I’ve been listening to the Question of the Day podcast with Stephen Dubner (of Freakonomics fame) and James Altucher (who’s well-known in certain Internet/entrepreneur circles, I gather?). Although at first I mostly cringed at how douchey James could get (and I still do, a little), I quickly started to really enjoy the podcasts. They’re pretty quick, for one (most are around 10 minutes) and as I listen to them, ideas for things to write about just start racing through my head. Like, I’m starting to build a stockpile of possible blog posts based on some of the questions these two attempt to answer and the conservations they have while doing so.
Last week they talked about selfies and the nature of photography today in general. The initial question posed is:
Why do people so often and prolifically take pictures of the things they see, the places they go, and the people they’re with, especially if they’re famous people?
Obviously, the easy answers have to do with social media and narcissism — that Facebook and Instagram have transformed our society into one where everyone’s just running around going “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME, PLEEEEASE!!”
And that, thanks first to digital cameras and then smart phones, it’s so easy not only for everyone to take photos at a moment’s notice, but to take a thousand photos. There’s no “honey, go get the camera!” and a five-minute pause in the action while someone goes to get the camera and set it up, and there’s no regard for “I only have five shots left on this roll and we’re gonna be here for another two hours, so I better wait and make sure I don’t miss anything I want to take a picture of.”
When I was in Paris over New Year’s back in 2006-07, I remember wandering around with my friends after it had gotten dark. Most of the crowds had dissipated and we were just south of the Île de la Cité and, like anyone, awed by the Notre Dame. So we whipped out our cameras and took a bunch of photos.
Well, most of us. One kept his hands shoved in his pockets, smirking at the rest of us, especially as we complained that there wasn’t enough light and our flashes sucked. “Why bother?” he asked. “There’s a thousand versions of this same picture on flickr, just go get one of those.”
But I didn’t take the ones on flickr. What would it mean if I went home and downloaded one of these? Nothing. Even though most of those are vastly superior than what I could get with my little point-and-shoot, I wanted a photo that was “mine.” One that would prove that I had been there, at that moment in time.
I very, very rarely take selfies now, and share them on Instagram even less often. But I took a few that year in Europe, especially — probably obviously — when I was traveling by myself. I had no choice if I wanted a picture of myself at the Globe Theatre, in front of the castle in Salzburg, on one of Venice’s thousand bridges, on the beach in Capri and there was no one else around.
Why did I want those pictures?
In my English lit courses in college, we learned there was a period in British literature where poets and writers were concerned and fascinated with the idea of achieving immortality through the written word. I don’t want to bore you with a lecture (though it would mesmerizing) and my memory’s a bit fuzzy on the details, but basically as writing thoroughly replace the oral tradition, the idea of authorship grew alongside an acceptance of the legitimacy of non-religious works. Poets who would previously perform their poems at court but stay more or less nameless could write down their work, with their name, and generations long after they’re gone would be able to read their words.
My point is, our “narcissism” isn’t really a new phenomenon. More of us just have more tools available to express it.
And I think those tools are fueling something else. We’re now able to see, more than ever before, just how many people are out there. I take a picture of Echo Lake and (if I had location enabled for Instagram), I could instantly see just how many others had visited that spot before. It’s cool on one level and supremely humbling on another.
What can I add to this, if everyone else has already said/written/photographed/painted/DIYed/cooked/created it before, and thousands more will do so after me? What makes my experience different? Why does it matter that I was here, that I did this?
Faced with a sea of near-identical photos, we’re staring into the incredible mass of humanity itself.
So we take a selfie, just to be able to say “I existed. I did something. I was here, too.”