Celebrity selfies have value—just don’t try to sell them

July 17, 2014
July 17, 2014

Recently, Taylor Swift wrote a tragically naïve, but cheerfully optimistic editorial for the Wall Street Journal. She concluded that the future of music is wrapped up in the cultivation of deeply emotional bonds between fans and performers. “There are a few things I have witnessed becoming obsolete in the past few years,” she noted, “the first being autographs. I haven’t been asked for an autograph since the invention of the iPhone with a front-facing camera. The only memento ‘kids these days’ want is a selfie. It’s part of the new currency, which seems to be ‘how many followers you have on Instagram.'”

Swift raises an interesting point: have selfies with celebrities replaced the demand for celebrity autographs?

Autograph collecting is certainly not the robust sport it was once, especially among millennials who’d rather go home with an Instagram of a celebrity encounter than handwritten chicken scratch on a page. The New Republic pretty swiftly (no pun intended) laid to rest the autograph vs. selfie debate: “If the point of an autograph is to show off a personal connection with a star, then a selfie that can be shared on Facebook or Twitter is more apt than an autograph. If the goal is to have something that may gain monetary value, then selfies are worthless. Truly devoted fans… combine both trends: They take pictures with celebrities, then return to get their selfies signed.”

Taylor Swift, however, still signs autographs regularly at festivals and there’s “industrial-scale autograph peddling” on merchandise happening on her website, Business Week reminds us. Rare autographs, like those of Shakespeare or John Lennon, can fetch into the millions and sports memorabilia signed by players remain viable. Still, many sub-industries and trades that once supported celebrity autographs are vanishing. The selfie has become a new form of commodifying the celebrity in the age of social media.

Blogger Sarah Gram once eloquently stated that the smartphone self-portrait is always about the (gendered) body and labor under capitalism. If we think of the celebrity also as a human commodity (media outlets love to speculate about how much Angelia Jolie or Will Smith is “worth”)—the selfie with a celebrity is an exponential commodity.

Selfies are commodities in the sense that they can have tremendous use value. Think of all the benefits you can accrue from sharing that photo of you and William Shatner that you snapped at ComicCon: it can boost your self-worth as your friends on Facebook and Twitter like it and your popularity rises as new followers and friends join you. If you happen to be in the business of selling a product, perhaps your shared selfie with a celebrity can have indirect promotional value. If you’re a musician, maybe it can spike album sales or concert tickets or make you seem a whole cooler or more authentic than you have any right to be. The exchange value of a selfie is literal: it has do with how many people give it attention and like it or share it or retweet or re-gram it, and how that you choose to let that attention impact you.

In an interesting reversal, Indie musician Loke Rahbek recently made headlines by asking fans to email him full-frontal naked selfies in exchange for a copy of his cassette-only new album. Call it a sketchy publicity stunt, but it also works as a savvy commentary on the financial (de)valuation of art in the age of social media. Is a naked fan selfie worth as much as, or more, than a musical recording in 2014? Is Rahbek’s stunt the perverse flipside of Taylor Swift’s vision of a deep bond between the artist and fan?

For quite some time, the exchange value of celebrity autographs have been rooted in the fact that the celebrity signature is the labor product of a unique individual captured in time and space—it is that rare souvenir of a meeting or encounter with a famous individual, possibly never to be repeated again. Unless it is mass-produced, the celebrity autograph is low supply and high demand.

Selfies, on the other hand, are ephemeral, easily duplicated, and mass-recirculated. No one wants to pay heaps of money for a selfie that’s been shared endless times. And many contemporary celebrities are overexposed—their aura is diminished, to coin Walter Benjamin. The selfie is sometimes played out even before it circulates.

Still, if you managed to shoot an incriminating selfie with a celebrity or snap a selfie with a celebrity who’s a recluse, you could have something financially valuable on your hands. The app Scoopshoot allows you to earn money from your smartphone photos by connecting you directly with media outlets that will purchase them. But don’t hold your breath: there’d have to be something uniquely compelling about your selfie in such a way that the image could exist and circulate as a story on its own for it to earn major bucks. The minimum requirement for making money from a selfie is that you have to capture an expression, an activity, or an moment that is singular, unique, and non-repeatable.

A perfect example of a photograph that does fit those criteria is the “most famous selfie of all time,” taken at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony. When host Ellen DeGeneres rounded up fellow celebrities including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Lupita Nyong’o Kevin Spacey, and Bradley Cooper, the resulting photo (taken by Cooper on DeGeneres’ Samsung Galaxy 3) quickly became the most retweeted image in history: more than 40 million people shared it. It wasn’t long before we learned that product placement for the selfie stunt had been craftily engineered by Samsung, and in a hubris-filled rant, Publicis CEO Maurice Levy (who handles marketing for Samsung) valued the image at $800 million to $ 1 billion.

Fans used to clamor for celebrity autographs to capture a piece of a famous star. They still do, but a selfie with that star can go much further in the age of social networking. It’s just that the average selfie—no matter what celebrity is in it—has little to no resale value. If you really want to earn money from selfies, however, head to Silicon Valley. The real work that selfies do under capitalism is to substantially increase the financial valuation of the tech companies that make the products you use to share them.

Follow Jason on Twitter@jasonkingsays. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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