What Everyone Is Getting Wrong About Vaccine Selfies

On April 1, New York Times fashion director and chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman published a piece in the paper titled “Enter the Age of the Vaccine Selfie,” and it was described as, “From topless politicians to designers, it’s a thing. And it’s part of a longer tradition than you might expect.” Friedman’s article explores the history of public figures getting vaccinations, and details some of the recent images we’ve seen of our current politicians and celebrities getting their COVID-19 shots. She goes on to say:

“Perhaps that does explain the dressing choice: Many of us have been hiding inside for so long, feeling scared and powerless, that there’s something liberating about taking clothes off. Though the answer may also be simply that we’ve forgotten how to dress for public-ish injections. Or the need to do something to get attention in an age of social media chaos. If everyone’s taking selfies, how do you signal that your selfie is an important selfie?”

Vaccine selfies do exist on the historical trajectory of publicly documenting vaccinations that Friedman lays out, but it overlooks one major historical, technological shift — social media and the rise of the front-facing camera. Friedman acknowledges these developments: “First, social media really took off (it’s hard to remember, but the iPhone was introduced in 2007, which was the same year Facebook and Twitter went global. Instagram didn’t appear until 2010). But Friedman glosses over them after that, and even examining vaccination selfies from a public health standpoint can’t do the phenomenon justice. We must also consider image-sharing practices specifically from a social media perspective.

In only speaking to public health researchers, a computer science researcher, and an engineering professor, Friedman overlooks an entire body of researchers — media and communication researchers, and even more specifically, Internet and selfie researchers. In doing so, her article falls into a trap that is routinely debunked by all the aforementioned scholars: Technological determinism, or the idea that technology is responsible for all social and cultural movements. Technological determinism cannot explain vaccine selfies, nor can it explain why Elvis, Barack Obama, and Gerald Ford getting their vaccines in public may have the implications that they did. Yes, from a public health standpoint, seeing notable figures get a vaccine may increase someone else’s likelihood of getting one, but it doesn’t explain why average, everyday people — not designer Marc Jacobs or Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis — take a vaccine selfie and post it online.

I’ve spent the last decade researching selfies and how and why people take and share them. As we entered the 2010s, selfies were routinely decried as harbingers of an increasingly narcissistic culture, and while this sentiment does sometimes remain, selfies have become such a common occurrence in the social media landscape that many don’t think twice before taking, sharing, or looking at one.

My research has refuted claims of selfies as narcissistic, instead proposing that selfies are a way of documenting oneself to stand out, aligning with larger bodies of research onto digital celebrity and influencers. Additionally, I have discussed in The Journal of Popular Culture how selfies are a way to control’s one’s image-narrative, particularly for marginalized groups. In a media landscape rife with stereotypes and inaccurate representations, selfies allow one to take, share, and control their own image and “talk back” to these inaccurate narratives. My doctoral dissertation at the University of Georgia also examined divorce selfies, and how in taking and sharing them, individuals change the narrative around something that has been so stigmatized for so long.

Vaccine selfies are all about changing the narrative.

After my second Moderna shot.

In the last year, if you’ve been following social distancing protocols and lockdown restrictions, what cool, exciting, fun things were there to document? There were no trips. There were no boozy brunches. The format of taking a selfie with a friend was quite literally a violation of social distancing if that person wasn’t in your quarantine bubble — squeezing together to fit in your camera’s frame is way less than six feet apart. We could only take so many selfies with our pets, plants, and sourdough bread starters. In the COVID-19, era we were all subject to a life event we didn’t have control over. On a large scale, none of us were really in control of our narratives. Vaccines are the end of this.

By taking vaccine selfies, individuals one, finally have a noteworthy event to document, some for the first time in fourteen months. Two, we are taking back our lives and our COVID-19 narratives by showing that yes, finally, there is an end in sight. In this sense, Friedman is right. There is something liberating about the vaccine and the selfies we take of them, but not just because we want to take our clothes off (Added tip: Vaccine selfies are better than posting a picture of your vaccination card since crawlers will scan these images online and steal your personal information).

Dutch Internet researcher Jose van Dijck has long documented how photography, cameras, and selfies changed social media practice, and one quote from 2008 changed my academic career forever: Photography in the digital and early social media age had undergone a shift, and it now privileged “live communication instead of storing pictures of life.” By this, van Dijck meant we were no longer taking photographs solely to look back on one day in albums or in frames. We still did this, sure, but there was a new primary motivation for digital photo sharing when shared to a social media site: To document and communicate what we were doing in the present moment. This cultural shift was not due solely to digital cameras, front-facing phone cameras, or social media platforms, but those combined with a social imperative to connect and document our lives in ways that were true to us.

Vaccine selfies document a marked shift in an era where we didn’t have a lot of say over our circumstances. By choosing to get vaccinated, we are reclaiming our narratives and actively communicating to the world what we wanted for over a year: “I’m finally safe. It’s actually going to be over soon.”

Professor of digital media studies and technology. Into all things internet and dogs.