Month: October 2014

Policing the Selfie

I’m surprised I haven’t seen selfie disipline like this before. In a You Tube video by Jena Kingsley, the presenter plays a prank on visitors to Central Park by dressing up as a cop and telling people not to take selfies. A surprising number comply, as if such an order could in any way be rational.

Kingsley starts her video by emoting to camera about the evils of selfies, and the need for someone to step in to stop the madness. Behind her, a sign declares that this is a ‘selfie-free zone’ from 7am to midnight, and that violators are ‘subject to $50 fine’.

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The details are something we are familiar with – directives with time limits and penalties – which goes some of the way to explaining why this prank is possible. Forms of micro-discipline guide our behaviour every day, from no-smoking areas and grass that cannot be walked on, to the no-touching or no-photography rules in art galleries. So we are used to being told what, when, where and how we can do things. But these directives have a limit, and mostly relate to one’s harmonious participation in social spaces. So I would also argue that this stunt relies upon the cultural messages regarding selfies, which problematise the practice as something socially objectionable and worthy of condemnation. As a result of the kind of texts I have been examining on this blog, people’s enjoyment of taking selfies is always tempered with the understanding that they are some way illicit, leaving a space in which ‘no selfie zones’ could possibly be feasible.

Consider the reaction were Kingsley to have started forbidding people to wear hats, or drink water. The looks of confusion that people give her here would soon turn into outright anger, and she would very quickly be revealed to be just someone dressing up issuing strange and arbitrary orders.

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She only lasts as long as she does precisely because her target is selfies. And only selfies – plenty of people are shown to be snapping away in the background whilst she is explaining to someone how problematic selfies are – using some flimsy rationale concerning young women’s self-esteem. Is the answer to young women’s low self-esteem to bring in more regulation concerning their behaviours? Her argument makes no sense, but then I assume it is not meant to.

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At one point, Kingsley asks that people delete their selfies whilst she watches. A few are shown to comply, albeit grudgingly. In the last 15 years, photography has increasingly been problematised in a way that regards it as a potential security threat. One only needs to start taking pictures in a shopping centre or in airport security to see how vigorously ‘no photography’ rules are enforced. But here we see how this regulation has become normalised as a (potential) force enacting upon every type of photography. This is not a question of national security, but rather of enforcing social rules regarding conduct in public spaces – but yet both, at least as far as this prank goes, involve the use of the law to restrict photography.

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Several people are shown to take selfies with Kingsley in the background, an act that demonstrates their understanding of the regulation she espouses as being ridiculous, as well as using selfies as a means to undermine her assumed authority. The young man’s act of selfie-taking, below, is therefore both a confirmation of Kingsley’s understanding of selfies as mischievous and uncontrollable, and an act of resistance to that interpretation.

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Towards the end of the video, Kingsley offers to take photographs of several of her victims, reaffirming that some types of photograph are acceptable in contrast to the selfie. I would love to hear her explanation for this – for why it is so objectionable for a couple to photograph themselves, but yet it is fine for her to take a picture of them? It is at points like this that the ‘logic’ of selfie-taking as devalued starts to break down, and it becomes most apparent that these rules and assessments are purely arbitrary.

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At the end of the video, Kingsley is confronted by a member of the park security and told to leave the area. After all, in his eyes, she is a nuisance to visitors; marching around micro-managing people’s leisure time whilst dressed as a cop (in itself a problematic and possibly illegal behaviour, I would have thought). By asking her to leave, the park guard is not just reasserting the park’s status as a space for personal relaxation, but also confirming that the social rules that ensure every visitor’s safety and enjoyment do not include anything regarding selfies.

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The arm outstretched in a gesture of dismissal is therefore a means for protecting the right to similarly reach out one’s arm and take a selfie.

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Blaming Selfies When Things Go Wrong

I was reading an article on the site Psychology Today, that was a response to the show Selfie (see my article on Selfie here. I would have written a follow-up on the series as a whole, but after watching the first episode, I don’t believe I could put myself through any more of that. It was quite spectacularly objectionable).

The Psychology Today article aimed to present quite a balanced view of selfie-taking, explaining the practice as something that exemplified the importance of social relations and esteem to our wellbeing. It seeks to mitigate the negative effects of selfie discourse by challenging the generalisations and gender bias, importantly highlighting the contradiction in the demands on young women, to be seen as attractive and yet not to be perceived as ‘vain’.  But the article is problematic in that it explains the importance of society in forming and experiencing identities, and then asks whether it is a ‘good thing’ that selfies have become part of this – this seems like a loaded question. Surely social motivation can neither be universally good nor bad, but entirely dependent on context, outcome etc. And why does the incorporation of photography into a pre-existing social process pose such an enormous threat? The piece concludes by reinstating a problematic and excessive view of selfies and social media use more generally, as something that needs to be modified and controlled. To understand how specific this kind of discourse is, consider the number of articles that problematise books, music videos or films in this way, as something to be limited and as a target for continual outrage and concern. But then they do not constitute unruly entries into the public sphere, in that way that selfies do, and it is that participation, rather than what they ‘do’ for selfie-takers, that is the real ‘problem’.

But the real surprise was yet to come. There was only one comment underneath the article. I had to click on it to read it, and I was amazed:

Joan Rivers got killed during a simple proceedure because her “vain” Dr. took a “selfie.”

When it was suggested in the press that Rivers’ personal ENT doctor, Dr Gwen Korovin, took a selfie with her unconscious patient, there was outrage. Underneath one article, a commenter suggested:

What a complete breach of trust and professionalism. This doctor should lose his medical license permanently, in the very least, and possibly even face criminal charges for the selfie alone. Can doctors no longer be trusted with their unconscious patients?

This outrage entirely eclipsed the accompanying suggestion that alongside taking a photo, the doctor concerned had also performed an unathorised biopsy on Rivers. Taking photographs in this context would indeed be deeply unprofessional, but moreso than conducting procedures which the patient had not agreed to? Both accusations – of selfie and of biopsy – were heavily denied, as the product of hearsay at the clinic. The New York medical examiner ruled that Rivers died from oxygen starvation after she stopped breathing. It was reported that negligence was not found to be a contributing cause in her death, and that there was no biopsy. But this comment demonstrates the degree to which selfie-taking has been catastrophised within popular discourse – here, it is the selfie that killed Rivers. Not the use of anaesthetic at her age (81), not the fact that she wasn’t in a hospital and that treatment for her cardiac arrest was, as a result, delayed. It was the selfie – the quintessentially abject example of human depravity – that was to blame, for the popular understanding of selfies is that they do not have merely the capacity to annoy or engrage, they can also be lethal. Never mind any other contributing factors – it was the selfie. I only wish we could have heard what Rivers’ witty and acerbic reaction to this would have been.

Safety and Self-Responsibility: The Game!

I have just been looking at the website Cyber Streetwise. The site describes itself as:

“a cross-government campaign, funded by the National Cyber Security Programme, and delivered in partnership with the private and voluntary sectors. The campaign is led by the Home Office, working closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Cabinet Office.”

So what does this UK government initiative say about privacy and social media? It says:

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It struck me that this government-sanctioned advice concerning social media was in fact consolidating the problem. Because the statement “never upload or say anything in social media that you don’t want the world to know” conceives of privacy as binary: you are either private with your thoughts, or you are sharing them with everyone. And this dichotomy – besides missing the point entirely regarding how people use social media in a way that acknowledges different contexts, audiences and identities – is precisely what lies behind the kind of victim-blaming that I have been studying for my thesis. Because if you think of privacy in terms of an on/off switch, then what is to stop someone sharing another’s data – after all, if it’s been shared at all, it might as well have been shared everywhere. So despite the good intentions of this website, the sentiment it expresses here is exactly the same as we see regarding victims of involuntary pornography. Don’t share unless you “want the world to know”. Therefore instead of helping to guard readers against privacy transgressions, this simplistic approach is cementing the right to commit such acts of aggression, by presenting it as to be expected.

Aside from this heavily problematic sentiment, the rest of the site is a bit of a puzzle, as it is laid out like some sort of video game that you scroll through and click on:

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I can’t really think who this is designed for… Who learns about online banking like this?

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And this “Threat Hunter” game… Who is this for?

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The site also has a strange philosophy behind it, encapsulated in the warning “you wouldn’t do it on the street, why do it online?” (on the red bus below).

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Like the warning not to share unless you “want the world to know”, the sentiment seems to present itself as common-sense, but again this misrepresents what people do with social media and computing. After all, there are plenty of things I do online that I wouldn’t do in the street, such as playing games, displaying photos and offering opinions to no-one in particular, such as here.

What this site tells us is that online security advice is still lagging a long way behind where it needs to be, if it is actually to be effective, and if it is to avoid making the problem worse rather than better.

Celebrity Explotation and the Selfie

Kirsten Dunst appears in a recent short film entitled Aspirational:

The film has been reported as being “about selfies”. Vanity Fair even suggests it is “anti-selfie”. And indeed it features selfies, but again they are used as a technique for expressing something else; something – surprise surprise – negative about young women.

Two young women notice Dunst standing by the side of the road and stop their car to take photos with her:

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But despite the story ostensibly revolving around photography, and tangentially social media, it is in fact about rudeness and entitlement. For the women who run up to Dunst and take selfies with her neither ask her permission nor say thank you afterwards. There is no conversation, only the act of taking photographs. The process is made more excruciating by virtue of the young women’s posing, their moody faces in contrast to Dunst’s smile:

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Dunst asks the girls “do you want to talk about anything?” The response is just blank stares and a request for Dunst to tag them, which she mutely refuses to do. An encounter of any kind that is based to this degree on one party’s gratification rather than mutual interaction is of course problematic. But why is the selfie being used to express this? I would argue that it’s because the selfie is culturally understood to be something, and to be somebody – to be the quintessential example of a problem that has long preceded it. After all, autograph hunters presumably have always been a problem for celebrities, with the added dimension that the desired signature could also have a cash value. The predatory, even hostile, stares they give Dunst are therefore not typical of selfies, but of the relationship between celebrities and the public more generally.

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At one point Dunst asks whether one girl taking a selfie wants her friend to take the photo for her – the young woman replies “I don’t trust her”. The selfie is therefore not just representative of selfishness and poor social skills, it also implies inter-personal relationships that are lacking. Presumably they’re not very close because … they take selfies?

A glance of one girl’s phone shows the screen to be cracked: a little touch that reinforces our perception of them as problematic and irresponsible users of technology:

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The girls drive off, enjoying the likes and “random followers” which this encounters has already brought them, blithely unaware of just how awkward and exploitative this social interaction was. And we as viewers are again instructed in what not to be, and how that is specifically expressed through an attitude that maligns and rejects selfies and those who take them.