The algorithmic gaze and its impact on our sense of human identity

Jo Sutherst is a PhD student in the College of Humanities, based in Exeter.  Her research is self-funded and is investigating the effects of algorithms and the selfie on identity.  Her supervisors are Professor Gabriella Giannachi and Professor David Houston Jones.


My Research

Through my research I am hoping to determine the impact of our engagement with the selfie and the algorithmic filters that can be used to edit and ‘perfect’ our self-image. The selfie can be understood as a product of recent advancements in digital image-making and online image sharing platforms. It is a socially accepted global phenomenon that serves as a means of self-representation.

I will use practice elements involving lots of selfies of me (eek!), which I will then use to research the role of the process of producing, editing and sharing selfies as a method for constructing and communicating identity in a contemporary digital world. The images will be shared on social media so it would be great to have you along for the journey.

Life as a Distance Student with a Rare Illness

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, being told I am classed as clinically extremely vulnerable to the virus (due to a combination of conditions) and placed in the shielding group had a dramatic impact on my mental wellbeing.

I was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease in 2004, a rare condition with only around 8400 cases in the UK. Addison’s disease is where the adrenal glands do not produce enough hormones to help my body deal with stress or illness. Symptoms include poor immune system, lack of energy, weakness, and a low mood. Living with the disease can be a challenge at times. The symptoms are mostly invisible – it can feel like a lingering hangover.

The symptoms of my condition can be unpredictable and changeable, which is why I chose to study as a Distance Student at Exeter. I can schedule my study when I am physically able to and can rest when I need to.

Despite being distance, as a very positive and active person, being told you cannot leave your house at all and that you would most likely suffer serious consequences if you catch the virus, was such a shock.

Seeing this in writing is not a pleasant experience – I could so easily have spiralled into a depressive state if it hadn’t been for the support of Exeter and the Researcher Development programme.

Signing up to daily Shut Up and Write sessions has been the best thing I could have done for my mental wellbeing. I no longer feel isolated and have achieved so much work by both joining in and facilitating sessions. The sessions energise me every day and I feel like part of a community and enjoy the conversation as well as the structured space to work”.

The journey to PhD

I haven’t followed the traditional path to a PhD. Starting a PhD in your early 50s is a challenge to say the least. It was never on my radar as a consideration when I was younger.

My undergraduate degree was in Mechanical Engineering in the early 1990s, after which I went on to have a career in engineering. In 2009 I retrained as secondary school teacher and taught Design and Technology for 10 years. I returned to academic study in 2016 with a part time distance learning MA Photography with Falmouth University, whilst still working full time as a teacher. Getting back into academia was tough but I was rewarded with a distinction and my intellectual curiosity was kick-started.

During my MA final project, my interest in the selfie as a means for portraying identity was piqued. I became interested in explaining how our performance in front of the camera, our self-curation of images, and sharing those images online can impact on our sense of being human in the contemporary world and on how we view and portray our identity. This was the start of my PhD research project.

Embarking on the PhD has involved a steep learning curve, but the journey has been enjoyable; I love the challenge and pushing myself mentally. Having a supportive supervisory team has helped tremendously, making the transition to PhD level study smoother.

Images will be on Instagram @selfie_gaze

Research thoughts and musing on Twitter @GazeSelfie

   July 8th, 2020    Distance Learning, Health and wellbeing, Higher Education, Postgraduate, Studying

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