What's the Secret to Selfies?

If you think about it, most people you meet fit their profession relatively well. You can spot a hairdresser, a banker or a journalist a mile off; they assume a character that fits their role, often based on their own subconscious stereotypes. For journalists like me, it saves a lot of time, we could probably make up a description of someone we've never met in person for a colourfully descriptive piece, and be 90% right.

More fool the one who tries to do that with Professor Lev Manovich of City University New York and director at the Software Studies Initiative. Author of seven books and on the 2013 List of 25 People Shaping the Future of Design, also in 2014 dubbed as one of 50 "most interesting people building the future" (The Verge). In appearance he dispels any preconceptions of what an academic should, or does look like. Manovich leans against our table, speaking into the mic like a rockstar receiving an award. His designer gear and modern metropolitan hairstyle not unlike that of a top fashion designer. Standing with Lev, one can barely imagine anyone else studying his subject matter at such a level in 2015.

“Why study selfies?” I ask. As if waiting for the starting gun he launches in his almost street style of speaking with a distinctly Russian base:

“I’m always struck by the fact that, actually we have no idea about the places where we live. So what I mean, in any city I can get a map, the map will say here’s old town, here’s a hotel, here’s a nightclub, here’s the best restaurants… but if I want to say, ok, who is actually living in the town, in different areas, in every building, what are their ages, what are their ethnicities, where do people go to school… I want to know, what are the different businesses in every building, like, I basically want to have some transparency, some kind of cognitive understanding of, like, what’s the space around me; we have no idea!” He’s warming up:

“What we have done is collected images which people shared in a particular city, like in a particular part, and try to collect all visible Instagrams, and using computer methods plus the analysis to try to cluster those images based on visual semantic properties, and what I actually found out is that, what you think Instagram is, it's just the surface, and its an iceberg. That behind this iceberg, of beautiful girls drinking cappuccino in fashionable outfits, right, yes it exists, but behind it you actually find more everyday life in the more blurry photos, and more local than you can imagine.”

It becomes immediately apparent that this man is very passionate about the information he collects from photographs people take of themselves and post on social networks, and the more he explains, the more amazing it becomes:

“Through APIs (and there are lots of different platforms) we can use this data as a way to basically… not simply say, here’s all the places around the world where people tweet, but actually create more detailed, more meaningful, more multilayered maps of communities, so we actually understand, you know, like, where are we? Because I think what we actually live in is what I call, opaque spaces, you know?”

Opaque spaces? OK. The brilliance of the man begins to send me into a temporary state of confusion, it shows on my face, Lev sees and slowly says:

“By using social media data, you may pretty easily, without spending years and lots of money, you can learn perhaps a lot about your community, about your neighbourhood, than if you basically just try to figure out what are all the companies in every building; try to get data from surveys which would be obsolete. To that extent you can use the social media data, which is geolocated to actually map your places around you, and try to understand where you live, which is to me a very basic human need, right? I want to understand, like, you know, where am I?”

Got it, I think. Lev’s now on form, this stuff excites him. On his project’s website www.selfiecity.net, he and his team take data from several million selfies, and along with analysis software have produced a range of beautiful graphs and charts based on the extracted data, from background colour of the selfie photos to food and drink featured alongside the subjects. It’s astounding stuff, information hidden deep within a seemingly shallow and ephemeral phenomenon.

“A nice idea about collecting data is that it allows you to be behind the scenes, it allows you to see what's going on as oppose to what people are going to see consciously, and also because we couldn't see it consciously - not exactly what we do, not because were lying but because we maybe want to look good. Anything can be turned into data right? And you have to remember that not everything is easily quantifiable. I can capture photographs of this place and you, but I still don't know what happened here. But there will be data we get take from those photos.”

He reveals a serious side as he begins to speak about the relevance of this information to the startup community, and goes on to say:

“So the way you can give a lesson to young entrepreneurs, ok, enjoy your big data but think outside of it, right? So think what is missing, you can use computers, but also people, to say this is what’s going on in my neighbourhood, or that’s what I had for dinner, right? It can be little bits … Don’t turn your back on other methods, or your eyes, or intelligence, or intelligence of other people.”

Lev Manovich on stage at Tallinn Architecture Biennale. Photo: Tõnu Tunnel

Speaking to this man you quickly see how he attained his title within the 50 most interesting people building the future, he makes you feel like you have been allowed into the secret room, a window on the future.

I try my luck, and ask: “What are the dangers of this information getting into the wrong hands?”

“I don’t think in these terms, to me it’s a meaningless … and I don’t know what’s ‘the wrong hands’, what’s for you ‘wrong hands’ for me may be interesting people … I don't think in these terms … danger? It’s a journalistic question. What’s good and what’s dangerous, I don’t care! What’s interesting and what’s not interesting, that’s what I care about.”

I was well and truly put in my place, maybe more of a typical journalist than I thought.