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.

Warning: Naked Selfie Detected

An article in the New York Times by Farhad Manjoo suggested that smartphones should be equipped with the ability to detect when the user is taking a naked photograph of themselves. The phone would then warn the user, and propose encryption, password protection and restriction on cloud back-ups. The aim of this, states Manjoo, is harm reduction, in that it enables the protection of potentially damaging intimate photographs. Despite criticising Snapchat’s faulty security features, Manjoo then proposes the use of a slightly different technology (using the iPhone’s fingerprint scanner) which he assures us will make copying pictures impossible. That is of course until it doesn’t.

A response piece in Forbes by Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger pointed out that this approach was problematic, in that it proposed a technological solution to what should be a personal ethical choice. Their concern was that the technology would be replacing the user’s capacity to make decisions, although they concluded that the ‘opt-out’ idea was preferable, in which detection software would be automatically engaged on the phone, and it was up to the user to turn it off and take matters into their own hands.

What neither article suggested was that this is not actually an issue for smartphone manufacturers to solve, but rather a social issue. Although I am all in favour of users being given the ability to encrypt their photographs, we can’t expect technology to protect us if we are unwilling ourselves to change the very attitudes that do the real damage. For naked selfies are not the problem here – it is the means by which they are used to marginalise the people who take them. A photograph doesn’t mean anything until we ascribe significance to it, and the meanings given to naked selfies are reflective of much wider social inequalities, which create a paradox for women involving the expectation of / punishment for sexual display.

I suspect that the ‘change social opinions’ option is not mentioned in either article because it’s not straightforward. But the equivalent in the world of, say, motoring would be to emphasise car safety at the point of design and manufacture without enforcing any sort of driving code. We simply can’t expect machines to protect us, and other people, if we are not willing to put in the work too. Otherwise we’re blaming the person hit by another driver for not having a safe enough car themselves.

We can see the division between easy / hard solutions described by Manjoo:

So money can be quickly reimbursed, but a reputation is more difficult to repair. Does that mean we should try not to change attitudes, simply because it’s hard? Surely it’s much easier just to build an algorithm that can detect naked selfies and trigger a warning? But this technological quick-fix further consolidates the problem it is meant to be alleviating, by identifying naked images as wrong, dangerous and to-be-hidden.

The truly effective way in which reputations could be protected from the damage wrought by naked selfies is if we collectively resisted the urge to condemn users in the first place. If the knee-jerk reaction was not to blame the subject – for not encrypting their picture, for sharing, for taking it at all – then the problem would be radically reduced. But this seems impossible, doesn’t it, as there’s no feature on the iPhone that we can engage in order to make this happen.

So rather than ask our phones to scan and police the morality of our own behaviour, what these articles suggest is that we’re actually expecting technology to ameliorate our own prejudices against the behaviour of others. If we’re not willing to change our own attitudes and desires to punish other people’s use of photography, then presumably we can just get phones and code to do the hard moral work for us.