side of the face is controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain, which in turn is responsible for communicating emotions. Thus, the left side is more emotionally expressive.
Researchers have also found that we tend to perceive ourselves as more attractive and likable in our selfies than in the photos taken by others.
The degree of expressiveness we seek depends on what we intend to communicate and the platform on which we communicate. Pointing to the left cheek - or ourselves from above - we look more expressive. Positioning the camera in front, meanwhile, achieves a neutral look.
The models, by choosing pose and other iconographic features, provide non-verbal, social and emotional signals to their viewers. These signals can be considered as the 2D equivalent of the non-verbal signals we use in face-to-face communication.
Personally, individuals control attitudes, facial expressions, and how far apart they are from each other to express degrees of intimacy or avoidance. From the work of Edward Hall in the 1960s, The Hidden Dimension, we have called this behavior divisive.
In selfies, you only have iconographic space to play. However, it also provides a set of proxemics: how to orient the subject, any left-right asymmetry in the composition, questions of relative size between objects in the frame.
These variables, which are determined by the distance from the camera and, above all, the angle of the camera, contribute to the non-verbal communication of the motivations, intentions or emotional states of the model.
So selfies have been defined as a form of self-disclosure. It is not just someone who is pictorially presented, but a means of revealing personal information in a dialogue.
The nature of the selfie distinguishes it from the most studied, artistic intention of a self-portrait. Similarly, the way a selfie is made is the content and the interaction. As the author, theorist and the person behind the Selfies tumblr Museum writes, "selfies are shared as part of a conversation".
This article by Alessandro Soranzo, Reader in Experimental Psychology, Sheffield Hallam University, is republished by The Conversation with permission from Creative Commons.