A Brief History of the Selfie Economy

A Brief History of the Selfie Economy
Photo by Alfred Kenneally / Unsplash

With the publication of The Experience Economy in 1998, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore described a history of economic progress and proposed that experiences had recently emerged from services to become a distinct economic offering all their own.

In the era of the experience economy, brand marketers needed to facilitate experiences to drive the value of their products. Starbucks emerged from this period to serve as a kind of a third space between home and work. You weren't just going to Starbucks to get a cup of coffee, but to enjoy the environment and ambient mood that a Starbucks store was designed to provide.

Now, thanks in great part to Instagram, we’ve entered into a new era where our experiences exist only as a means to create images that we can project into the world to elevate and shape perceptions about ourselves.

This means that brands are challenged not only to interact with individual consumers, but with customers who are consciously creating their own personal brands through the images they create and project about where they go, who they’re with, how they dress and how they spend their time. Many consumers have become aware that they must act as the publishers and publicists of their own stories.

For a product marketer, this means that while the role of the brand in the experience economy was to serve as the stager of an experience for the customer, in the era of the image economy, the brand serves as an enabler of the customer’s image.The marketer must now consider that the very image a brand creates for the customer, however superficial and transient, is the product.

Origins of the Image Economy

Art and creative imagery originally existed in sacred places and were meant to communicate ideas and spark contemplation.

In today’s image economy, digital photography makes both the creation and distribution of images cheap and disposable and has led to endless hours of thumb scrolling through homogeneous imagery for many of us. This surplus of digital photography has made it more difficult for any one image to break through in the culture and make an impact.

The history of the selfie--a cultural timeline

  • In 2003, the artist Olafur Eliasson debuted his Weather Project in the great hall at the Tate Modern in London. In a time before social media and image sharing, Weather Project created a unique space where people could enter as complete strangers, experience the artwork, and feel a sense of connection to the art and to the people around them.
  • Facebook launched in 2004 followed by MySpace in 2005 and these platforms quickly became a breeding ground of teenage self portraiture and the display of group imagery from recent vacations and other shared experiences.
  • As recently as 2007, the long lines for selfies at Yoyoi Kusama's retrospectives and Infinity Rooms installations in art museums around the world were still yet to come but the launch of the iPhone that year would quickly change all that.
  • By 2009, culture had shifted to such a degree that on season three of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Kim stopped to take a selfie on her way to jail. So even by this point, people were interested to take photos of themselves to document, share and have others value the experiences that were happening to them.
  • With the launch of Instagram by late 2010, the focus on imagery and the sharing of that imagery both for its own sake and for monetization purposes only accelerated.
  • In 2014, comedian Ellen DeGeneres took her infamous Oscar selfie, and a magazine cover of Kim Kardashian “broke the internet”.

The Emergence of Content Farms

In 2015, Refinery29.com created 29Rooms, an experiential event which gave individuals permission to be out in the world with camera phones and to be shameless in the pursuit of a selfie.

Taking this trend towards an image economy to the extreme we saw the emergence and growth in so-called content farms, for-profit pop-up Instagramable museums such as the Dream Factory or the Museum of Ice Cream, temporary places built solely for selfies and social media content but devoid of any other cultural significance.

As these Instagramable museum experiences became mainstream trends, they allowed visitors to create and exchange meaning with others by simply by being present in these spaces and by documenting themselves in them.

So the paradox we face in the era of the image economy is that lack of meaning is more and that brands can put out imagery into the world that doesn’t have to communicate anything as long as it contains relevant cultural signifiers, however superficial they may be.

In my next post in this series, I’ll describe current trends by image makers that are breaking through in an era of visual clutter.

This is the first in a series of posts based in part on a presentation by Alexander Tran of the projects on The New Image Economy at NeueHouse in Hollywood in October 2019.