If you want a photograph of yourself to go viral, be prepared to push emotional buttons.
For celebrities, that requires the context of what has come before – where they are on their infernal journey.
For ordinary people, it usually involves selfless love and making a plucky show of it in the face of terminal cancer. Or showing off the crazy antics of your baby. If the kid is unwell too – as well as charming – well, at least they’ll be a star for a while.
Of course, celebrities have an established fan base to excite. And when the right button is pushed … hooley dooley.
This was the case on Tuesday when super-poppet Selena Gomez posted her birthday photograph on her Instagram account – 139 million followers, thank you. She immediately scored a whopping 8.8 million likes and a record-breaking one million likes within just 13 minutes.
It could well end up being the most liked photograph of 2018 – and yet there doesn’t seem to be anything spectacular going on except a light-filled display of carefree happiness.
But keep in mind a year ago, when Gomez scored the third most-liked photograph of 2017, she’d just undergone a kidney transplant.
I’m very aware some of my fans had noticed I was laying low for part of the summer and questioning why I wasn’t promoting my new music, which I was extremely proud of. So I found out I needed to get a kidney transplant due to my Lupus and was recovering. It was what I needed to do for my overall health. I honestly look forward to sharing with you, soon my journey through these past several months as I have always wanted to do with you. Until then I want to publicly thank my family and incredible team of doctors for everything they have done for me prior to and post-surgery. And finally, there aren’t words to describe how I can possibly thank my beautiful friend Francia Raisa. She gave me the ultimate gift and sacrifice by donating her kidney to me. I am incredibly blessed. I love you so much sis. Lupus continues to be very misunderstood but progress is being made. For more information regarding Lupus please go to the Lupus Research Alliance website: www.lupusresearch.org/ -by grace through faith
A post shared by Selena Gomez (@selenagomez) on
In that photograph, Gomez had plastic tubes up her nose, a sweet smile, and the hand of her friend Francia Raisa holding her own. The women were lying in adjoining beds, in matching jim-jams, with various monitors blinking electronic tears.
It was enough to melt the hardest heart – and has so far scored 10.6 million likes.
Dr Brent Coker, online consumer psychologist and lecturer in management and marketing at the University of Melbourne, told The New Daily that the emotionally negative power of that photograph (sad, the suggestion of a touch-and-go situation) has caused the joy of the birthday photograph to be felt even more keenly.
“One thing that drives share-ability is anything that sparks emotions … different emotions when you mix them together become very powerful,” he said.
“The response of whomever is viewing the birthday photograph, her fans, is context dependent. There’s something different about it this time that is pleasing. It’s more than it just being a nice photograph.”
The New Daily asked three veteran photographers to give their opinion of the Gomez birthday snap – to assess what makes it special.
Former The Age staffer Craig Sillitoe said: “Actually I quite like this photo of Selena. If you skim across her other Instagram posts most have some sort of message … They’re about Selena at Disney, or paid partnerships with Puma, or Selena with other stars like Taylor Swift. But this photo is pure Selena appreciation – there’s so much of Selena to appreciate there. It’s a lovely radiant moment type of portrait. Instagram loves that, and it doesn’t hurt that she posted it to celebrate her birthday.”
Ken Irwin, also a retired Age staffer, said the image worked as a soft tease. “Because we see under both her armpits, the captured moment feels like a ‘costume failure’. The crop of her neckline at the bottom of the photo implies the same. Also, it’s out of focus, making it feel more like a stolen moment. The amused woman in the background, who is in focus, adds to that idea.”
Meredith O’Shea, who is best known for her unflinching portraits of people living in extremis, observed: “Some images try and be sexy and they just bore all of us: this image is sexy because it’s a real moment of a young Latina woman in flight without a care in the world.
“This is a fleeting moment which appears to be real. It also represents imperfection with someone who is basically considered perfect to look at … which is unusual for this generation, where every image they post of themselves is filtered, practised and taken 10 times before they choose which one to post.”
Dr Andy Ruddock is senior lecturer in communications and media studies at Monash University and the author of Youth and Media.
He didn’t feel the actual image was important, as much as the way it was delivered to the fan base.
He said there is a long history where stars “share an intimate moment from their private life … using images from behind the scenes to establish moments of intimacy between a celebrity and their audience. There has always been this treading between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Here we have a global music superstar but also a young woman enjoying her birthday like everybody else does”.
Dr Ruddock contrasted the ordinariness of the Gomez photograph with that of a highly-stylised pregnant Beyonce, which was the most liked photo of 2017 – and has racked up more than 11 million likes.
“If you look at that photo of Beyonce, it’s all about the extraordinary: `You can’t do this, I’m the most powerful women in the world’.”
Except of course women have babies all the time, don’t ponce about so grandly – and perhaps that explains why the image was widely parodied. Because she pushed our buttons in a way she never intended.