The line to the British Museum stretches out beyond its gates. Hundreds of people slowly shuffle in, eager to see some of the greatest treasures of the Ancient World. I find my way to the back of the queue, behind a group of French tourists, and watch as one points towards the Museum’s neoclassical architecture. He seems especially interested in the pediment which houses The Progress of Civilisation – a relief sculpture that depicts humanity’s quest for knowledge. As we approach the front entrance, another tourist reaches into his backpack and pulls out his smartphone, which is already attached to a selfie-stick – a contraption that allows you to take a picture of yourself at a distance with relative ease. I wait patiently, while he finds the right pose, the right facial expression and the right camera angle. He then takes a series of photographs. Finally noticing I am waiting, our eyes meet awkwardly.
‘For Facebook?’ I say to defuse the situation.
‘No,’ he says, ‘for Instagram.’
As salt is to hot chips, the camera and the holiday have long been joined at the hip. The inventor of the first selfie-stick, Wayne Fromm, a Canadian entrepreneur, claims he thought of the invention in 2002 while travelling in Europe. Reluctant to ask strangers to take a photo of him at popular tourist destinations, he craved an invention that allowed him to quickly do it himself. This was before the widespread use of Facebook and Instagram, and well before the word ‘selfie’ became, according to languagemonitor.com, one of the most used words of 2013. At the time, Fromm’s invention was designed to be used with small cameras. Now selfie-sticks are almost exclusively used with smartphones. The last holiday season saw the selfie-stick rise to be one of the most recommended gifts for teenagers. The Australian, for example, tipped it to be ‘Australia’s top Christmas gift’. The selfie-stick craze, it seems, may have just begun.
Taking selfies – or self-portraits – is nothing new. We have long been a culture obsessed with recording our presence at rock concerts, in front of famous paintings, or on secluded, tropical beaches. With the threat of our memories fading with age, photographs have the uncanny ability to remind us of past events, as the madeleine did for Proust. Yet, with the rise of the selfie-stick it appears that something has changed, that this practice is more self-indulgent than before, if not downright crude. In some quarters selfie-sticks have been dubbed ‘narcissisticks’.
What distinguishes the selfie from other types of self-portraiture is the technology employed – the smartphone – the very same technology that allows us to share our images on social networks within seconds of taking the shot. But the technology also brings about a new mindset. Rather than producing an image to preserve a single moment in time for posterity, the image is used to promote oneself and connect with others in the midst of an activity. Ideally images are posted while in the act, and if not, the images and the comments that accompany them often try to simulate the present moment. The function of the selfie, therefore, is less connected with preserving memories, than with promoting current events. Like the news cycle, these moments are bound, and perhaps designed, to be quickly forgotten.
And yet, the very act of preserving every move we make is linked to another societal trend. In his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, Simon Reynolds examines how we have moved from a culture that looks toward the future, to one with its eyes squarely focused on the past. Reynolds argues that everything from creating museum villages complete with actors dressed in period costumes, houses filled with retro décor, the boom in traditional crafts and the ‘widespread obsession with self-documentation using video recorders… [and] mobile phone[s]’, is symptomatic of a nostalgia obsessed society, but also one in the midst of, what Andreas Huyssen calls, a ‘memory boom’. A society obsessed with ‘commemoration, documentation and preservation’ is also suggestive of what Jacques Derrida calls ‘archive fever’. For Reynolds:
[t]here is a feeling of frenzy in all this activity; it’s like people are slinging stuff ‘up there’ – information, images, testimonials – in a mad-dash hurry before some mass shutdown causes all our brains to burn out simultaneously. Nothing is too trivial, too insignificant, to be discarded… The result, visible above all on the Internet, is that the archive degenerates into the anarchive: a barely navigable disorder of data-debris and memory trash. For the archive to maintain any kind of integrity, it must sift and reject, consign some memories to oblivion. History must have a dustbin, or History will be a dustbin, a gigantic, sprawling garbage heap.
The danger of the anarchive is that in the effort to preserve everything, what is actually significant will be lost. All that will be discoverable to future generations (if they can even access the images on social networks) will be ‘data-debris’ and ‘memory trash’. Underlying Reynolds’s argument is an anxiety that even though we have the tools to preserve significant moments, we may soon lose the ability to distinguish what matters in our lives. Some web programs seem to have anticipated this phenomenon: they sort through the masses of images we upload and find the moments which ‘matter’. Facebook’s ‘Year in Review’ feature, for example, collects ‘photos from your most significant moments’ and automatically displays them in a coherent slideshow.
Facebook also curates a ‘Year in Review’ for popular topics shared on its site. Some of last year’s popular topics included the death of Robin Williams, the Ebola outbreak and the Ice Bucket Challenge. But this feature, as some users have found, is far from innocuous. In late December the web developer, Eric Meyer, was shocked to discover that ‘Year in Review’ had pre-populated images of his recently deceased daughter, Rebecca. In his blog post ‘Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty’ he wrote: ‘I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it.’ So though new algorithms help with finding and sorting the masses of information we upload, for some such as Meyers, these programs have proven to be problematic.
If it’s any consolation, the growing ‘garbage heap’ also reveals that the world is being recorded at a previously unknown rate. In 2014, an estimated 880 billion photos were uploaded to the Internet. Launched in 2004, Flickr – a social media platform designed for sharing photographs – currently has 84 million active users. It is estimated 3.5 million images are uploaded to Flickr daily. The top five cameras in use: all smartphones. The statistics are equally staggering for video content. From more than a billion unique users, 100 hours of video are being uploaded to YouTube every minute. Six billion hours of video are watched each month. There appears to be no end to the amount of visual data we can create, store and view. Attending to social media sites like Facebook and Instagram have become part time jobs. In a recent survey conducted by Deloitte, it was found that 54 per cent of Australians update or check their profile between one and 20+ times a day. It is no surprise then that, for some, going on holiday inevitably leads to an hour administering one’s online profile in a Wi-Fi equipped café.
In the British Museum I pass by the Rosetta Stone, but am immediately put off by a swarm of tourists who obstruct my view. Circling around the Stone as if it were a holy relic, the pilgrims take the same photograph – the modern equivalent of a reverential kiss. In this moment I recall Don DeLillo’s White Noise where the protagonist Jack and his friend Murray, a ‘lecturer on living icons’, visit ‘The Most Photographed Barn in America’. While there Murray ponders:
We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura…Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We only see what others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism… They are taking pictures of pictures.
For many tourists, a visit to a museum resembles how they surf the Internet: drifting from one thing to the next and glossing over many objects while multitasking on mobile devices. In this setting, the camera is a necessity rather than a luxury. When asked whether they saw a particular object, tourists can be confident that they had, since the photograph has always functioned as the gold standard of proof.
With little expense, time and effort, cameras can now take nearly unlimited amounts of photographs, making any occasion appear to be photo worthy. A side effect of this is that people are at liberty to spend more time capturing single events. Multiple moments are staged to produce the desired outcome which, for the viewer, appears to have happened in just one instant. Selfies ultimately capture highly choreographed happenings, not single events. It is this extra time taken to capture a ‘perfect’ photograph which also contributes to our perception of the selfie as narcissistic, or at the very least, highly self-indulgent.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, some of the symptoms of narcissism include someone requiring excessive amounts of admiration from others, having a grandiose sense of self-importance and sense of entitlement, showing a lack of empathy, being exploitative of others, and showing a general arrogance or haughty nature. However, importantly, narcissism should be considered a set of personality traits that people display to a greater or lesser degree. Called ‘sub-clinical narcissism’ or ‘normal narcissism’, healthy minds also display narcissistic tendencies, but usually these do not overwhelm or come to define a person’s sense of self.
Narcissism does appear to be on the rise, however. Two American researchers, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell surveyed more than 16,000 American university students and found that post-Millennials (those born from the mid to late 1990s) show more narcissistic qualities than their forebears. Twenge and Campbell posit many reasons for this trend, including recent parenting practices, celebrity culture and exposure to the Internet. Dr Larry Rosen, whose book iDisorder examines how current technologies contribute to many types of mental disorders, blames constant and unmitigated social network use. Rosen suggests social networks are an easy outlet for narcissists to promote themselves and, at times, ridicule others, all behind the protection of a computer screen. It appears social networks are the perfect playground for narcissists to get attention, garner admiration, and promote themselves. If, as Scott Barry Kaufman suggests in Psychology Today, ‘[b]eing admired by others is like a drug for narcissists’, then social networks are the perfect, inconspicuous drug dealer. On the other hand, Rosen argues that we shouldn’t assume that social networks cause narcissism. Rather, they allow the symptoms to be easily reinforced.
It could also be argued that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram encourage narcissistic tendencies, since self-promotion appears to be one of their main functions. Some may be quick to deny this, claiming that social networks are more about ‘sharing’ and ‘connecting’ with others, not simply talking about one’s personal achievements. A 2009 study conducted by Mor Naaman and Jeffrey Boase of Rutgers University counters this argument. The researchers analysed the nature of over 3000 Tweets and found that they could be split into two, broad categories: meformers and informers. The 80 per cent majority – meformers – were those who constantly update their followers about their thoughts, their opinions, their actions, or their current location. (I just drank a great coffee from Starbucks!…I just got a new PB on the treadmill!) The other 20 per cent – informers – preferred to share information about social causes, news and links about current events. The study found that informers generally tweeted less but had a greater number of followers, which is unsurprising considering that Twitter is, for many users, a primary news outlet. The nature of Facebook especially allows meformers to vent their thoughts and attain immediate, positive feedback. Unlike Twitter, where arguments and strong opinions are accepted by users, Facebook is a social space which can be curated to be generally free from negative comments: it is a virtual haven for narcissists to seek admiration from others all too willing to reciprocate.
Back in the British Museum, I push my way through the crowds and wander into a room dedicated to the Ancient Egyptian methods of mummification. Hundreds of people swirl around the dimly lit, glass cabinets. I move to a naturally preserved mummy placed in a reconstructed pit-grave. Said to have died around 3500 BC, the figure – known as Gebelein Man A – lies in the foetal position, his chest facing the ground, his taught skin clinging to his fragile bones. I am struck by the eeriness of the sight, the contorted figure who, by chance, has survived all this time, but has been eventually placed in a tourist filled museum. ‘Some afterlife,’ I think, before my concentration is interrupted by a gentle tap on the shoulder.
‘Can you please move?’ a man in his early twenties says as he gestures to his smartphone – attached, no less, to a selfie-stick.
Usually, I shy away from confrontation. Quiet by nature, I often joke with friends that if we were ever mugged I would run away and leave them to fend for themselves. But I was waiting for this moment. I had seen it happen before – to someone else – in an art gallery in New York. I drum up the courage and look the man squarely in the eye.
‘You can wait,’ I say.
‘I just want to take a photo,’ he says.
‘I know’, I say, ‘I’ll just be another minute.’
That minute is apparently an eternity. He wanders off to the next cabinet and takes a photo of himself in front of another mummy. Luckily for him, the British Museum has more than one mummy on display.
Elsewhere in the Museum I am struck by guilt. This feeling could hardly be reduced to generational or cultural differences, for the selfie-stick is used across generations and cultures. Rather my distaste can be identified in a demeanour or mindset that I have cultivated: it assumes that cultural objects – whether a painting or an ancient artefact – requires time and effort to appreciate and are best experienced in person. To simply take a photograph is a direct affront to this belief – a practice learnt through years of visiting museums, reading books and studying art.
The celebrated Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke recently claimed that ‘authentic experience[s]’ are becoming increasingly rare. He told the Paris Review ‘there is so little we do experience [first hand]’. Rather, we have become accustomed to mediating our experiences through movies, photographs and online activities. Even while in extraordinary places the only way to make sense of events is to quickly take a photograph and upload it onto social networks so our friends and followers can vicariously accompany us on our journey. Through this process a user can obtain a sense of security by instantly acquiring feedback from the group regardless of place and time. In other words, taking photographs and immediately uploading them functions to assure ourselves (and our followers) that the present moment is worthwhile, if not extraordinary. It is also a type of authentication; but will it be one that matters in the long term?
Leaving the museum a few hours later, I look up at The Progress of Civilisation one last time. On the left-hand side of the sculpture, a human figure emerges half-formed from the rock. He is greeted by the Angel of Enlightenment. From there the figure expands his knowledge and understanding by studying science, geometry, poetry and music. Finally, on the far right, the figure is said to represent someone fully educated: he sits languidly amongst a bevy of animals; the world before him is abundant and generous; he is free and clearly in control of himself and his surroundings. I try to reconcile its optimism and confidence in the human spirit with what I had witnessed in the museum; but I cannot. As the prevalence of selfie-sticks may suggest, travelling overseas has become, for some, an exercise in preserving and maintaining a museum-of-the-self, or perhaps more morbidly, our own self-curated online mausoleum. I once thought photographers jostling for position was bad. Now I know what is worse: hordes of tourists carrying selfie-sticks. Perhaps, at the youthful age of 31, I can no longer say I am keeping up with the times. Is this what it feels like to be old fashioned?
In 300 years time the British Museum may house a selfie-stick in its collection. The label would read:
In the early 2010s, when social networks such as Facebook and Instagram were at the height of their popularity, devices such as the selfie-stick became a popular accessory for travellers. As more museums and sports stadiums banned the device, they lost favour with consumers and gradually they ceased to be produced. Some users even fell to their deaths while attempting to take selfies, morbidly updating the myth of Narcissus for the 21st Century. The selfie-stick speaks of a time when people were obsessed with creating images of themselves for the purpose of self-promotion. This is one of the last remaining selfie-sticks. Most were quickly discarded and deemed useless by their original owners.
Image credit: elPadawan