SelfieCity Might Be The Ultimate Data-Driven Exploration Of The Selfie

The science of #selfies has arrived.

Feb 19 2014, 2:00pm

While there have been countless thinkpieces, critical examinations, and conversations centered around 2013's word of the year, few have properly explored the selfie in such a rigorous way with insane statistics to back it up. If you've ever wondered: Do more men or women take selfies? Do people who use Instagram in Berlin look older? Do people in one country tend to smile more, while selfie-takers in another consistently pose in a specific way? There has been no inviting (and even entertaining) systematic analysis of these kind of questions regarding a fairly recent cultural phenomenon. At least until now.

This morning, selfiecity launched. It's an immersive project that investigates and analyzes a sample of 3,200 selfies taken in New York, Moscow, Berlin, Bangkok, and Sao Paulo. Now we will have actual statistics, data science, data visualizations, and interactive information about selfies taken around the world.

Not only does selfiecity offer findings about the demographics of people taking selfies (as well as info about their poses and expressions, such as smile trends), it also shares a variety of data visualizations (such as collages that overlay hundreds of selfies that share certain characteristics), and allows visitors to explore the entire photo collection, filtering the information into several formats that could reveal patterns or trends that ripple throughout selfie culture.

When we explored the site, we were truly blown away by how complex the interactive aspect was. We could input our gender, age, and how we favor our selfie (no smile, no glasses, no face tilt) and see dozens of other New Yorkers who take photos of themselves in the same vein (or is it vain?).

We could then compare our selfie style to people in similar demographics in cities we've lived in, such as Berlin, as well as people from Bangkok, a city where we've never been and could detail very little about its relationship to social media. 

The project was started in fall 2013, after Nadav Hochman, Lev Manovich and Jay Chow analyzed and visualized 2.3 million Instagram photos collected in a number of global cities and assembled them at Manovich and Daniel Goddemeyer of DigitalThoughtFacility decided there was more room to build upon this information, and recruited a variety of media theorists, data scientists, visual designers, and even an art historian to turn the deluge of photos into a coherent project. 

On why the group wanted to build on PhotoTrails, Goddemeyer and Moritz Stefaner, two core team members (though Manovich was the main project lead), explained, "Selfiecity deliberately aims to keep the connection to the original data point intact by highlighting these human stories that are told through each and every picture. We also wanted to put them in the historical context of self-portraiture and media theory. We felt that that can better address the contemporary phenomenon of selfies. It’s a bigger project with its own framing."

He continued: "Whereas Phototrails deals with large amounts of data from a very high abstract level, selfiecity zooms in on the individual person, his story and context. Rather than being an endpoint, or completely finished project, selfiecity aims to provide a starting point for this 'intimate' analysis and storytelling with pictures as data material."

To achieve the best results, they focused on the central areas in the five cities picked, keeping the locations roughly the same size and scope (ultimately, 640 selfies were picked from each city). The team also collected images and data "under equal conditions," so they picked photos that were taken exclusively between the dates of December 4th and December 12th, 2013. Selfiecity used Instagram's official API to download the photos and accompanying data. 

Since selfies do not contain demographic data, the team needed to add human judgement to the automatic face analysis. So the thousands of photos picked were subsequently inspected by Mechanical Turk workers, who estimated the age and gender of the people in the photos. This is by no means fool proof, but sample groups never are. 

The team then partned with Gnip, the world’s largest provider of social data, to develop software to turn the collected photos into interactive data visualizations, split into sections called "Intro," "Imageplots," "Selfiexploratory," "Dataset," "Findings," and "Theory." 

Selfiecity also shared some specific findings from its research in a press release, some of which were surprising: 

People take less selfies than often assumed

Depending on the city, only 3-5% of images we analyzed were actually selfies.

Significantly more women

In every city we analyzed, there are significantly more women selfies than men selfies (from 1.3 times as many in Bangkok to 1.9 times more in Berlin). Moscow is a strong outlier - here, we have 4.6 times more female than male selfies.

(While we don’t have this data for other countries, in the U.S. proportion of female to male instagram users is close to 1:1).

A young people's sport? Indeed.

Most people in our photos are pretty young (23.7 estimated median age). Bangkok is the youngest city (21.0), whereas NYC is the oldest (25.3). Men's average age is higher than that of women in every city. Surprisingly, more older men (30-) post selfies on Instagram than women.

Bangkok, Sao Paulo are all smiles

Our mood analysis revealed that you can find lots of smiling faces in Bangkok (0.68 average smile score) and Sao Paulo (0.64). People taking selfies in Moscow smile the least (only 0.53 on the smile score scale).

Women strike more extreme poses, especially in Sao Paulo

Women's selfies show more expressive poses; for instance, the average amount of head tilt is 150% higher than for men (12.3° vs. 8.2°). Sao Paulo is most extreme - there, the average head tilt for females is 16.9°"

The above present "only some of the patterns" found by the data team. Other trendcasting will be shared in a series of blog posts on "We discovered that each of our five cities is an outlier in its own unique way," wrote selfiecity. "Depending on which dimension of comparison we choose, one of the cities usually stands out. However, when we combine many dimensions together, Moscow and Bangkok stand out from other cities." 

Many notable cultural figures like James FrancoEzra Koenig, and others have offered the media some razor-sharp thoughts about the significance of a self-taken photo, but cultural criticism often has a glass ceiling if there aren't facts and a data pool from which to glean information. Selfiecity provides both an academic and highly playful way to engage with a topic that has captured the attention of countless people throughout the world. 

The project's creators believe that selfiecity can help us ask questions about social media, cultural criticism, and technology, though they note that "it may be very hard or even impossible to separate [these] three dimensions: Instagram as a window into social reality, as a contemporary vernacular photography, and as a software medium." 

When The Creators Project asked Stefaner about the future of selfies, and if we should expect a rise in them, he said, "If the selfie is more like a visual 'ping' to the people we socially feel connected to, the idea of the photographic selfie might get replaced by other forms of technological self-documentation and sharing one 'selfie-state' through other self data representations than the purely photographic." 

"Going forward," Stefaner and Goddemeyer added, "We are interested in potentially looking at other types of social media photos such as BestFriendsForever that could potentially provide a very intimate glimpse into our relationships and social connections."

So we might not be able to make any major conclusions with selfiecity, but we now have one of the most in-depth looks into a cultural staple that appears more and more omnipresent by the week. This site may highlight the selfie, but it doesn't mean you should start taking more. Remember, moderation is everything. Now say cheese and rack up those "likes."

The project was supported by The Graduate Center, City University of New YorkCalifornia Institute for Telecommunication and Information, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The core team included:

Dr. Lev Manovich

Moritz Stefaner

Mehrdad Yazdani

Dr. Dominikus Baur

Daniel Goddemeyer

Alise Tifentale

Nadav Hochman

Jay Chow

See more over at