What we can learn from “The Selfie Generation”

Teenagers taking a selfie photo

Here are two questions you don’t often see next to each other.

  • Why do academics need to “publish or perish?”
  • Why do teens love to post online pictures of themselves doing silly things?

While their circumstances couldn’t be more different, I believe that the motivations for both groups are remarkably similar and comes down to four principles: visibility, reciprocity, creativity and authority.

These are some of the guiding beliefs of a group that has been called “The Selfie Generation.” But they are also those that encourage all of us, more than ever before, to share who we are and what we do using inexpensive, omnipresent digital technology and social networks.

The audience is…

thxYou may remember that, back in the early 1980’s, George Lucas’s sound recording standard, THX, would run a short trailer before its movies with the tagline, “The audience is listening.” They were making the point that the audio experience of a film was as important as the visual experience.

Today, however, the audience isn’t just listening. Or simply watching. The audience is doing everything that media companies are doing, often creating content that, even a decade ago, would have been prohibitively expensive and complicated. We’re writing books and articles, making music, crafting games, filming movies, taking photos and linking it all together in a variety of social media platforms.

Or, to paraphrase Pogo, “We have met the artist, and they is us.”

What we can learn from selfies

I think that many adults probably equate selfies with a very… immature… kind of behavior. They are ephemera. Meant to be created, shared and consumed quickly and then (maybe intentionally) forgotten. Duck faces. Selfie sticks. Planking. A fad, perhaps, and maybe an unhealthy one.

But selfies, and the young people we tend to associate with them, are part of a much larger social and technological shift. One that is driven by technology and blurring generational boundaries in the way it has erased geographical boundaries.

Selfies represent a social and technological shift that blurs generational and geographic boundaries. Click To Tweet

Earlier this month, I presented a keynote at the OCLC EMEA Regional Council annual meeting titled, “Post it or perish: negotiating the borders of social proof and authority.” The theme of that event was “The Selfie Generation.” I pointed out that there are four principles that are important to understanding both selfies and much of the work that libraries do within our communities. And these tendencies aren’t limited only to the “selfie generation,” but reach across demographic groups, more and more, as technology has cut across generations.

Make it, show it, share it, judge it

Let’s quickly review the principles involved here.

provide a photoVisibility. Our most popular social networks are visual ones: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. Telling isn’t as powerful as showing. “Pics or it didn’t happen” is a popular phrase for a reason. It’s part of what psychologists call “social proof,” and it’s important to us all. Whether you’re taking a picture next to someone famous or capturing proof of an important moment, nothing speaks louder than a visual. We’re hardwired to respond to images in a much more visceral way.

Reciprocity. In a 2015 joint study, the University of Texas at Dallas and CNN found that 61% of teens said that when they go online, one of the main reasons is to see if their posts are getting likes and comments. Social is a two-way street, obviously. It’s embedded in the definition. If someone likes/comments on your stuff, you want to do the same for them. Social scientists call this the “Law of Reciprocity.” We want the audience to respond.

Creativity. A key difference between social media content (like selfies) and other kinds of content is that you make it yourself. According to a Common Sense Media report from November 2015, 3% of teens’ time on social media is spent in active creation: writing, coding, making digital music or art. That may not seem like a lot… but it’s way more than TV, isn’t it? It’s part of what makes these platforms so compelling: that we don’t just have to be in the audience, we can be on stage. We have a deep desire to create.

Authority. This is the one that’s most easily related to what we as librarians, scholars, educators and authors do. In the past, because production and bandwidth were expensive, editors and publishers and other “gatekeepers” provided the authority. Now, there is no scarcity of media channels, and publishing is as efficient for one copy as for thousands.

Last October, Instagram – the photo sharing service – celebrated its 5th anniversary. CNN reported on the event with the headline, “Untangling Instagram’s growing web of influence.” They noted that the site had 400 million regular users, half of whom are under 25.

Instagram provides an excellent example of a service people are using creatively to increase their visibility, practice reciprocity, and thereby increase their authority. The CNN article shows how the service is impacting the worlds of fashion, art, travel, food… even activism.

Library selfies

Historically, libraries played (and still do play) a similar “gatekeeping” role to editors and publishers. They curate collections. And we trust that those materials have passed some kind of test for value, appropriateness, accuracy—in short, we trust the authority of the library.

Can libraries fit into this new world, in which authority doesn’t come from scarcity but abundance? We see signs that it’s happening already.

3d-printerVisibility. Libraries are working with partners through OCLC and other organizations to get their materials into more online services, within the workflows people already use. Examples include “Find in a library” links from places like Google Books and Goodreads.

Reciprocity. Libraries are working to put important, local content online, using services like CONTENTdm. This isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about honoring and promoting the people, ideas and accomplishments of the communities and institutions being served.

Creativity. Library spaces are changing to inspire and enable creativity among users. Makerspaces are cropping up in many libraries. Partnerships with local arts organizations blur the boundaries between library and gallery.

Authority. How can libraries play an appropriate “curatorial role” in a world of infinite links and sites and files and videos and pictures? Linked data may be part of the answer. By providing easily shared, canonical pathways to accurate information, linked data helps connect the library world to the selfie world. Linked data helps turn traditional authority into social proof.

Linked data connects the library world to the selfie world, turning traditional authority into social proof. Click To Tweet

People still want the same things they always have wanted. They want to be creative, connect with friends and colleagues, and get recognized for their work. While the changes in how this is happening may be scary to some, the motivations are the same. This is great news for libraries, actually. Because libraries are great at helping connect people to a larger world of information, community and success.

We just need to be humble enough to take a few lessons from teenagers with smartphone cameras.