The Science of Selfies: A Five-City Comparison

Where do they smile the most? The least? Who poses most expressively?

Since January 2011, 73 million selfies have been posted on Instagram.

When the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary crowned "selfie" the word of the year in 2013, it only affirmed what anyone with a smartphone has known since the first photo with the hashtag selfie was posted on January 16, 2011: Self-documentation has gone viral. According to Unmetric, a company that analyzes social media for global brands, 73 million selfies have been posted on Instagram since then.

What we didn't know was that selfie-takers in Bangkok are younger than those in New York; women take more than men; and the smile factor varies from city to city.

The research can be found at selfiecity, a project directed by Lev Manovich, a professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and an expert in the analysis of visual social data. The "word of the year" laurels wasn't the reason for Manovich's research, which was initiated months before "selfie" got the nod from the OED.

Manovich and his team collected 656,000 images downloaded on Instagram from December 4 through 12, 2013, in New York, Sao Paulo, Berlin, Bangkok, and Moscow. After sorting, the images were winnowed down to 640 from each place to have a representative sample across categories.

"Instagram is a universal language," said Manovich by phone. "But there are important differences in gender, ages, and style in different cities."

"The selfie," writes Alise Tifentale, a graduate student at CUNY, in an essay posted on the selfiecity site, "is the vernacular of the 21st century."

And social media has become a tool for the study of human behavior. In the five cities studied, for example, women in Sao Paulo pose more expressively (with head tilts that average 16.9 degrees versus only 7.6 in New York), and the percentage of women in selfies is highest in Moscow (82 percent in Moscow versus 55.2 percent in Bangkok).


"Your interpretation is as good as mine," says Manovich.

Moscow women may take selfies more than men, but both sexes go about it in a relatively sullen manner. The Russian capital is at the bottom of the selfie smile index. (Bangkok is at the top.) Perhaps there isn't that much to smile about in Moscow. "But when you see young Russians here in New York," Manovich says, "they smile like everyone else."

Meanwhile, men over 30 share more selfies than women over 30. "Women may take them," he says. "But they don't post them."

And it's a young person's game. The median selfie age is 23.7 years.

Selfiecity uses some of the tools and techniques developed for previous projects done by the Software Studies Initiative, a research lab Manovich started at the University of California, San Diego, with funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and others.

His next project? Perhaps he'll compare selfies taken in cities with those taken in suburbs or rural areas ... or selfies that have professional polish with those of a more casual nature.

Of course, selfies can be front-page news too. Just ask President Barack Obama (selfie with world leaders), Pope Francis (selfie with fans), and Anthony Weiner (ah, er ... let's leave it).

Though some might say a selfie is simply a digital mirror reflecting the zeitgeist of narcissism, you could also say that the selfie turns us into autobiographers and, in the context of Manovich's project, self-sociologists.