Apr 3, 2014

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Data Points

Through a series of visual data representations, Manovich suggests that women strike more extreme poses, especially in Sao Paulo.

Like most Apple products, the front-facing camera introduced with the release of the iPhone 4 eventually generated a massive cultural debate. What was once an easy way to take a photo with someone else has spawned a phenomena. After briefly scanning Lev Manovich’s SelfieCity and corresponding essays on the data’s findings, it becomes apparent that the Selfie will almost always place itself in precarious contexts.

The explosion in online photo-sharing capabilities not only allows us to broadcast our surroundings at any moment, it has normalized somewhat uncouth branding opportunities and made shameless self-promotion a bit less shameless. The quality of the front-facing camera is noticeably different from any other digital camera and by default, these lo-res selfies are considered DIY or “authentic.”  And the essence of posting a photo you’ve taken of yourself clarifies that you want to share this seemingly spontaneous moment, even if the scenario has been carefully staged.


In Nadav Hochman’s Imagined Data Communities, Hochman writes:

“What is going on inside the image shows us what the world is right now (derived from the immediate registry and sharing of everyday life), [and] everything outside of that image (metadata such as tags, location coordinates etc) considers the what if, or what might be, or how we might think about what is the world through the lens of the aggregated, simultaneous representations of particular data unit.”

Simply stated: these DIY photos we take in real time provide easily accessibly sets of statistics and endless possibilities for data analysis.  If we can easily visualize what kinds of selfies get the most likes over a period of time, can Manovich’s data begin to quantify successful self-expression? Imagine the all the real-time marketing possibilities!

According to this infographic from Adweek, the number of brands using selfies in contests or promotions has exploded.  From a marketing perspective, brands have the responsibility to promote this user-generated content sparingly to avoid inevitable exploitation of their organic fan base.

Fair Warning: This may be the only time I ever write about sports.

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 5.38.28 PMMy father is a fervent Red Sox fan so by default, I am forced to pay attention to news items orbiting the city of Boston.  I noticed when David Ortiz (affectionately called Big Papi by Red Sox Nation) took a selfie with President Obama. I thought it would get a bunch of overhyped Red Sox fans disproportionately psyched, and I secretly thought it was a cute moment.

But we can’t let a celebrity selfie circulate without some kind of controversy, can we? The bottom line is that Samsung has paid David Ortiz to use their phone, and David Ortiz used this phone to take a picture with the President of the United States. Samsung Mobile’s US twitter feed immediately re-tweeted this photo, and paid Twitter to promote the tweet.

According to White House spokesperson Jay Carney, the White House officially objects any time the President’s photo is used for commercial purposes. And while Samsung branding does not appear in the photo, we’re left questioning whether this was more than just a friendly, organic moment during a press conference.

Using this kind of candid photography in marketing campaigns is more than just a cheap tactic or low-hanging fruit. Marketing professor Patrick Murphy of the University of Notre Dame told the Washington Post:

“I think there is cause for some ethical debate for things that occur with increasing frequency now that anybody with a cellphone and anybody with access to Twitter can seem to virtually put anything out there.”

As we continue to post photos with geotags and other invisible metadata, we unintentionally expose ourselves in more ways than we know. But turning a phone backwards and having the camera pointed directly at your own image has always been seen as an innocent act of self-expression, despite the privacy risk.  Even public figures have given in to “spontaneous” self-portraiture, which is why David Ortiz was chosen as one of Samsung’s “social media ambassadors.”

But if the President is capable of being roped into a marketing tactic, we’re all at risk of becoming walking advertisements.  It’s relatively easy for  brands to find and connect with the community that is engaging with their product, and it’s even easier to exploit this community by repurposing public imagery.  Because if they’re tagged as #selfies, they must be authentic moments vetted directly by the subject of the photo.   Obviously for brands, these seemingly bland DIY snapshots are worth more than paid appearances on a step-and-repeat.

Ellen’s Oscar Selfie may have been seen as an innocent gag but no matter what his intention, David Ortiz’s flub solidified the act of “taking a selfie” as a valuable yet potentially incriminating PR opportunity – for both the celebrity and the brand itself.