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Selfie Science: Why This User-Generated Content Makes Us Happy

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Whether you’re a full-time tweeter or a self-professed Luddite, we’re now living in a time where social media largely defines and shapes current cultural trends and marketing strategies that have come to rely heavily on user-generated content. Trends like the selfie, a concept that would have been unheard of just 10 years ago (when Twitter first burst onto the scene) or even six years ago (when Apple’s first front-facing camera appeared in the iPhone 4), are now so common the term is firmly established in the dictionary.

The selfie has its fair share of haters. Just Google “selfie” and “culture” and you get a lot of concerns over narcissism, body image, and objectification. This is a good thing—we should always be critical of how shifts in technology are impacting society. But do selfies have an upside?

The Positive Psychology of Selfies

In a recent study out of the University of California, researchers found that regularly taking selfies and sharing them with your friends can help make you a happier person. This comes in stark contrast to other lines of thinking that insist that selfies work to increase the prevalence of objectification, narcissism, and issues surrounding self-esteem and body image.

The researchers found that the act of smiling to take a selfie can make people happier. This aligns with other research showing that positive facial expressions (whether genuine or forced) can help people maintain a more positive mood through stressful periods, and can make them better able to endure stressful events. It seems that these effects on positive mood are even greater when you observe yourself doing them, such as in a mirror (or in a selfie). The researchers also found that sharing selfies with friends and family made people calmer.

In a compelling paper published in Consumption Markets and Culture, the author argues that selfies are among the most effect outlets for self-definition available to us today. They are the most socially relevant forms of self-expression and allow for a greater degree of creative thinking and self-fashioning than may have been previously possible. Just think about apps like Instagram and Snapchat that let you add filters, stickers, and draw on your photos.

Sibel and Bri

Others talk about the potential of the selfie as a new platform for creating alternative definitions of the self and social roles through a process of self-awareness and agency as opposed to self-objectification.

This is significant because we know from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that self-actualization and self-expression are among the highest psychological needs we have.

What Happens When User-Generated Content Meets Psychological Fulfillment?

So what does this mean for content creators and marketers? This means that selfies have a psychological staying power greater than that of many other more transient trends in user-generated content.

Selfies have a psychological staying power greater than that of many other more transient trends in user-generated content.”
This is borne out by the fact that everyone from Obama to the Pope are jumping on the selfie train, which shows no signs of slowing down.

At an individual level, the kinds of positive emotions cultivated simply by the act of smiling for a selfie lead to more open-mindedness and better problem-solving skills, which are hallmarks of the caliber of creative thinking required to stand out in today’s overcrowded social media-crazed marketing landscape. It’s not just important to have a happy team, it’s important to cultivate the kinds of corollary strengths that happiness brings to the workplace.

For your creative marketing efforts, offering ways for your audience to envision themselves in your campaign not only establishes positive emotions in association with your company or brand but it goes deeper, making you an active enabler of your audience’s continual striving for self-actualization.

Why Wired‘s Selfie Cover Was So Brilliant

One of the standout selfie-driven campaigns in recent memory came from Wired UK. Never one to miss out on a tech trend, Wired jumped on the selfie phenomenon early in 2014 by offering readers a chance to appear on its cover. Wired‘s iPad app let users take a selfie, which would then be overlaid with the Wired magazine logo and the tagline “I’ve gone viral!” that users could share to their social networks. Wired then chose a selection of the best covers to feature on its website, while the winner got their selfie published in the following print issue.

The campaign literally invited people to envision their self-image as defined by the Wired brand. The chance to be featured added a gamification component which encouraged users to get creative with their self-expression and use that to connect with others like friends, family, etc., online. Wired took advantage of an opportunity to make a deeper psychological connection with its readers.

Whichever side of selfie debate you fall on, love it or hate it, selfies may be more than a passing phase for society. When you look at some of the positive psychology behind selfies, there are some significant reasons to give the trend a chance in your creative marketing campaigns.

For more insights into the psychology behind social media trends and technology, subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter.

Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at AnewTraveller.com. Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at nicola.lauren.brown@gmail.com

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