Selfies have created a huge industry—and they’re not going away

Elena Scotti/Fusion

The long-maligned and marginalized selfie has come a long way.

During Apple’s unveiling of its new phone earlier this month, SVP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi used his stage time to quickly snap a few selfies using the iPhone 6S’s new 3D Touch feature. iPhone 6S owners can tap lightly on the camera icon on their phones to pull open a menu. The top item in the list of options? “Take a selfie”, which immediately activates the front facing camera.

Along with improvements to the camera, now boasting 5 megapixels, the phone’s screen addresses the longstanding problem of how to take selfies in dark settings. The screen can now light up the face of the selfie taker and, hopefully, anyone else gathered around his or her phone for the shot.The world’s largest technology company has adapted its products because better selfie-taking is now a significant selling point. Selfies matter to a company’s bottom line.

This reflects a broader trend: the selfie has become the center of its own economic ecosystem, compelling existing businesses to adapt accordingly and fueling the creation of entirely new businesses. The growth of selfie products, software, or services means real money is riding on the continued relevance and growth of selfies as a form of cultural expression.

One part of the new selfie economy is obvious to anyone who has traveled to a tourist site recently: the selfie stick. Along with selfie-specific hardware like selfie tripods, selfie flash attachments, and Bluetooth triggers, these are distributed seemingly everywhere in the world, from Best Buys in Los Angeles to informal markets in Manila and tourist stands in Rome. On the lowest end, devices like Bluetooth triggers can cost as little as $3 and selfie sticks as little as $5. It goes up from there: the XShot Pro selfie stick markets at a whopping $75 USD.

These products are flying off of shelves: it was estimated that over 100,000 selfie sticks sold in the United States in December 2014 alone. Feeding this demand is a supply chain of designers, manufacturers, and distributors, all making at least a portion of their livelihoods thanks to the popularity of the selfie as a cultural form.

It doesn’t end there. There is software designed specifically for the selfie, including China’s popular MeituPic (which translates literally as “Beautiful Picture”) and the viral global sensation MyIdol. These apps take selfies to the next level with advanced photo editing features and even the ability to transform one’s images to GIFs. Some of these apps generate their revenues through sales, others through advertising.

Technically speaking, the act of the selfie — defined simply as a photo taken of one’s self, often for the purpose of sharing to social media — has been around arguably for as long as cameras have existed. What is different now is that the idea of the selfie has emerged as a distinct category of activity, made prominent by the easy creation enabled by cameras on smartphones and the easy distribution and consumption made possible through social networks. In acquiring a name, now enshrined in the English language, it has become something which can be referenced, productized, and marketed.

Many social networks like Instagram, Snapchat and Line, while not solely focused on selfies, have features and side products that make selfies fun. It would be hard to estimate the percentage of media circulating on these networks that is composed of selfies, but custom filters and stickers enhance what might otherwise be a fairly standard-looking photo of oneself and one’s friends. To the extent that the massive popularity of selfies (and celebrity selfies as a category of content, in particular) supports the flow of traffic that translates into advertising dollars, we can attribute some percentage of the revenue of these platforms to this cultural form.

We can zoom out even further, broadening our scope to include services built around the selfie. Consider selfie studios, popular in Hong Kong and throughout many parts of Asia and Asian diasporic communities. These studios are set up like traditional photo studios, with props, booths and cameras, but unlike traditional studios, the photos are taken by the clientele, rather than professional photographers. These studios arguably stretch the definition of “selfie”, which might be traditionally described as a photo taken with one’s outstretched hand. However, their widespread use and the direct reference to selfies indicates selfie culture’s influence on their popularity and perhaps a broadening of the term’s meaning amongst different English-speaking cultures.

In the West, we might also encounter selfie classes. General Assembly, the popular computer programming school, has offered a class on selfie management. The class focuses on both the craft and technique of selfies and the methods of online persona management that selfies allow for. Universities have long touched on self portraiture, but now courses at places like USC, UCLA and Indiana University Northwest also explore and theorize around the role of the selfie in media production and society.

And for every class, there must be reading. Kim Kardashian Selfish, selling for $9.97 USD, is just one of many books specifically around the subject of selfies. Add these to the many articles, such as this one, written about selfies, and we can consider the media ecosystem that is part and parcel with the selfie industry. These pieces promote, dissect, critique and discuss selfies, their cultural history and future trajectory, making ad dollars or direct revenue for publishers along the way.

This is all to say that selfies, and the selfie industry, are huge. Once hardware, accessories, software, services, books and thoughtpieces are added up, we’re talking about a cultural form that potentially commands tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars worldwide.

And of course there is the hardware of the smartphone itself: front-facing cameras on phones were a rare feature until Apple included them on the iPhone 4 in 2010. Other manufacturers have put money into making their smartphones more selfie-friendly, by for example, adding a swiveling camera module. The iPhone 6S, though, reflects a notable investment in selfie hardware, including as Business Insider notes, a custom display chip and higher resolution lens to make the new iPhone’s selfie screen work.

These are real investments in research and development—teams of smartphone researchers snapping selfies in night clubs up and down San Francisco—not to mention the increased cost of production for every phone outfitted with a second camera.

What we see emerging is a cultural practice operating in a virtuous cycle with the economic value it generates. Each technology, service and software supporting the selfie trend also makes it ever easier, more fun, and more socially acceptable to start doing and sharing. That produces more selfies, which in turn makes it a more attractive cultural practice to cater to and design for. And the cycle starts again, each time engraving the selfie ever deeper into the technologies that we use and rely on.

So, for those hoping that this whole “selfie thing” is going to “blow over,” fearing what it implies about our culture, you may be in for quite a long wait.

Tim Hwang is a writer and researcher at Data & Society. He currently serves as research director of the California Selfie Conservancy, a think tank focused on the economics and public policy of selfie photography. He recently co-authored “The Container Guide”, an Audubon-style field guide to identifying shipping containers in the wild, and is founder of the Awesome Foundation, a global network of giving circles supporting awesomeness. He is @timhwang and timhwang.org.

An “An Xiao” Mina leads the product team at Meedan, an organization building tools for global journalism and translation, and she co-founded The Civic Beat, a research collective looking at the creative side of civic technology. Mina has spoken at venues like the Personal Democracy Forum, the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium, Creative Mornings, and the Aspen Institute, and she has contributed writing to publications like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hyperallergic, and the Atlantic. She can be found online at @anxiaostudio.