It was a perfect evening in Sydney Harbor. I was there for a conference and the organizers had arranged an event for the speakers at Milsons Point – under the impressive span of the Harbour bridge. It was dusk and the view of downtown Sydney spread out in front of us with awesome breadth and scope. It was one of those moments that literally takes your breath away. That minute seemed eternal.
After some time, I turned around. There was another attendee, who was intently focused on taking a selfie and posting it to social media. His back was turned to the view behind him. At first, I thought I should do the same. Then I changed my mind. I’d rely on my memory and actually try to stay in the moment. My phone stayed in my pocket.
In the age of selfies, it turns out that my mini-existential crisis is getting more common. According to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, something called “self-presentational concern” can creep into these lifetime moments and suck the awe right out of them. One of the study authors, Alixandra Barasch, explains, “When people take photos to share, they remember their experience more from a third-person perspective, suggesting that taking photos to share makes people consider how the event (and the photos) would be evaluated by an observer. “
Simply stated, selfies take us “out of the moment”. But this effect depends on why we’re taking the selfie in first place. The experimenters didn’t find the effect when people took selfies with the intent of just remembering the moment. It showed up when the selfie was taken for the express purpose of sharing on social media. Suddenly, we are more worried about how we look than where we are and what we’re doing.
Dr. Terri Apter, a professor of psychology at Cambridge University, has been looking at the emergence of selfies as a form of “self-definition” for some time. “We all like the idea of being sort of in control of our image and getting attention, being noticed, being part of the culture.” But when does this very human urge slip over the edge into a destructive spiral? Dr. Apter explains, “You can get that exaggerated or exacerbated by celebrity culture that says unless you’re being noticed, you’re no one,”
I suspect what we’re seeing now is a sort of selfie arms race. Can we upstage the rest of our social network by posting selfies in increasingly exotic locations, doing exceptional things and looking ever more “Mahvelous”? That’s a lot of pressure to put on something we do when we’re just supposed to be enjoying life.
A 2015 study explored the connection between personality traits and posting of selfies. In particular, the authors of the study looked at narcissism, psychopathy and self-objectification. They found that frequent posting of selfies and being overly concerned with how you look in the selfies can be tied to both self-objectification and narcissism. This is interesting, because those two things are at opposite ends of the self-esteem spectrum. Narcissists love themselves and those that self-objectify tend to suffer from low self-esteem. In both cases, selfies represent a way to advertise their personal brands to a wider audience.
There’s another danger with selfie-preoccupation that goes hand-in-hand with distancing yourselves from the moment you’re in – you can fall victim to bad judgement. It happened to Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony. In a moment when he should have been acting with appropriate gravitas, he decided to take a selfie with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and then British Prime Minister David Cameron. It was a stunningly classless moment from a usually classy guy. If you check a photo taken at the time, you can see that Michelle Obama was not amused. I agree.
Like many things tied to social media, selfies can represent a troubling trend in how we look at ourselves in a social context. These things seem to be pointing in the same direction: we’re spending more time worrying about an artificial reality of our own making and less time noticing reality as it actually exists.
We just have to put the phone down sometimes and admire the view across the harbor.