NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 42

Design Today

Lev Manovich’s “Selfie City” Project

Emily Verba Fischer

Even if one does not subscribe to the selfie (or selfie culture in general) — it doesn’t mean one can’t be fascinated with the hold selfies have on our visual culture across the world. Platforms like Instagram and Facebook have allowed image-making style patterns to be analyzed as large data sets. Do styles spread like wildfire or are there distinguishable differences between cultures?
The “Selfie City” project “investigates the style of self-portraits (selfies) in five cities across the world” (Bangkok, Berlin, Moscow, New York, and Sao Paulo). It is an effort led by Dr. Lev Manovich, who is the project coordinator and the lead in the theory and analysis portions. Dr. Manovich is a professor of the PhD program in Computer Science at The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). He is also the Director of the Cultural Analytics Lab there, and a faculty member at Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design in Moscow. Other team members for “Selfie City” include Moritz Stefaner (creative direction and data visualization), Mehrdad Yazdani (data analysis), and Dr. Dominikus Baur (data visualization and UI).

Selected selfies are analyzed using a mix of theoretic, artistic and quantitative methods. The website states, “we present our findings about the demographics of people taking selfies, their poses and expressions. Rich media visualizations (imageplots) assemble thousands of photos to reveal interesting patterns. The interactive selfiexploratory allows you to navigate the whole set of 3200 photos. Finally, theoretical essays discuss selfies in the history of photography, the functions of images in social media, and methods and dataset.”

Image plot visualizations
Within the imageplot visualizations, it is revealed that each city has an overarching different style with regards to selfie-taking. Images for each city are arranged horizontally by head tilt. Easy-to-click buttons allow viewers to see the whole selfie, the cropped face only, and a version where the face is cropped and rotated to a unified 90-degree angle.

In the “Selfiexploratory” interactive data visualization within the website, viewers may tweak variables of demographic, pose, facial features (e.g. eyes, mouth, and glasses), and mood (such as calm, angry, happy). Questions are investigated such as “do angry people tilt their heads more strongly? And what is a characteristic mood for people in Moscow? Find out!”

Data Collection and Analysis
The “Selfie City” project is based on a unique dataset compiled by analyzing “tens of thousands of images from each city, both trout image analysis and human judgment.” How do you collect and filter all of this data? The team collected a total of 656,000 images from Instagram and, from that pool, randomly selected 120,000 photos (20,000-30,000 photos per city). Two to four Amazon Mechanical Turk workers tagged each photo. From these, the Mechanical Turk workers were asked the simple question, “does this photo shows a single selfie?” The rest of their process was as follows: 
We submitted these photos to Mechanical Turk again, asking three “master workers” (i.e. more skilled workers) not only to verify that a photo shows a single selfie, but also to guess the age and gender of the person. On the resulting set of selfie images, we ran automatic face analysis, supplying us with algorithmic estimations of eye, nose and mouth positions, the degrees of different emotional expressions, etc. As the final step, one or two members of the project team examined all these photos manually. While most photos were tagged correctly, we found some mistakes. We wanted to keep the data size the same (to make visualizations comparable), so our final set contains 640 selfie photos for every city.

Some of the major results included the fact that people take less selfies than you may think. Only 3–5% of images analyzed were actually selfies. Additionally, significantly more women took selfies than men in each city. The conclusions found that there are “1.3 times as many in Bangkok,” “1.9 times more in Berlin,” and “4.6 times more in Moscow.”

Theory — Lev Manovich
Lev Manovich poses the following question to spur further research: “how can history of photography help to better understand selfies phenomena? How can we approach theoretically social media images in general?” This is a very worthwhile question for designers. 

The project, “Selfie City”, describes how five different cultures use photography similarly and differently to depict themselves (through selfies on Instagram). It is important for designers to witness how design trends emerge, spread, and either change or homogenize through the medium of the Internet. This project deals directly with identity and the branding of oneself, and the Internet’s role in the design processes.

Emily Verba Fischer

(b. 1982) is an Ohio native who returned to the Midwest after receiving her master's degree from the Basel School of Design. Prior to her studies in Switzerland, she lived and practiced design for a variety of corporate and cultural clients in New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and the French Alps. Through these international experiences, she developed a teaching approach that emphasizes the concept of global citizenry in addition to design acuity. She believes that maximizing understanding of other cultures through interpersonal connection and the shared language of design can create a more empathic world for all. Emily is currently an Assistant Professor at the Myron E. Ullman, Jr. School of Design in the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). She frequently travels abroad to share her research and pedagogical activities. Her work has been featured in exhibitions and publications nationally and internationally.

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