in Observations

Snapchat’s Secret: Mirror Image Selfies

There is no denying that Snapchat is the coolest new thing. To the few that don’t know what it is, Snapchat is an app which allows you to communicate with pictures. Once you “snap” a picture, you can send it to a recipient, or recipients, who individually see the picture for only a few seconds before it disappears forever. This whole concept of transiently-available pictures seems perfect for shady business, but surprisingly it has grown to encompass all aspects of everyday life and popular culture. If you don’t have a Snapchat yet, you’re weird (just kidding).

One of the biggest phenomena that came out of Snapchat’s rise was that of the “selfie.” That’s where you take a picture of yourself using the front-facing camera of your phone. Essentially, you are your own personal photographer. You can be patient as you try hundreds of different facial expressions, make subtle adjustments to your smile, add filters, etc. The only person you can annoy is yourself. Anyway, once you are comfortable with your selfie, you can send it over to a friend who, you suppose, will enjoy the image as much as you did. If the song, #Selfie, made it seem like taking selfies was tendency of the self-centered and basic, then the majority of us are guilty.

The ability to take a picture of yourself wasn’t entirely new. Mobile phones had that ability since 2004 and Apple implemented a camera into it’s iPhone in 2010. Leave the fact that these poor-resolution cameras made us all look like potatoes, we weren’t in the habit of taking pictures and sending them to friends. Using the front-camera was useful when you wanted to take a picture of yourself or your crew when another random person wasn’t available or you were simply too lazy to ask a stranger. Of course, selfies were taken, but not as pervasively as they are today. Snapchat enabled us to feasibly communicate with pictures and thus created an audience for each of us to flaunt our selfie skillz. But that is not the only thing that Snapchat does differently.

Have you noticed that Snapchat does not flip the image after you take a selfie? When you take a picture of yourself using your phone’s in-built camera app, the phone flips the image to accurately reflect how others would see you. Your face left-to-right in the picture would match how your face looks left-to-right in real life. When you take a selfie in Snapchat, however, the program does not flip the image. Instead, Snapchat captures the mirror image of yourself. Left-to-right in the image is not left-to-right as others see you. You essentially see yourself the way you see yourself when you check yourself out in the mirror.

I am sure many of us have discovered this countless times during our experience with our phones. One of the first times I noticed this, I remember being irked by the flip and went on to search on the internet how to “fix” this setting. It wasn’t obvious at first why the phone was doing that. Then the correction made sense: if you had, for example, writing on your t-shirt, that writing wouldn’t be backwards in the image. Faces aren’t completely symmetrical, so when your self-portrait is flipped, even the most subtle features stick out. I didn’t like how I looked in this corrected image – In fact, I thought to myself, I look weird. Maybe it’s weird the same way your voice often sounds weird when you hear it in a recording. Just something that you’re not used to.

The more poignant discovery that many of us make is that Snapchat makes ourselves look really good to ourselves. When I snap a selfie (you judging?), I am much more satisfied the way I look than when I take the same picture with my phone’s in-built camera. I don’t look weird, in fact, I look great! I asked a few of my friends if they feel the same way in their own personal experience taking selfies and they unanimously agreed that they prefer the mirror image of themselves as offered by Snapchat than corrected versions of themselves offered by their phone’s in-built app. Wow.

It’s not surprising that we prefer Snapchat selfies over corrected selfies. This is because the app essentially captures how we have grown to see ourselves every day of our lives. We spend a good amount of time in front a mirror: Getting ready in the morning, fixing our hair during a restroom break, checking ourselves out in car windows (yep, don’t deny it). It would feel a little awkward if we went into a bathroom with no mirror. If I ever wanted to practice my smile, I would do it in front of a mirror until I settled on a final result. Before I attend a major event, interview, or other social setting, I make sure everything in the mirror is looking good. Positively seeing ourselves in the mirror gives us the confidence to participate in the world.

Feeling good about how we look in a mirror brings us down the dark chasms of psychology to the concepts of  self-enhancement and narcissism. The former describes a general phenomenon where we view ourselves in a positive way and suppress negativity to maintain self-esteem, whereas the latter describes the extreme when we excessively believe in our abilities or attractiveness to others. For example, the tendency for self-enhancement will prompt one to disregard non-ideal aspects of ones appearance and say, “I am happy with the way that I look,” but an extreme of that phenomenon is that “I look better than everyone else.” It is obvious that self-enhancement plays a strong role in our confidence and our ability to interact in a social world, but narcissm is the tipping point when that behavior is destructive. When we are engaging in social media, connectivity challenges us to stretch the limits of self-enhancement and allows us to flirt with narcissism.

I did a small experiment to test how others would decide in a Pepsi challenge when I present them with a corrected and uncorrected selfie. Interestingly, when asked to pick the image which I look better in, they almost always picked the left-to-right corrected image. One of my friends, after a closer look, added that I looked “kind of weird” in the Snapchat selfie… Jerk. Overall, I’m not surprised. I remember when I was younger, I made an observation that my friend looked weird when I looked at him in a mirror. It must be that we have finely internalized left-to-right orientations of people we see so that if one’s image is flipped, the change is obvious. It follows that if each of us is accustomed to seeing ourselves in the mirror, seeing a different angle might look inconsistent and thus, weird. Nevertheless, as long as we feel happy with the way we look, does it matter what others think?

I argue that this simple decision for Snapchat to not correct selfies is what made it so successful. It allows people to capture themselves the way they have seen themselves all their lives. The app has allowed for effortless communication that is continuous with our desire for self-enhancement and, leaving dark psychology aside, maintains consistency with our internalization of our own appearance. While one might argue that Snapchat has enabled our narcissism, he or she misses the positive angle that the app has enabled us to share what makes us feel happy about ourselves. Maybe the uncorrected images isn’t an exploitation of our evil narcissistic tendencies and isn’t a bad thing after all. Perhaps it’s just the number of selfies that one takes that makes it a problem.


  • Not Telling

    I may be a few months late but very good article. People wonder why they look into the mirror and see an attractive version of themselves then take a picture and think they aren’t as attractive. This is the reason. We are accustomed to a very specific image of ourselves, and the flipped version (the version that other people see) looks weird. Snapchat, as well as being a good social app, allows me to take pictures of myself in the way I see myself. I think it definitely has contributed to its success.

    • Shri Kamat

      Thank you for the kind words. Every now and then, I tell myself to cut it out – NO MORE SELFIES! 😛

  • Enigmatick

    One minor quibble: you keep stating that Snapchat does not correct selfies, when in fact, a natural, unmodified photo taken with your phone camera would not appear as a mirror image. Snapchat, therefore, is “correcting” or manipulating the raw photo to produce a mirror image shot.

  • planodad

    I want a selfie to reflect the way others see me when looking directly at me. NOT what I look like in the mirror!!

  • Diana Tyrrell

    You know theres a setting to fix that my selfies i take on my phone arent saved as flipped images i turned that feature off

    • Enigmatick

      There may be a setting for that in your phone’s camera app, but there is no such setting in Snapchat. Believe me, I’ve searched for it.