Why do people take selfies? It’s not all about narcissism, says a new study from Brigham Young University. Based on survey responses and interviews with a small group of social media users, researchers identified three categories of people who snap and share the iconic digital self-portraits: communicators, autobiographers, and self-publicists.
Communicators are really interested in two-way conversation, according to the study authors, and they take selfies primarily to engage friends, family, or followers. The researchers cite actress Anne Hathaway’s recent “I voted” selfie as an example of a “communicator” post, as it sparked a spirited discussion about civic duty.
Autobiographers, on the other hand, use selfies as a tool to record important events in their lives. They still want others to see their photos, but they’re more interested in preserving these moments than in social engagement and feedback. Astronaut Scott Kelley, who posted space-suit selfies while chronicling his year in space, is a good example.
And finally, there are the self-publicists. These are the people who love documenting their entire lives, say the study authors, and hope to present themselves in a positive light. The classic example? You guessed it: the Kardashians.
To find these selfie types, master’s students in the department of communications gave surveys and follow-up interviews to 46 participants, ages 18 to 45, all of whom had taken multiple selfies in the past. The participants were asked to sort 48 different motivations for taking selfies— “to show off my looks,” for example, or “to discover new sides of myself”—into one of three categories: agree, disagree, or neutral/uncertain.
The participants were then asked to rank their motivations, and answer open-ended questions about the choices they’d made. These results, published in the journal Visual Communication Quarterly, helped the researchers single out specific similarities and differences among the respondents.
Despite the celebrity examples given above, selfie types should, ideally, be self-defined. “They speak to your own motivation—so I can’t just look at someone’s Instagram and know that they’re a communicator,” says Holiday, who’s now a PhD student at Texas Tech University. “It’s really about why they’re posting selfies, which may or may not be obvious from their profile.”
And while not everyone will fit neatly into one of these three boxes, Holiday says that reflecting on what motivates you to snap selfies can help you learn more about yourself.
“It’s good to know that not everyone who posts pictures of themselves is a narcissist,” he says. (In fact, self-publicist was the smallest of the three groups identified in the study.) “And it was interesting to identify this weird and complicated mix of people who wanted to preserve things for themselves but also wanted to communicate or get feedback and validation.”
The small-scale study wasn’t meant to make predictions or recommendations about people based on their selfie type, but the authors say it lays the groundwork for larger research projects that may do just that.
For example, the findings could be used to “as a launching pad to explore the social, economic, and psychological effects of selfies, and how they sustain social media platforms, human interaction, and personal identity,” they wrote in their paper.
Ultimately, says Holiday, understanding why people take selfies may help researchers better understand how the iconic snapshots can shape our thoughts, our moods, and our lives. And in a world where digital media is so ubiquitous, that’s important.
“If I post a selfie and get a response from 100 people or 500 people, that does something to me personally—my motivations, my psyche,” he says. “Identifying who we are, and helping to figure out the kind of people we want to be, can be helpful—whether it’s improving relationships, increasing self esteem, or setting new goals for ourselves.”