Stickin' It to the Selfie

A young woman’s face was bathed in bursts of light as the night’s sky dazzled with the colours of thousands of spectacularly choreographed fireworks. She gazed passionately into her lover’s eyes, and smiled serenely, engrossed in the moment. After a flurry of flashes, her smile faded and she looked down, concerned. The photo was out of focus; the camera in her Samsung Note II couldn’t cope with the harsh lighting conditions. Unfazed, she tried again and again, staring at herself on the screen, smiling, not once stopping to turn to face the fireworks, except to look in puzzlement when they stopped.

The selfie is a toxic habit. Self-taken photographs are an ugly hybrid of unhealthy self-indulgence and a desperate need for external validation. But, beyond the innate abhorrence of the practice, it’s an addiction that sucks the meaning, beauty and purpose out of events, sights and activities, reducing them to mere backdrops for posturing and self-aggrandisement. The charming young lady at Canberra’s Skyfire completely neglected to engage with the beautiful display, which took a team of a dozen technicians more than six months to design and prepare. For her, the fireworks weren’t works of art, nor great feats of engineering; she didn’t experience them. She didn’t enjoy them. She merely gazed at herself in a different context. This practice of incessant selfie-taking causes chronic detachment from experience, and sucks the meaning out of the meaningful.

But wait, there’s more. The extension of the selfie, both literally and figuratively, is the selfie stick; the mutant monopod of embarrassing proportions. Worryingly a truly global invention, conceptualised in Japan, popularised in South Korea and first patented in Canada. The selfie stick has risen to infamy in the past year, and is now an almost-ubiquitous feature of tourist trails worldwide. However, the past few weeks, a number of notable public institutions, including Canberra’s own National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, have banned the use of the selfie stick. This is depressing in itself. So many visitors are wielding these lens-lances that they have been deemed a “danger to visitors and the artwork”, according to a spokesperson for the National Gallery, speaking to the Canberra Times. The Museum of Modern Art in New York and The National Gallery in London share this sentiment. Perhaps more importantly for the Woroni readership, so does the Soundwave Music Festival as well as a growing number of Australian sports arenas.

Although the safety of both artwork and visitors is important, surely the need to maintain the salience and integrity of people’s experience should also be emphasised. Disregarding the annoyance of others sticking selfie devices in your face, the fact remains that the selfie-taker themselves are secretly harmed. Although they may be front and centre of their photo, they are nowhere to be seen in the experience. A trip to a museum or gallery should be about the incredible privilege of viewing inspiring artefacts or artworks. The feature is the object in front of you, and the narrative it’s trying to convey. However, viewing an exhibition through a small, pixelated screen, where the central feature is merely your own face, transforms any object into a shallow visual display devoid of any deeper connection or meaning. The focus becomes you, and the fact that you have been there, done this or seen that, regardless of what learning or memory you took away, if any. The experience becomes hollow, simply another megabyte in your phone’s memory, adding nothing to your own.

Regardless of what appears to be driving this behaviour, be it a desperate need to add to the social media melee, proving acquisition of some achievement to your “friends”, or simply unbridled narcissism, the sad reality of the selfie is that it’s symptomatic of a growing escapism. Rather than being present and engaged with what’s around us, we choose to focus on ourselves. Perhaps fearful of being challenged, we hide behind a smile, and stare blankly at our own empty expressions. We flee from reality, and into a world where we’re the star of a pointless, meaningless tale of self-obsession, where clicks and likes reign supreme. So, rather bravely face the fireworks, the beauty, the inspiration, we turn our backs, comforted by the safe glow of artificial, meaningless control.

But life is more than a virtual reality. Living is not just self-documenting. There is more. We’re not just avatars roaming relentlessly in search of the most popular backdrop, we’re thinking, feeling and intelligent human beings. So, put down the selfie stick and look beyond the lens. Investigate, ruminate and appreciate. Give your senses salience over your ego. Have confidence in yourself and focus on enjoying the present. Find meaning in what you’re doing, and not in how you’re looking. Gaze at the fireworks.

Focus on your self, and not your sefie.