The Way We Stage Ourselves. Social Technology Meets Human Capital: A Semiotic Framework

Bo Kampmann Walther, University of Southern Denmark

Selfies are among the most predominant visual signs in the age of social media. Not so many years ago they were exotic attachments to the necessary sign-up steps of Facebook and the like; now they seem to be a genre of their own, spreading throughout a variety of channels, and even entering a ‘domestication’ of the intimate and sometimes awkward documentation of everyday life. How are we to grasp and conceptualise this phenomenon of the selfie, as sign, as social technology, and as a token of societal investment?

The initial cultural archetype of selfie posters seems to be underscored by the drive to tell a story. In turn, such storytelling, covers a spectrum whose endpoints are peoples’ desire to open up conversation and the sheer opportunity for promotion. But as entry makers and promoters, selfies are not autonomous signs; they are always contextualised artefacts. Their meaning is not embedded in some kind of essence underlying the actual makeup of the visual sign. Selfies must be viewed as constructs; they are the product of a semiosis that subtly juxtaposes the sign itself with the social context it is set in and only then becomes laden with meaning. Selfies that seemingly invite some sort of dialogue can also be carefully crafted, even manipulated in a foul sense, in order to gain access to a particular societal group. A selfie has to play by the rule. Similarly, the other end of the selfie-spectrum, the classically perceived narcissistic self-portrait (which often, unintentionally, mimics the Romantic image of vanitas, pointing towards both a radical proliferation of the self and the decay of the body), is in many cases not intentionally egotistic and sociopathically cynical, but rather the naïve derivative of social media participants eagerly trying to fit into and master the language of a certain ‘capital’.

This casual observation calls out for two kinds of explanation: One that considers the extremes and stigmatized ends of the selfie-spectrum (from open dialogue to closed narcissism) in light of societal reach, socio-semantic performance strategies, and the historically shifting public domain within which selfies are sited. Clearly, contemporary selfies, whether well-behaved, business like, carnivalesque commodification of teenage wildlife, or just plain old fashioned gazing into a smartphone’s camera, are set within a realm that cannot be pinpointed using the traditional categories of a ‘private’ and a ‘public’ sphere.
Another explanation, deeply interwoven with the first, has to do with the aforementioned semiosis. It must account for the ‘points’ in the ‘journey’ made by the selfie once it engages with the context it belongs to and reaches out to a sign consuming audience. The second explanation requires then a dynamic, semiotic framework. By joining theoretical stances from both these explanations, and providing a new synthesis, this paper hopes to arch out the initial guidelines for a proper dynamic, semiotic framework for the analysis of identity and social staging technology in contemporary pull-media.