Ice buckets, selfies, and how a culture of narcissism harms us

Published 02 September 2014  |  
Twitter/HenryCavillOrg

If you're on Facebook, your feed almost certainly looks something like this. A video of one of your friends doing the Ice Bucket Challenge, followed directly by a link to piece critiquing the Ice Bucket Challenge. This is repeated a few times, and is occasionally interspersed with a comment critiquing people who are critiquing the Ice Bucket Challenge. It's social media's version of the Silly Season, but at least it's raised a lot of money for a good cause.

One of the main criticisms of the phenomenon has been that it promotes slacktivism, by allowing us to feel good about our generosity when we're actually doing little more than enjoying ourselves. One American blogger called it 'narcissism masked as altruism' – suggesting that while we're raising a little money for people with Motor Neurone Disease, we're actually asking people to look at us, and marvel at our generosity, bravery and ingenuity.

These criticisms have, as I mention, been met with mixed response – after all, surely all the money raised is going to do some good. The debate reminded me of another picture though, one I'd also seen recently while scanning through my Facebook timeline.

It was not an unfamiliar sort of photo, but for some reason it struck me. A man, standing in front of the magnificent Egyptian Pyramids, his arm extending towards the lens and then finally out of shot. The caption: 'Pyramids seflie!'

I'd imagine that a good percentage of tourists who visit the Pyramids take a photograph of them which provides a candid reminder that they'd stood in that place; they'd held that camera. Five years ago and earlier, those tourists would have concentrated their efforts on taking the best quality photo they could; or on recruiting a local to take a well-composed picture of their travelling party in this extraordinary scene.

Not today though. Today this man, and millions like him, are turning that memorable moment of discovery into yet another opportunity to say "look at me!" The Pyramids appear in the corner of the photograph, a blurred afterthought.

It doesn't stop there. The selfie culture – where we put ourselves centre stage – is pervading so much of how we live and communicate, and for a couple of reasons, I don't believe that's healthy. For a start, it's narcissistic to want to plaster our own image over everything we do. When someone talks about themselves incessantly, we soon notice and probably feel less positively about them; the selfie is another way to make everything about us. Being self-focused is neither impressive to others, nor good for the soul. We were not made for selfishness.

There's another problem though. If you've been to a live music event recently, you've almost certainly enjoyed the spectacle of watching scores of people filming the entire show through their mobile phone. At the end of the night - which they may have paid £80 to attend – it's possible they haven't seen a moment of the gig with their own eyes (I've even seen someone filming an entire gig as a 'selfie', with their back to the stage). By focusing on the idea of showing others what they've done (that footage will surely be the talk of social media later) they miss out on simply experiencing the event for themselves.

That's also what the selfie culture does. We become so immersed in trying to put ourselves in the picture; so focused on what we can show others, that we miss out on simply living life to the full; on squeezing every last drop of experience out of everything we do. Do the people who take Pyramid selfies even truly 'see' the Pyramids? Do they gaze on them in wonder, or reflect on the great question of how they were built? Or are they so busy compiling a new Facebook album of 'me in Egypt', they forget to ever stop and do so?

The selfie culture is infecting so much more of how we live, particularly online. Here are just a few other examples:

Putting myself in the story

The trouble with social media is that it compels us to become social commentators, often on issues that we know nothing about. We see a news story and almost immediately pronounce our own (usually uneducated) verdict on it. Sometimes as we grasp around for some sort of uninvited response to the news, the easiest route is to find some tenuous personal connection: "Awful to see what's happened in Devon this week. Was only just there for my holidays."

Celebrity deaths: my pain

A linked issue is the way we compete with one another – subconsciously or otherwise – to be feeling the greatest sense of tragedy and grief when a famous person dies. To some extent that's fine – if you were really moved or affected by Robin Williams' work, then of course you can say so. Where it gets a bit weird is when you barely knew anything about the deceased, but you're compelled by the rolling bandwagon to comment anyway. "Maya Angelou, RIP - what an inspiration", wrote various people who had almost certainly never heard of her before she trended on twitter.

Me: the brand

Remember Apprentice candidate Stuart 'The Brand' Baggs? If so, he achieved his aim of being memorable, even if we also remember him for being a bit of a wally. Turns out though that Stuart was something of a prophet – now many wannabe entrepreneurs and famous people are looking to build an online platform based around their own face and personality, including many within the church. (This article looks at this in a little more depth, along with some ideas for an antidote).

And of course...

Incessant selfie photos!

One of the most infamous dance floor tunes of 2014 (although not the most commercially popular) has been The Chainsmokers '#Selfie'; loosely speaking a bit of youth culture storytelling about a girl on a night out documenting every moment of her evening with a gurning selfie. Like all the best satire, half the people who loved it didn't realise the joke was on them; the song highlights the ludicrous nature of repeated self-photgraphy, but for many it was just a fun party tune. These are the same people who flood their social media timeline with pictures of themselves, but of course, the practice is highly addictive because of the affirming power of Facebook likes. The problem is that in doing this, we can draw too much of our sense of self-esteem from how others respond to the images we post of ourselves.

The selfie craze may be short-lived, but it arguably points to a greater trend within our culture toward increasing individualism.  

We're at our best when our lives are focused out, not in. So many of the teachings of Jesus, including treating others as you'd wish to be treated, and the first shall be last, are an antidote to selfishness and self-centredness. He compels us to follow his lead in giving our lives for others, not making our own lives the focus. Perhaps its time to put down that camera pointing at our own faces, and start looking around again.

Martin Saunders is an author, screenwriter and creative director at Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter.

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