October 1, 2015 | Comment

Selfie Pedagogy III: Networked Spaces, Slut Shaming and Putting Selfies in Dialogue with Theory

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Equity
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Those looking for a top authority on how to teach effectively with selfies would be wise to put Terri Senft of New York University at the top of any list. Senft founded two influential Facebook groups of international researchers: the Selfies Research Network, which has more than 2,600 members; and a closed group with a smaller cohort, which is dedicated to collaborative teaching experiments with selfies. This group includes Alice Marwick (profiled on DML Central) and Miriam Posner (also profiled on DML Central).

Terri Senft

Terri Senft

In a Skype interview with DML Central, Senft explained that “the impulse for the research group and the pedagogy group were separate but related. I kept seeing material about selfie production predominantly from the U.S. and Europe, but as I was traveling and doing research for other things I saw everyone was taking selfies.” She described having an epiphany in Shanghai: “Where is the scholarship on this?” Because “image making practices tend to be contextual,” she was particularly concerned that academic criticism was adopting too narrow a focus.

“I think two things happened. We knew we wanted to put some new scholarship out at AoIR” (The Association of Internet Researchers) from “a lot of young scholars” who hadn’t yet produced peer-reviewed publications but might have been writing blogs or networking with other researchers to bring fresh approaches to the subject of selfies. Many of these emerging scholars were generating new research from outside of the United States, such as Crystal Abidin and Gabi David.

According to Senft, the other important factor involved capitalizing on everyday interactions as a way to develop and disseminate research: “All of us were in these classroom environments, where we were working on the difference between identity and interpellation every day.” (Here Senft refers to the ideas of French philosopher Louis Althusser, who argued that “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects.”)

Senft was concerned that too much pedagogy was focused on reading texts in isolation, even though “an image in networked space has value beyond its visual presentation,” which might include metadata, geotagging, and commentary that could be interpreted. Because students “were all making selfies or could make them,” they could more easily make the intellectual leap to paying more attention to networked spaces. “Whatever it is you are teaching, it’s about discourse! We need to study how it’s circulating. It doesn’t mean anything by itself. Selfies are a great tool to help students understand that nothing exists outside a context.”

Introducing selfies as objects of study also “allowed for new conversations about classic texts in media studies that were starting to feel a little stale.” For example, a conventional exercise might ask students to use an advertisement to apply ideas from a theoretical text: “encoding and decoding . . . or unconscious and conscious responses” could be discussed with a commercial or print ad. She noticed, however, that this approach felt too formulaic and could make students feel detached from the subject matter. “There’s not a thing called The Media. I’m part of it.”

“My biggest caution is never to underestimate how difficult it is for students to read and parse theoretical texts. You need to be willing to go slow with them and encourage them to use images to dialogue with those texts.” Senft pointed out that selfies in the classroom could be used for illustrating, opposing, or complicating “what the text is saying.” Her methods are intended to help students develop as critical thinkers. “At the end of day, the object of analysis in my teaching isn’t the selfie. It’s the idea: the idea of identity, the idea of belonging, the idea of surveillance, the idea of the outsider.”

The Human Cost of Slut Shaming

As a scholar, Senft first gained notoriety for her work on so-called “camgirls,” women who placed themselves on exhibit live on the Internet by using webcams. “I tend to be drawn to terms that people love to hate,” she chuckled, as she described how even the “camgirls” themselves hated the label. Similarly, “for most people selfie is a derogatory term, while if you say autoportraiture or something fancy, that’s okay.”

Based on her experiences studying camgirls, she marveled as history seemed to be repeated itself. “I was seeing the exact same conversations, particularly in the press, that I had seen 15 years ago,” which for Senft meant that there would be “an entire generation in which girls are made to feel their self-expression is ridiculous and pointless” and also “an entire generation of scholars having discussions with their art history professors or sociology professors” to try and convince conservative academics that their research subjects were legitimate, even if they didn’t represent “discourses of the avant-garde.”

“With camgirls, I saw a practice that was existing at the social and technological margins, which has since become a mainstream practice. It’s what we are doing right now!” (She drew attention to our Skype interface at this moment in the interview.)

Senft noted that in 1999 or 2001, people had many more questions about such activities: “How do you set this up? How do you get the money for the bandwidth?” Unfortunately, as she noted, once “barriers to entry are lowered” and something becomes “an everyday practice,” there tends to be “less scholarly fascination with it.”

“Camgirls, when they started, couldn’t have full motion videography. I remember when they first got sound and didn’t know what to do with it.” Like selfies, the primary product of cam girls were “still images and generally shots of their faces.” According to Senft, “these discourses emphasize the presence of women rather than men. With that comes the charges that you are self-absorbed or narcissistic, that you want to be a star or want to be sexually provocative. But, some of the camgirls were musicians or tech geeks” out primarily to pursue self-promotion.

“The conversation about selfies being about just regular folks could easily seem stupid or boring, but at the same time I was watching things like Amanda’s Todd’s suicide.” Before her death, the teenage Todd created a poignant video, which has received over 19 million views, in which she describes an agonized history of sexual vulnerability, slut shaming, and self harm that began with flashing her breasts to a stranger on a webcam.

“The impetus for young girls to make media is strong, as it is for the world to push back with misogyny and slut shaming,” Senft asserted. “The general head-wagging and indifference ends up with the death of young girls. I can’t not be a part of this larger conversation.” Others, Senft said, were contributing to this important conversation, including Amy Hasinoff, who writes about sexting, Jessica Ringrose, Kath Albury, and DML Central’s own danah boyd.

“It breaks my heart that there are a million initiatives about online bullying but nothing that addresses slut shaming directly, even though it is tied to suicide and self-harm. When Madonna told me to express myself when I was that age, she didn’t mean to write a poem. We are not allowed to talk to these girls about sexual display. It’s illegal. But, if they come to something I wrote, and there’s news they can use, maybe they can live long enough to get to college, where we can break girls out of this minimum security thing called high school.” She mourned the fact that “behavior that is dismissed” as “just needy and crazy” might actually be communicating something important, that “what you most need is to express yourself.”

Selfies and Civic Engagement

The connection between political participation and selfie-making is also an important aspect of Senft’s research. “I just wrote this piece about the selfies of Sandra Bland and how they were circulated.” She described how Bland “was an activist from Chicago who gets stopped in Texas in a routine traffic stop” and then how Bland died in custody under suspicious circumstances. “There was video on her Faceboook about standing up for your rights and understanding how racial profiling works.” Senft pointed out that the dashcam video from the police cruiser propagated one set of images depicting Bland, “but those who were active in #BlackLivesMatter were circulating different selfies of Bland,” including images in which “she had a jacket on; she was a young professional. People in the #BlackLivesMatter movement were saying something was wrong with this story. They were making the selfies into memes, so it was like the #SayHerName meme but as ‘show her face.’ They wanted to show her not laying on the ground as a victim of police brutality but as someone who could make her own media, someone who something not right happened to. You say that someone like this is irrational, so angry they can’t be dealt with, but I have visual evidence that shows me something different. And, I can’t reconcile that difference.”

Senft argued that the selfies of the dead could have great political power because they generate “strange familiarity or strange intimacy.” She cited the idea of the “familiar stranger” of Stanley Milgram to understand why this brand of politics might be “on fire.”

“They humanize what’s going on. They put real stakes to it and make it central to civic engagement. They show that people who pay the same taxes are under siege by our government. That’s how civic engagement works.” She reminded DML Central readers that discussions about “the 99%” at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement always included both a card with the person’s story as written text and a humanizing image of their individual personhood. “This person is calling to you. How are you going to respond?”

Selfies have been back in the news this month as the refugee crisis continues across Europe, and migrants fleeing war-torn Syria and other conflict zones document their journeys. “There is something interesting about the larger community’s reactions to migrant communities and mobile phone use. People are comfortable with the idea of the migrant as an object, as a sympathetic case, but our ideas about democracy tend to separate someone who needs help from someone who can make a phone call.” Therefore, the widespread practice of selfie-making among Syrian migrants becomes “anxiety producing.” Members of the public feel compelled to ask: “if you have enough wherewithal to document your station, why can’t you change it?” She equated rage directed to migrant selfies to negative responses she had observed closer to home when homeless people in New York City were rejected for asking for money with a phone in hand.

Senft also praised the work of Radhika Gajjala (profiled on DML Central), Nishant Shah (who blogs for DML Central), and Marion Walton for raising attention to practices of digital self-expression in the Global South. “I wanted us to use selfies as an opportunity to discuss what we can see and what we can’t see. There’s not one Internet any more; there are networked environments that are operating in other ways across the world.”

Banner: Hashtagged social media images of Sandra Bland