All your #selfie questions, answered

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Image: Reuters/Yves Herman
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If this tweet by Indonesian president Joko Widodo graced your Twitter feed as it did ours, you may have glazed over the smiling faces, assuming it was just another group hug staged for social media. But a closer look begs some deep questions about the very nature of the selfie.

Yes, it looks like a selfie. But Widodo is not holding a camera, nor is anyone else in the photo. Farina Situmorang, who oversaw digital marketing initiatives for the Widodo campaign, snapped and tweeted the selfie with her camera using a selfie stick. But she identifies it as the “First selfie that Mr. President Joko Widodo took” at this location. So is it a selfie because Widodo is the most famous person in it? Is it a selfie if there’s more than one person in it? Is it a selfie if you’re not physically holding the camera? If so, what is the difference between a selfie and an old-fashioned self-portrait?

Here we endeavor to answer these basic, if largely overlooked, questions.

Where did selfies come from?

It depends who you ask. Oxford Dictionaries Online defines a selfie as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website. (It was the dictionary’s 2013 word of the year.) The dictionary marks its first recorded use during a 2002 Australian online forum. Since then, use of the selfie has risen in tandem with the self-facing camera on smartphones, which coincides with the rise of photo-based social apps like Snapchat and Instagram.

MediaBistro’s brief history of the selfie says the snaps are no different from mere self-portraits. In that case, Robert Cornelius took the first recorded selfie using the daguerrotype process in 1839. By this definition, photographs that employ timers on cords and tripods count as selfies, too.

What if there are multiple people in the picture?

Quartz product director Zach Seward suggested during a newsroom conversation on Slack that a selfie with more than one person is a “groupie.”

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Of course, the definition of “groupie” is already taken, thanks to the rabid fans of bands like the Greatful Dead and Nirvana. There is an official term for the group selfie: it’s usie (or ussie, depending on who you ask). As in US-ee, which rhymes with fussy. Usies grew out of the impulse to take photos of oneself with loved ones or celebrities when out and about, without relinquishing control of the camera to a random passerby.

Who owns a selfie?

This is a tough call, one that has caused legal debate, because selfies aren’t always shot and posted online by the person in the photo or the person who took it. For example, the power-packed selfie of stars at the Oscars, snapped by Bradley Cooper but posted to Twitter by Ellen Degeneres: The Associated Press asked for Degeneres’ permission to use the picture, but was it owned by her or Cooper or someone else? The question spawned plenty of debate over what this meant for copyright law. There was also the question of the monkey selfie: A monkey took a selfie so Wikipedia claimed it was public domain, but the photographer whose camera the monkey used claimed otherwise.

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Image: AP Photo/Ellen DeGeneres

In the selfie that inspired this article, Widodo neither took the photo nor posted it. However, he’s the most recognizable face in the picture, which is why it may be referred to as his selfie.

Where do people take selfies?

Selfies are raging all over the world. Time Magazine built a database of 400,000 Instagram photos, identifying the cities most prone to selfies as of March.

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What is the future of selfies?

Selfie sticks, expendable devices that attach to a phone or camera to allow the photographer more distance from the lens, have been increasing in popularity. But those may die out with the rise of wearable selfie drones that attach to the wrist and fly away to optimize your self-smiling snaps.