Selfie culture, tourism, and the challenge of the authentic self

Just kidding — who would give a blog post a title like that?

The author on vacation.
The author on vacation.

Our family vacation this summer, to London and Paris, was my first since the Year of the Selfie Stick (which is this year). This is also the year in which 59% of “millennials” (only 40% of whom understand that they are millennials) answered “yes” when asked whether the phrase “self-absorbed” describes “people in your generation overall”?

At Admiralty Arch, London

I can’t add much nuance to the theory of selfie culture, which has already taught me a lot. For example, I learned on NPR that vanity isn’t vanity if it’s part of constructing your “personal brand” — so it’s OK to edit your selfies:

“I think that while a lot of people find it easy to say, ‘Well, you’re taking a photo of yourself, and you’re posting it online for people to sort of rate.’ I could see how that superficially looks like vanity,” she says. “At the same time, I think that it really gives a lot of the younger generation a platform to express themselves without being incredibly harshly judged — because the selfie is such a casual form of expression, no one is going to expect you to look absolutely perfect.”

What interested me is the intersection of artificiality and authenticity that the selfie brings to the experience of tourism. Taking 1,000 pictures of yourself in order to post just the right spontaneous look is the normal business of personal brand construction. It creates a presentation version of yourself. It’s an expected form of inauthenticity, just like most people expect you won’t post pictures of your kid crying at her birthday party.

But when you’re a tourist, selfies are about authenticity. They’re the picture that proves you were really there — and really in that mood at that moment that you were there. As the culture studies journal Forbes Leadership put it:

In the age of social media, authenticity for Postmoderns is characterized by a consistency and continuity between their online personas and their lives in the real world. The more congruence there is between the two, the more authentic the Postmodern appears to be.

You can’t have that unless the famous thing is clearly visible behind you. Which produces the endlessly entertaining spectacle of tourists taking and retaking selfies with every different expression and pose in front of popular monuments and attractions.

At Buckingham Palace.

Social media is social. We share pictures and updates with real people. Even when you’re alone, you’re not alone on social media. Which I think is great. But like the person staring at his phone through dinner, it seems antisocial when you do it publicly. The selfie-takers are alone in their Instagram bubbles in the middle of a sea of other people.

At Buckingham Palace.

And when you’re going in for the money shot — say, the Eiffel Tower at sunset — you can’t afford to mess around. It seemed like these people were oblivious to me setting up for a shot of them from 10 feet away. (Also, like driving, it seems that operating the selfie stick in different-sex couples is the man’s job.)

At the Eiffel Tower.
At the Eiffel Tower.

Or, in this case, the daughter totally not noticing that her parents are collapsing from boredom while she works up her umpteenth Buckingham Palace selfie.


I have nothing against all this. (Our story is that every moment of the vacation was deliriously fun, and we have the pictures to prove it.) Having a good time seeing new people and things without hurting anyone is what I love about tourism.


Still, it’s funny that people go to such trouble to get the perfect picture of themselves — creating at least a moment that is artificial — in their quest for an image of authenticity. What would this picture mean if I weren’t really in Paris, contemplating all there is to contemplate in exactly that spot?


As affirmed by the behavior of thousands of people crowding around to take pictures of famous paintings, perfect reproductions of which are available online for free, it has to be real or it’s nothing. A lie.


The fake-smile selfie is a lie, too. I guess it’s just not a very important one.

One disappointing thing, though, is that suddenly the ritual of strangers asking each other to take their pictures is disappearing. That was a nice part of tourism, because it involved strangers smiling at each other.

Note: Help yourself to these photos, which are in this Flickr folder.

4 thoughts on “Selfie culture, tourism, and the challenge of the authentic self

  1. In the good old days, our friends and family would annoy us with their vacation photos and tourist selfies by having us flip through a photo album or two or else by having us thumb directly through the pictures in the envelope provided by the Fotomat kiosk. In rare cases, we’d have to sit through a slide show. It took 15-20 minutes, maybe a half hour. We’d feign interest. Then it was over. Now, with social media, we’re inundated with family vacation photos and selfies all year around. And now somehow tourism includes not just the trip to Europe or the Wisconsin Dells, but also the trip to the pizza place down the block, the ballgame, the new local craft cocktail bar, or the snow cone stand.

    Similarly, we used to get yearly update letters from friends and family, either before or shortly after the first of the year. I jokingly called them “middle-class report cards.” People would send us annoying letters relaying the various things they and members of their family did in the previous year and brag about their various accomplishments. Dad got a promotion. Mom became president of the Rotary club. Son made the honor roll. Daughter became captain of the volley team. These were highly censored and selective accounts of past events. Rarely would we hear about junior’s stint in rehab or the week dad and mom slept in separate beds. Now, with social media, we get updates every single day, sometimes multiple times per day, and not just about big accomplishments. We get updates from a friend who just made pot roast using mom’s recipe, and there’s a photo of it. Someone posts about how far they jogged or hiked that day. People share gym selfies, selfies of new tats, photos of kittens doing adorable things, and so on.

    My advice is to take a vacation from social media as much as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You do realize there is an “unsubscribe” option on Facebook, right? In addition, you can “unfollow”, “unfriend”, or just overall “delete profile” if pictures bother you so much.


  2. I’m sure I could leave a better comment but I loved the photos – and agree we need to take a LONG vacation from social media – it’s exhausting!


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