A few years ago, my wife and I traveled to Florence, Italy, with some friends. The city is one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations – about 15 million visitors a year before the pandemic – and rightly deserves its reputation as a center of Renaissance history, architecture, and art.
On our first night there, we went to the city’s most famous square, the Piazza della Signoria, which is surrounded by some of the old republic’s most important buildings and features a copy of Michelangelo’s famous statue of David.
All very impressive. But what I remember most about that first encounter were the size of the crowds (mostly young adults), the number of whirling contraptions that people were shooting into the sky, and the dozens of street vendors aggressively selling selfie sticks. A lot of the crowd, or so it seemed, already possessed these appurtenances, and they were taking uncountable photos of themselves amidst the architectural splendor. Humans and their sticks. One couldn’t help remembering the warning of every mother: “You’ll put an eye out with that thing.”
I realize this recollection puts me in league with the American travelers to Italy that E.M. Forster satirized in his A Room with a View. According to a joke presented there, the family’s daughter said: “Say poppa, what did we see in Rome?” The father replied: “Why guess Rome was the place we saw the yaller dog.”
So be it. After all, this post isn’t about Florence or Rome and the American experience of these places. Neither is it about selfie sticks as annoying devices (which some museums and amusement parks now ban). Instead, I want to discuss the propensity of modern people to put themselves “in the frame,” not just in photographs but much more generally as images for public regard.
Let me say right away that this attitude isn’t quite the same thing as being selfish, which means putting your own interests ahead of those of other people. Rather, the “selfie mentality” is a craving for positive attention from others. Done properly, this form of show-and-tell enhances social standing in the communities one cares about. At another level, it inflates self-esteem.
What are some examples of this mentality? Since I began this post with travel, I’ll continue in that vein. Many of us like to travel, not just because it stimulates us but because it expands our sense of who we are. That said, we also like to have a record of our adventures, even if these escapades are just sitting around a pool with a drink in hand. In that quest, photographs and social media posts are indispensable.
Most of us would prefer to have others join us on our journeys, but failing that, we will venture on our own. Image-based accounts prove to the folks back home that we went to the places we say we did. They show us with our “new friends,” temporary companions we met on the ship or at the bar. Note well: all of us are smiling.
Big events – particularly happy ones like graduations, reunions, and marriages – receive the same treatment. Photos range in scale from the widest possible groupings to select gatherings of friends and family to personal portraits (“Here I am holding my diploma.”)
What is critical is that I am in these photos (if necessary, set the cellphone’s timer), look good, and all of us appear to be enjoying one another’s company. Selfies may seem a little cheesy in some of these settings (“Just a couple of me against the backdrop of the crowd.”), but at least the photographer knows well the strengths and weaknesses of his model. In any case, the photographer documents a happy experience. Photos that make the assembled group look bad – especially bad ones of myself – are swept into the dustbin of history. After all, the intent here is to validate one’s idealized placements in the world.
Is the self now “performative,” something that no longer exists in a stable way but instead requires constant affirmation from others? If we “seem” to be a certain way, does that mean we are that way – or at least are on the road to being that way?
To be sure, modern businesses are especially concerned with their corporate image. Social regard affects economic competence. Arguably, modern individuals are not so different. Many of us have jobs that require more than technical competence. Being successful means being “well thought of” by bosses and having the support of networks of fellow workers. Those who receive our services should “like us,” sometimes quite explicitly in online rating services.
A friend and fellow sociologist, Laurence Basirico, argued more strongly that individuals, like companies, should be seen as “brands,” service providers who can be counted on to appear and act in dependable ways. We want those providers to be welcoming, confident, and decisive. Perhaps he’s right. Marketing yourself to others – particularly those who do not know you well – means publicizing a positive image of who you are and then living up to that vision. At some point, we are less the manipulators of our brand than we are the brand itself. We become captives of our own creation.
Models of this process come from the celebrity culture that dominates imagination in music, art, sport, and other entertainment. Bigtime sports events – think of the football playoffs coming up – are hyped as competitions between individual stars. We pay top dollar to see our favorite musicians and comedians and even brag about ticket prices.
Museums entice us with chances to witness the creative flair of famous artists; the actual paintings and sculptures presented there are secondary. On the one hand, we get excited by being in the company of the greats, among those who have “made it.” However, the other part of this is the idea that we were there, an occurrence we will be sure to tell others about. In that light, how many of us take photos of ourselves in these settings? The reader may decide.
Consider a final example: the swaggering politician. Recently, Republicans had difficulty electing a Speaker of the House from its own ranks because 20 or so party holdouts vowed never to support the primary candidate. Perhaps this refusal was about personality and principle (and so that the Speaker, whoever was chosen, should be beholden to this small group), but many commentators argued that their rebellion – whatever the nation thought of it – was “playing well” in their home districts: Constituents were applauding their bravado; local contributions were flowing. Compromise for the sake of the public good – which eventually came, if not on those terms – was less important than being true to one’s brand.
There may have been times in American history when people didn’t care much about what others thought of them. Think of pioneers splitting logs, farmers in their fields, and prospectors deep in the wilderness. However, the twentieth twenty-first-centuries have brought forth new social conditions. “Making it” today now means securing the support of other individuals in their roles as allies, sponsors, evaluators, and customers. Such was the argument of sociologist David Riesman who, in his classic book The Lonely Crowd, portrayed mid-twentieth century Americans as hungry for the support of the other people who worked at their organizations and lived in their neighborhoods.
Having discussed these ideas with my students through the years, I can report that they see themselves less as “other-directed” (Riesman’s term) and more as “technologically enhanced.” That is, their circles of influence are broader than the companies and communities of the 1950s. Media plays a much greater role in their lives. Electronic technology is the conduit from which they gather models for their lives and by which they present themselves to the world. Those young people, like their parents and grandparents, care about the good opinion of influential people, but it is much less clear who those people are—even more reason to be attentive to self-produced images. One never knows who will see them.
Like most things in life, the selfie mentality is a matter of extremes. At its base, there is nothing wrong with wanting to record the happy moments of life, to keep visions of oneself in exciting places with smiling people. Let us bolster our confidence in what ways we can.
Still, too much attention to self-image is the stuff of tragedy. Remember the Greek myth of the beautiful youth Narcissus who became entranced with his self-reflection in the pond, fell in, and drowned. A better path to happiness is to take seriously the needs of the people you care about and honor their subjectivity in whatever ways you can. Curiously, we learn as much by pondering their behaviors and experiences as we do our own.
Henricks, T. (2012). Selves, Societies, and Emotions: Understanding the Pathways of Experience. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
Riesman, D. (with N. Glazer and R. Denney). (2000). The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, revised edition. New Haven: Yale University Press