The (sort-of) selfies class

Room of boisterous students mugging for the camera
Class selfie! Lotta brilliance in this room!

Last winter I taught a class called Selfies, Snapchat, and Cyberbulles: Coming of Age Online. It was incredibly fun and rewarding, and I learned a ton. Mark Marino simultaneously taught a great class on selfies over at USC, and while we weren’t able to sync up our classes as much as we might have liked, we were able to have a joint Facebook group for them, which was really fun.

(Mark and I were able to teach our classes at all in large part because of the generosity of the scholars involved in the Selfies Research Network, to whom I owe a big debt of gratitude.)

Mark’s class generated a ton of publicity, and because he mentioned my own class, I rode Mark’s coattails a bit as we got mentioned in the New York Times, the LA Times, and elsewhere. Of course, Mark and I knew that the only reason our classes were getting any press was so that people could talk about how ridiculous a selfie class is. But it was still fun, and we tried to inject as much substance as we could into the conversation.

Meanwhile, the ever-awesome Liz Losh took the time to really dig into the substance of my class in this excellent post on the DML blog; I was really honored to be interviewed.

I got an interview request for another outlet, and since the article seems not to have seen the light of day, I thought I’d just post my responses to the interviewer’s questions here.

Incidentally, I don’t really take my own selfies, not because I disapprove of them, but because I’m really bad at it. Much respect to people who can do it well!

What enticed you to teach a class centered around the selfie?

The class wasn’t entirely centered around the selfie. It was about the experience of being a young adult in the digital age and, more broadly, how we should think about the relationship between technological and cultural change. I wanted to teach this class because I’ve heard a lot of generalizations about millennials, both in the media and from people I know, and I felt that many of these characterizations didn’t accurately reflect the complicated, diverse people I encounter in the classroom at UCLA. I wanted to submit those generalizations to rigorous scrutiny, to see whether they held up.

I also noticed that every time I mentioned social media or online culture in the classroom, students were really eager to chime in with their own experiences. I thought it would be fun and interesting for us to carefully study something they care so much about. I also have a sister who’s 21, so I felt a personal investment in countering some of the more pernicious stereotypes about young adults.

What insights and observations have you gained regarding the relationship between students and social media?

My students had a ton to say about social media and its relationship to youth culture. One thing I found most interesting is how worried they are about social media’s effects on their attention spans and relationships. That makes sense, since they’re hearing the same news stories and media messages about millennials that we are! But they’re thinking very hard about technology and social change; no one should assume that just because a young adult has her eyes on her phone, she’s not also self-aware and thoughtful.

Can you give an example of an assignment for the course?

Students’ main project was a digital ethnography (meaning an in-depth study of a particular culture) of an online community. I asked them to immerse themselves, and in some cases participate in, an online community of their choice. We had a couple Tinder papers, one on Yik Yak, and a few on Instagram. Students were surprised at how hard it was! We spent a long time talking about how to be an ethical, honest, and diligent participant-observer.

Based on what you’ve seen among students, are there specific aspects that constitute a typical selfie?

I think it really depends on context. Selfies can have different meanings, depending on who’s taking them and for what purpose, and often you’ll find people consciously imitating or exaggerating elements of the “typical selfie” for ironic effect. For example, many teenage girls will offer up an exaggerated “duckface” to the camera, in a conscious and ironic imitation of the “typical selfie.” Just as any portrait can, a selfie can mean many different things, and one has to be very alert to its context when one’s trying to suss out the meaning of any particular image.

Outside of classroom purposes, do you condone taking selfies? If yes, how do you justify a selfie as something more than an act of narcissism?

I don’t really think it’s my place to condone or not condone any form of participation in a visual culture. Community, as we all know, means a lot to people, and taking selfies is one way that some people participate in a community. I think we should also be very alert to what is connoted by the word “selfie.” As the term is popularly used, it’s closely associated with teenaged girls, who have frequently been the object of scathing ridicule in American culture. I think of selfie-opprobrium as somewhat akin to people’s annoyance at vocal fry: both phenomena are associated with teenage girls, and both suggest a degree of annoyance (perhaps even fear) at girls’ temerity in entering the public sphere.

What do you hope students carry away from the course?

On our last day of class, I asked students what they’d remember about what we learned. They all agreed that “It’s complicated!”  — which is also the title to danah boyd’s recent book, which we read in class. What boyd means, and what my students meant, is that you can’t assume that all online youth culture is one thing, or that every young person experiences life online in the same way. Phenomena that look very similar to outside observers can turn out, on closer inspection, to have very complicated and multilayered meanings. Young people — like all human beings — are complicated, diverse, and multifaceted. Sweeping generalizations about them are unhelpful and usually wrong.

They also said they’d remember our discussions about the need to “hustle,” by which we meant the reality of labor in the twenty-first century. Students carry unprecedented educational debt these days, even as the likelihood of them owning their own homes, or even attaining the same living standard as their parents, is lower than it has ever been. Steady jobs, the kind with pensions and benefit plans, are becoming increasingly rare, and students are facing the possibility of a future made up of freelance gigs and short-term contracts. It’s no wonder they feel compelled to create complex online identities. In an economic moment in which their online identities can determine their ability to earn a wage, it’s incumbent upon them to create charismatic online personae.

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