"Does my sweater match these sprinkles?": Selfie Studios and Brick-and-Mortar Experiences in the Digital Economy

Hudome, Harry, Media, Culture, and Technology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ellcessor, Elizabeth, Media Studies, University of Virginia

Selfie studios and selfie museums are retail locations where customers pay to take pictures with multiple highly aestheticized backdrops, props, and set pieces. In the last year alone, over 200 such businesses have operated across the United States, ranging from swanky pop-ups in large cities to new storefronts in decaying suburban shopping malls. They are characterized by two production dynamics: that of the selfie studio owners and personnel who design the sets and maintain the space, and that of the customers who use the space to take photos and create content for social media. This thesis attends to each production dynamic while also considering the aesthetic and spatial composition of these spaces themselves, suggesting that selfie studios are part of a larger trend that I term studiotization, in which all sorts of physical spaces—commercial, public, and domestic—have been reconfigured to be more camera-ready and “Instagrammable” in the age of social media.

In this thesis, I draw on critical media industry studies scholarship and use mixed methods to take four different approaches to the selfie studio phenomenon and its overlapping production cultures. First, I trace a genealogy of selfie studios’ historical antecedents by exploring similar enterprises that have focused on providing customers with an experience of photography and/or media production, including photo booths and in-mall recording studios. In the second chapter, I draw on interviews with selfie studio owners to examine these businesses’ unique position at the intersection of brick-and-mortar retail and the digital economy. Next, I describe the selfie studio experience, using interviews with customers to consider their production process from selecting the right outfit to utilizing ring lights and other equipment to editing and posting photos after the visit. In the fourth chapter, I argue that selfie studio sets serve as material templates for social media content creation by considering how their aesthetic, spatial, and thematic attributes structure and facilitate customers’ creativity.

MA (Master of Arts)
selfie studio, selfie museum, media industries, experience economy, photography, selfie, Instagram, aesthetic, templatability
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