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