Consumer Pulse
- The Machine
as Trainee
Semiotician
Angad Chowdhry, India

Over the past few years, self-expression online has shifted from textual updates to visual ones. One of the most popular visual genres online is called the selfie. We see them everywhere - from the Oscars to small towns in India.

What I find interesting about selfies is that they are packed full of cultural information. They are cultural artefacts. However, one cannot look at one, two or even a hundred selfies in order to get insight about the culture. This is the internet - we need to look at millions.

It is impossible, however, for a human to look at a million images [let alone archive a million images]. So, we fire up machines and have them do the heavy lifting - what patterns do they see? This unbiased feedback from the machine often throws up fascinating and sometimes hilarious results.

In Jeddah, the selfies of women are often cropped. The head is missing. This makes the body of the individual the key site for all self-expression. The clothing cannot be dramatic in Saudi, but the accessories can. We see ostentatious rings, watches, nail- polish work and handbags. The selfies make the women look like mannequins - headless and decked up.

If we do a deep scan for all images of rings, watches, nail-
polish and handbags, we notice that there are multiple online retailers broadcasting these images online. So the
retailer broadcasts ... the woman adopts ... and displays. If were to use a metaphor to describe this network, it would be the infinite reflection.

In New Delhi, the selfies show two or more people at any given time. This is not surprising given that we know that New Delhi as a culture tends towards camaraderie and bonhomie.

However, the machine also discovered that the dominant colour scheme of the New Delhi selfie is ... blue. From T- shirts, to image frames, to even filters, we see the colour blue repeat itself again and again. This poses a problem. What is the meaning of blue on the Delhi visual internet?

The answer comes to us if we mine all the images uploaded in New Delhi and look for those that feature the colour blue: Sikhism, Diamonds, Skies [taken from the airplane], Modelling runways. Blue is the colour of faith, wealth, travel and fashion. Is it surprising that all the selfies in New Delhi use this colour?

When I ran the machine in Jakarta for the first time, it threw up bizarre classifications. It thought everyone was a punk rocker. This is because, it does not know what a Hijab is, let alone a colourful Hijab. It mistakenly decodes all the images of Hijabers as women with dramatically coloured hair.

However, once the machine was course corrected, it threw up exciting results. Selfies heavily feature food and hand-phones. They are as much a part of the frame as the individuals are.

So, when we mine all the images from Jakarta for food and mobile phones, what do we see? Food images are associated with celebration [friends, birthdays, evenings out]. Mobile phones are associated with documentation [of life] and status mobility [upgrading life].

 

All of this allows us to come up with some fun cultural hypotheses:

Jeddah - a self-contained, consumption heavy network that believes that women's identity is based on the status that she can display.

New Delhi - a celebratory and bonding oriented culture on the surface, but whose real values are derived from faith, wealth and style.

Jakarta - a hyper consumptive culture, that believes that life that is not documented and shared as it is lived, is not improved.

These are very early days for my machine. It is still learning. It would be happy to run queries for you because the more it does, the more it learns. Let me know, and let's look at millions of images together.

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