Millennial Think Tank: Self Expression, Selfies, and Personal Branding

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Last week we tackled the fascinating subject of Selfies, Self Expression, and what the phenomenon of Selfies means. Is this generation simply incredibly narcissistic, or is something deeper happening? Our panel included:

This post is a recap of our discussion, with the entire hangout embedded below:

The Selfie Statistics

GenY is often called “The Selfie Generation,” and it’s usually not meant as a positive description. Before we dig in, here are some facts to frame the discussion:

  • 55% of all Millennials have posted a Selfie (Pew Research)
  • 26% of all Americans have posted a Selfie (Pew Research)
  • Samsung states that 1/2 of all photos taken by 18 – 24 years olds are Selfies
  • 14% of all Selfies are digitally enhanced (Media Bistro)
  • 36% of people admit to altering Selfies (34% of men/13% of women) (Media Bistro)
  • 48% of all Selfies are posted to Facebook

Add to those statistics these interesting facts:

  • The first photographic Selfie was taken by a photographer in 1839
  • The Oxford English Dictionary named “Selfie” the Word of the Year in 2013
  • #selfie was first used on Flickr in 2004

Our questions and their answers follow.

What is your reaction to the title The Selfie Generation?

Jillian weighed in quickly, tired of so much negativity being thrown at Millennials. Since #selfie has been around since 2004 she thinks it’s clearly not the domain solely of Gen Y.

Brian doesn’t think of it as negative at all. He thinks his generation is showing off that they are happy with themselves, and pointed out that selfies are pictures of “people being people,” rather than worshiping celebrity like traditional media did before social.

Albert sees posting a selfie as a fairly courageous act; putting yourself out there is placing yourself in a vulnerable place where people will judge you. Since he doesn’t take Selfies, Hessie asked whether that meant Albert wasn’t self confident. His response was that he is acutely aware of his own image on social media, and uses his social presence in a professional manner because of that.

Jeremy agreed with Brian, but stated that there are different types of Selfies for different reasons. Samantha joined into help list them:

  • Selfies with friends.
  • A person’s first selfie
  • Ridiculous selfies
  • Bathroom selfie version 1: showcasing the female to demonstrate worth
  • Bathroom selfie 2: men showing how ripped they are

Jeremy talked about his friends viewing them as a form of social currency, saying some would even take down Selfies that didn’t rank well or collect affirmation.

What about altering Selfies?

I asked the panel that IF Selfies were about self expression, what does altering your image mean? Do you judge people for altering their selfie images? Tiffany compared photoshopping to putting on make-up and didn’t see it as anything that radical. The panel agreed.

Tiffany did reference the disingenuous hashtags #iwokeuplikethis, and #nomakeup, when it is quite clear that the person is wearing make up.

Jillian thinks the issue of altered or manufactured imagery as sort of irrelevant; if you meet someone in real life you’ll see them for who they are – otherwise the relationship is digital and not quite real anyway, so what does it matter if your image of that person isn’t based in reality?

Jeremy concurred saying that so many women he knows have great social media photos but don’t look nearly as good in real life; this is simply accepted. One would never assume that someone you met on social really looked as good in real life as their fabulous Selfies.

Are Selfies more real than what mainstream media fed us?

I had to mention my beautiful friend Maame Forson, who was my inspiration for this topic. As a darker skinned African American woman, she said that seeing other people’s Selfies, including people who looked like her, was so very new; what mainstream media fed ‘us’ prior to the rise of social media was not representative of many of us.

I wondered if Selfies are, despite the 14% of them that are digitally enhanced, more real than what we were viewing pre-social media. Samantha agreed with that sentiment; her friends who are mixed race, or not white, seeing selfies of each other gives a reassurance that there ARE people out there ‘like me.’

The Humble Brag Generation?

 Brian thinks brought up an interesting angle when he said:

“We have mastered the art of the humble brag.”

He thinks we are becoming more accustomed to the humble brag. Albert spoke of people putting up selfies with great news, like a large contract or new client, with the #Humble, and he always thinks “Are you, really?”  Both thought that this behavior to be more negative than posting a selfie.

Tinder, Selfies,Self Affirmation and Empowerment

Kiernan brought up Tinder, the app that is HUGE on college campuses. He explained that people put selfies up and then followers give you positive or negative feedback. Albert said that he knew people who have started businesses helping you create an image that will succeed on Tinder. It is a dating app, but with a lot of user manufactured or altered imaging. Albert thinks “it takes the dating out of dating.”

I asked what was the difference between creating an altered or manufacturer image for Tinder, and hiring someone to do a professional head shot for your business card? Is it really that different than what has gone on for generations?

Samantha juxtaposed that with marginalized populations like LGBTQ using selfies to demonstrate that they have worth. Brian brought up the Dove campaign focusing on Real Beauty as an example of selfies for empowerment. 

Albert added ‘Milestone Selfies’ to the discussion; perhaps it’s your first day of work at a new job.  Samantha pointed to people take Selfies when they’re ringing the “cancer free” bell at the hospital. Brian takes selfies with people he met originally met online and finally got to meet in real life; it’s a symbol of taking a relationship offline and into a new dimension.

Do people consider their image on social their Personal Brand?

I wanted to know if people outside of marketing actually thought of their online behavior as their personal brand. Samantha stated that she operates like she’s “always campaigning” online. Her father is a computer teacher; she was always aware that whatever she posted was permanent. She is very, very cognizant of the ‘brand’ she’s building online.

Brian agreed, and even sees his pictures with his children as part of that, because part of who he is, is a dad.

Tiffany’s early social experience included watching college athletes lose scholarships after bad online behavior, so she is very careful with what she puts out there, even if she isn’t thinking of her social feed as her brand.

Kiernan had a very different perspective, and isn’t worried about being discriminated against in the future because of his online behavior, even calling anyone who takes social media too seriously “a doofus.”


The most important insight from a business perspective was made by Brian; there are brands who get it, and brands that don’t. When the brand puts themself at the front of a ‘take a Selfie with us’ campaign, they fail. Being in the backdrop and allowing the Selfie taker (customer) to be at the forefront is the way to make it work.

It is obvious that there are many layers to Selfies; this phenomenon is much more complex than simple narcissism. As you’ve read, there are MANY reasons people take selfies. Self empowerment, story telling, updating friends and families – these are all reasons Selfies are posted.

And if you are remotely paying attention, you’ll know that although GenY may take more selfies than older folks, they certainly haven’t cornered the market on posting self images to social media. Of course, that won’t stop the media from using derogatory labels like The Selfie Generation to throw some shade Gen Y’s way. What stood out for me in this discussion is that once again our panel of Millennials had a firm graps of the realities of the social media world. They understand very well that images presented online may not be genuine.

Perhaps we have the title all wrong; perhaps they are really Generation Savvy.

Photo credit: Helga Weber via photopin cc.

2 thoughts on “Millennial Think Tank: Self Expression, Selfies, and Personal Branding

  1. hessiejones says:

    One thing I have learned from this session is that the selfie is as much a form of self-expression as it is being part of a group. There was no real distinguishing from the two. Where most of us (probably GenXers) have been used to taking pictures of our kids, families, friends etc, inevitably the picture taker is often left out of the photo. But members of this generation want to be captured in those moments, because they are part of them. It’s intuitive…. but more importantly… it’s possible now more than it was before. 

    When I posted on FB asking people to post their best selfies, it was an experiment to see whether this was indicative of Millennials or people, in general, who were comfortable with their image online. There was no real conclusion because everyone I crowdsourced were friends who spanned all generations. Some who were tagged that were Millennials have yet to post. I suspected that Boomers and GenXers would hesitate more but that wasn’t necessarily the case either.  

    More importantly, for someone who doesn’t really do selfies, I actually turned a corner on this one.

  2. AmyMccTobin says:

    hessiejones What struck me is the complexity of what Selfies actually mean, and how smart this generation is about that complexity.

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