Discover more from Slack Tide by Matt Labash
Our Selfie-Inflicted Wounds
Turn your camera around, and get out of the shot
Sometimes, when I’m feeling too cheery about the world, like a big, happy dog who doesn’t know any better, I like to balance my chi by perusing Mediaite, in order to see how the cat people are living. If you’re unfamiliar with the site, it is, as the name suggests, all about the media’s favorite subject – itself. So there’s plenty of hissing and scratching.
Why, in just the last week came Meow-Mix food-fight headlines like “The View Whacks Vindictive Laura Ingraham Clapping for Gen. Mark Milley Contracting Covid.” Or “Dan Bongino Rages at ‘Big Tech Sh*thole’ YouTube for Suspending His Accounts: ‘Kiss My Ass.’” Or “Lara Trump Complains Biden Is Taking Too Much Time Off: ‘Roll Up Your Sleeves, Get To Work.’” (This, from the Fox News contributor whose father-in-law, according to Trumpgolfcount.com, made 298 daytime visits to golf clubs – amounting to nearly a quarter of his presidency.)
But the headline that really caught my attention was one that, strictly speaking, wasn’t about a professional media whore at all. No, this was about that now all-too common specimen, one who has been conscripted into duty by their social media accounts and camera phone - the civilian media whore. It read: “Canadian Woman Pauses To Take A Selfie While Rescuers Hurry To Save Her From Car Sinking Into Icy River.”
Sure enough, an unnamed woman was driving her car over the frozen Rideau River in Ottawa. Perhaps she thought she was commanding a Zamboni in a hockey rink, a common Canadian mix-up. Her car cracked through the ice, and as it began sinking, nose-down, threatening to plunge her into a watery grave, she stood nonchalantly on the rear windshield, lifted her smart phone, and appeared to take a selfie.
While it’s unclear if she understood the iPhone fine print (it’s “water resistant” not “waterproof”), she did not die, or even get injured. As she was enraptured by her selfie photo shoot, concerned citizens rescued her in a kayak. CTV News reported that police charged her with one count of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle under the Criminal Code of Canada. Which sounds pretty scary. Though nowhere near as scary as not getting her selfie. Because if you can’t document your own near-death on Instagram, did it even really happen?
Since the first iPhones rolled out of Chinese sweatshops in 2007 – changing the world forever – we have now lived with the Selfie Scourge for well over a decade. There used to be a lot of noise about it, and some resistance to it as well. The same way people used to make noise about, say, “humblebragging” on social media. (Which has now just given way to bragging. With our ever diminishing attention spans, who has time for humility head fakes?) The actor David Duchovny once sounded off, saying: “Selfies, they call ‘em, and that makes sense, ‘cause even though they’re sending these pictures to others, it still smells like selfish to me. Is that why they call it an ‘I phone’? “Cause it’s all about me, me, me. Like talking to hear yourself talk.” And as Bucky Katt, the cartoon cat from Get Fuzzy once said, “The great thing about selfie sticks is that they send annoying people into the world with a built-in means with wish to thrash them.”
Yes, I know comic-strip cats aren’t real. But then, neither are most of our self-projections on Facebook and Instagram. The more omnipresent something becomes, of course, the less likely most people are to buck. Time plus ubiquity equals complacency. And so we acclimate ourselves to all manner of horrors, and then regard them as normal, be they pandemic deaths, or Senator Ron Johnson, or nine Fast and Furious films.
And yet, evidence of the deleterious effects of selfies – the breadcrumb trail of our own self-absorption – abounds. For starters, during some years, more people die taking selfies than they do from shark attacks. My sources at Wikipedia actually keep track. And in just the last year alone: Eleven people died in India after the water tower where they were taking selfies was struck by lightning. Nine people in Indonesia perished when a boat overloaded with 20 people moved to the same side, causing it to capsize, as a 13-year-old attempted to take a group selfie. And it seems like every month or so, someone’s falling off a cliff while serving as a self-Scavullo to impress their Facebook “friends.”
While I don’t wish to make light of anyone’s death – stupid people have to die, too – it is tempting to root for a culling of the gene pool. Though it likely wouldn’t do any good, since our solipsism is now gene-pool wide, with most of us swimming in the shallow end. (Fetus selfies can’t be far behind, as soon as nanobots can get them smart phones, and they develop opposable thumbs. Gotta train them while they’re young.) Not for nothing did a survey by Erie Insurance Group reveal that four percent of all drivers admitted to taking selfies while driving. A statistic that’s even more irksome than those Liberty Mutual LiMu Emu’and’Doug car insurance commercials.
Some data has suggested that 74 percent of all images shared on Snapchat are selfies, and that 1,000 selfies are posted to Instagram every ten seconds. Over at expandedramblings.com, marketing director Craig Smith has assembled some of the most disquieting selfie stats: the average number of selfies people take over a lifetime? Twenty-five thousand. The percentage of U.S. plastic surgeons who see patients who want to look better in selfies? Fifty-five percent. The celebrity with the most Instagram selfies? That would be Kylie Jenner with 451. Though this tally was last updated in 2019, so that number has surely increased tenfold by now. (It’s hard work keeping up with her half-sister, Kim Kardashian, whose sex tape and bountiful booty-shots launched a hundred lesser siblings’ careers. Kim, for what it’s worth, released a photography book in 2015, appropriately called Selfish, for all her social-media followers who had not yet had enough of the D-Cupped Narcissus taking pictures of herself.)
I don’t wish to completely diminish the Art of the Selfie, if art isn’t too strong a word. As I’ve written elsewhere, it does take a unique blend of attributes: fearless exhibitionism, tireless devotion to one’s subject, long arms. But a few years before he died in 2019, the photographer Robert Frank said: “There are too many images, too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.”
Far be it from me to question the disillusionment of a master like Frank, who made his bones combing America’s highways and byways to find beauty in the everyday and unremarkable. (His 1958 book, The Americans, is considered by many to be the most influential photography book of the last century.) I’m not a photographer – I track in word pictures. But it does seem that the world Frank shot – the world we live in – has been diminished. Not that the world is any less interesting than it ever was. It’s just that the people framing it have crowded it out of the shot, have relegated it to a bit player, background scenery behind their own oversized heads.
It also seems a waste, sometimes, having this revolutionary technology in our hip pocket, and figuring out nothing better to do with it than to pose off, contorting our own mugs into the Fish Gape or the Squinch, two of the more popular selfie faces according to my bible, Seventeen magazine. You might laugh at my choice of reading material. But I like to know how my fellow adults think, since we’re all 17-year-old girls now.
Did you hurt your head smacking into last column’s paywall? It hurt me to hurt you. Let’s end this cycle of violence. Become a paid subscriber, spare your dome, and never miss another piece.
Bonus photo: Here’s one of my favorites, a 1966 snap by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, called “Bicycles on Sunday.” It doubled as the dust-jacket cover to Sam Shepard’s 1996 short-story collection, Cruising Paradise. I could smother it with words, telling you what I like about it. But why bother? That’s the beauty of a great photograph – it requires no accompaniment.