One day last August at a popular tourist destination, I noticed as a guy walked around for several minutes with a selfie stick, stopping to click off photos of himself from several different angles with the surrounding mountains in the background. A few days later, I dodged a lady who was walking down a street and didn’t notice me as she focused on the phone screen at the end of her selfie stick.
Lots of people love the selfie stick because it enables them to take higher-quality selfies by extending their reach, and the range of camera angles. Other people hate it. In June, Forbes announced the “selfie stick backlash,” and in July a Vogue writer quoted a co-worker referring to it as “the measuring stick of narcissism.” Whatever your feeling on the selfie stick, it’s definitely a $30 investment in taking photos of yourself, and not being shy about being seen doing it. There are 88,000+ Instagram photos tagged with #selfiestick right now (and 180 million hashtagged #selfie).
We could cynically look at a social media phenomenon like Instagram and say it’s just people over-sharing parts of their daily lives, or that it’s powered completely by our own narcissism. Another way to look at it would be to say it’s a place to share the beauty we see in the world, so what does it say about us when we choose to include—or not include—our heads in a photo?
You could also point out that Jimmy Chin has 344,000 Instagram followers and rarely posts a photo with him in it. And that Kim Kardashian has 19 million Instagram followers and posts almost nothing but photos of herself. And Jimmy Chin is not a bad-looking guy—I might go as far as to say he’s objectively good-looking. But you wonder: if Jimmy Chin took a vacation, ever, and went to a place like, say, Machu Picchu, would he share a photo of Machu Picchu, or a photo of Jimmy Chin standing in front of Machu Picchu?
One of the benefits of having a selfie stick, people say, is that you don’t have to ask a stranger to take your photo—you can just do it yourself. But that also means it’s one more way we can let a smartphone cut down on our interaction with other people, and keeps our focus on ourselves.
People use social media for all sorts of things: We can share important events with family and friends without mass e-mail and dreaded “reply all” responses, communicate ideas that are important to us, share funny jokes and video clips, and as I’ve most recently joyfully discovered, endless streams of photos of golden retrievers. We also sell things, whether we’re using a racy photo to entice people to buy a 5-day cleanse, or maintaining a steady stream of content to promote our personal brand—and I’m definitely one of those people (most of the traffic to this web site comes from Facebook and Twitter). But should we take a step back and ask ourselves, Am I sharing this because I think it makes the world better, or am I just saying Hey World, Look At Me? And is there anything really wrong with just saying Hey World, Look At Me—or is that just what we’re all doing nowadays?
Last April, I spoke at Green Mountain College, and I think I may have learned more from the students than they learned from me. During a question-and-answer session at the end of the evening, one student, Frank, asked if I played The Game of Life. I said I didn’t think I did, and he asked if I wanted to. It will make you a better person, he said, but once you start playing, you’re in for the rest of your life.
I said yes, I would play. Frank went over the rules.
“Every time you say a certain word, no matter where you are, you have to do 10 push-ups,” Frank said. “Do you want to know what the word is?” I said yes.
“The word is ‘mine,’” he said. And then in front of everyone in the Feick Fine Art Center, he dropped and did 10 push-ups.
Maybe The Game of Life is just a goofy thing, a game to play for fun. Or maybe the idea is to help make us aware of when we’re thinking “mine,” “me,” and “look at me” too much. Maybe Frank is onto something.