Future Tense

Women Tilt Their Heads More, and Other Findings From a Rigorous Analysis of Selfies

Model Ireland Baldwin, daughter of Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, tilts her head just a little for her selfie.


Photo by Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Samsung

For a phenomenon born lately of the webcam and front-facing smartphone camera, the “selfie” has been subject to a significant amount of media dissection. Instagram user Jennifer Lee from Oakland, Calif., is said to have shared the first shot of herself on the photo sharing app with the tag #selfie in 2011, and from there, a thousand high brow think pieces and hand-wringing laments have flowed.

While selfie hubris surely reached a peak in 2013, being declared the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year, digital culture experts Lev Manovich and Daniel Goddemeyer wanted to put this technological self-documentation under a more scientific microscope. They launched their Selfiecity project in late 2013 to quantatively search for Instagram selfie patterns around the world. If you want to see a selection of women in glasses in Berlin who lean left, you are in the right place.

For one week in December 2013, their team gathered thousands of photos off Instagram. The photos, selected from New York, Bangkok, Moscow, São Paulo, and Berlin, were narrowed down to 640 selfies from each city with the help of Amazon’s Mechanical Workers. The images were then subject to high-level face analysis with the help of Orbeus Inc.’s software, sorting by the presence of visual cues like smiles, glasses, and orientation of the head. The result is a sophisticated data visualization.

Their findings seem to confirm some of our preconceptions of the selfie. Selfie taking is the sport of the young, unless you’re Geraldo Rivera: 23.7 is the estimated median age. More women than men take selfies, unless they’re over 30, in which case more men do (pinging Geraldo again).

National stereotypes also bear out. People in Bangkok and São Paulo smile the most in selfies, while Muscovites are predictably dour, smiling the least, and New York and Berlin somewhere in between.

What we should thank Manovich and Goddemeyer for most, perhaps, is their analysis of the head tilt. The above-the-shoulders-sister of the classic Facebook profile pic pose, “The Awkward Lean,” the head tilt is clearly the definitive head angle of our time. The average amount of head tilt in a selfie is 50 percent higher for women than for men: (12.3 degrees vs. 8.2 degrees).* And, they tell us, Brazilians lean the farthest, with the average São Paulo woman tilting her head to a significant 16.9 degrees. The study only lacks a data subset of duck face and sparrow face to be truly complete.

The selfie has been covered microscopically perhaps because its popularity seems to embody what society thinks to be the ills of young: narcissism, over-sharing, and endless aping of celebrity culture. However, Selfiecity found that only a small amount of the photos they analyzed were actual selfies. They make up only about 4 percent of Instagram. #Catsofinstagram might be a worthy study for the Selfiecity team, given that British Internet users are almost three times more likely to share cat-related photos than selfies, according to research conducted by network Three.

Still, the age of the selfie is not over. Humans have never been able to not look at themselves. And when we have #selfiefriday, #selfiesunday, #selfieoftheday, and #selfiesfordays, and surely someday soon, the hologram selfie, the data need never stop flowing.

Correction, Feb. 24, 2014: This blog post originally and incorrectly stated that on average, women tilt their heads 150 percent farther than men do in selfies. They tilt their heads 50 percent farther.