It’s Easy to Hate Selfies. But Can They Also Be a Force for Good?

This month, when earthquakes rocked Southern California on back-to-back days, it was a visceral reminder that we may one day experience the “Big One,” a quake with the power to kill and destroy.

A few people saw something else: a photo opportunity.

Tourists flocked to a large crack in a highway to see evidence of the damage for themselves and, of course, take a quick selfie.

It was only the latest example of how our modern love of sharing photos we take of ourselves in notable situations is colliding with nature and the world, often in perplexing and even dangerous ways.

In Canada, a sunflower farm barred visitors last year after selfie-seekers destroyed flowers and left the land looking like a “zombie apocalypse.” In Spain, a man was gored in the neck last weekend while trying to take a video selfie at the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona.

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CreditAlvaro Barrientos/Associated Press

The selfie phenomenon entered the mainstream after Apple and other phonemakers added front-facing cameras starting in 2010, the same year Instagram and other photo-sharing apps were becoming popular. From 2011 to 2017, more than 250 people died while taking selfies, according to a study by researchers in India, which had by far the highest number of such deaths, followed by Russia and the United States. Many died after drowning, falling or being attacked by an animal. Most were under the age of 30.

All of it paints a picture of a self-obsessed online culture hellbent on getting the perfect shareable photo to feed its vanity. With each like, we feel better about ourselves. But there is no denying the intrinsic draw of the selfie, which feeds so many of the most vulnerable parts of ourselves: our innate attraction to images of human faces instead of landscapes or objects, our nostalgia for capturing memories, and yes, our need for social approval.

It’s easy to be uncomfortable with selfies and even mock them, especially when they’re risky or in bad taste. But some researchers have explored different questions: Why do we take selfies? Can they ever be a healthy form of expression? Can selfies be used for good?

“Narcissism is one thread,” said Jesse Fox, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University, who has studied how people use selfies and social media. In one study, she found that characteristics of narcissism and psychopathy predicted the number of selfies men ages 18 to 40 posted on social media.

But she said the need for social approval and support is universal.

“We all have levels of insecurity,” Dr. Fox said. “When someone is like, ‘Here is my cancer selfie,’ you are feeling vulnerable right now. You need that social support. That is not saying you are a narcissist for putting it out on social media.”

After all, people have been making self-portraits for centuries, in remarkably similar ways. The 16th-century artist Parmigianino famously painted a portrait of himself with his arm extended, almost as if holding the canvas. A self-portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn, a 17th-century Dutch artist, shows an expression similar to the classic “duckface” selfie. And during the Italian renaissance, at least one artist used a self-portrait for “calling cards,” as a way to market their work.

Since the term “selfie” first caught on — it was the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2013 — researchers have identified three types of selfie-takers.

There are communicators, who want to have a two-way conversation (for example, a post with an “I Voted” sticker to encourage civic engagement); autobiographers, who document their lives for their own purposes, rather than seeking feedback or compliments (a selfie at home with a favorite coffee mug, or a photo at the Grand Canyon); and self-publicists, who want to build a brand and positively curate an image (à la the Kardashians).

“They have become so common that my grandma does them when we get together,” said Steven Holiday, an author of the study who argued that the notion of the selfie as narcissistic is outdated.

“We have gone beyond the self-centered nature — we need to let it go when it comes to selfies,” he said. “Selfies are a way for us to connect and communicate, and feel more personal with people all around the world.”

In one example, researchers developed a #ScientistsWhoSelfie campaign studying how scientists’ posting photos of themselves with their work on Instagram influenced public perception of the profession. They found that photos with human faces helped improve impressions in a field that is often subject to negative stereotypes.

“Scientists in general were perceived as warmer, but no less competent,” said Paige Jarreau, the lead author on the study. “That was particularly true for female scientists.”

While some scientists balked at first, fearing that their colleagues would consider them self-centered or think they take their work less seriously, Dr. Jarreau said those concerns dissipated once researchers explained that it could help build public trust. The hashtag #ScientistsWhoSelfie has taken off, with thousands of posts on Instagram.

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CreditMario Tama/Getty Images

“This is not just me taking a duckfaced selfie or trying to look cute on camera,” she said. “This is me being able to better tell the story about my science in a way that helps people trust me.”

Similarly, Dr. Fox has studied how self-documenting on social media can be a powerful tool for gay, transgender and nonbinary people who are undergoing an appearance transformation to live more publicly as their true selves. The public nature of the posts, she said, can be a cathartic form of self-expression.

“That is a very empowering thing for them,” she said.

But in the everyday, most of us post reflexively, even obsessively. Dr. Fox recalled a road trip she took to national parks, where she witnessed so many people taking selfies, she began taking photos of the selfie-takers themselves.

“Ask yourself: Why are you posting that picture?” she said. “If there was a platform that didn’t enable likes, would you post this?” After all, there are other ways to foster a social connection. You could send the photo to a private group. You could put it in a frame at home. You could be mindful in the moment by not taking it at all.

But if you do, watch your step.

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The Meanings of the Selfie

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