Earlier this month, the London National Gallery placed a ban on selfie sticks, "in order to protect paintings, individual privacy, and the overall visitor experience," making it the latest museum to prohibit the self-portrait-enabling gizmos. Those who irrationally dislike the sticks used the news as a peg upon which to hang their grievances with the devices: A loss for selfie sticks is a victory for art or old-fashioned virtue or whatever.
But surely, there's nothing all that controversial about selfies. You take them, your parents take them, the Pope takes them, and so does Barack Obama. So why the hell does a stick that makes it easier to do this thing we all already do cause such an uproar?
Selfies are a reflection of narcissism, sure, but narcissism is part of the human condition—long before we had front-facing cameras on our smartphones, rich people were commissioning expensive portraits of themselves, ordering slaves to build giant pyramids that would then be filled with treasure, etc. etc. Prince's entire career is an exercise in performative narcissism, and we love him for it. Narcissism, as a concept, is not the issue here.
Instead, what people find odious about the selfie stick is its status as an instrument of narcissism—it's the idea that someone would be so baldly open about their need to take pictures of themselves that they might buy something that makes them better at it. There's something about it that seems craven. The difference between taking selfies and buying a selfie stick is somewhat analogous to the difference between watching porn and buying a fleshlight.
The game of rhetorical tennis— hating the selfie stick with the intensity of a thousand suns, defending the selfie stick with the intensity of a thousand other, more positive suns—is petty, and just as narcissistic as taking a selfie. Whenever someone like Barack Obama uses a selfie stick, the pro-selfie stick people get points in this useless game, whenever a place like the London National Gallery bans them, the anti-selfie stick people get points. By now, they've become an easy punchline in the ever-expanding verbal sparring match that is internet content.
Obviously, selfie sticks are incredibly practical. They explicitly address a consumer need—sometimes you want a photo of yourself, sometimes you don't want to ask a stranger to attempt to take that photo, and sometimes you'll want to adjust the camera angle and your expression and so on until you've got something that works. The selfie stick is, in its own small way, sort of revolutionary. It brings a sense of intimacy to pictures that can't be achieved when another person is mediating what's being captured, and from angles and perspectives that weren't previously conceivable unless you had a friend and a ladder. It's arguable that they can serve the same purpose as a false frame in a painted portrait, subtly fucking with the viewer by causing them to question how the artist (or selfie-taker) pulled that off.
We've always used pictures of ourselves to create our identity in the digital space. Think of your MySpace page, or the earliest iteration of your Facebook: You'd curate a selection of pictures that helped communicate the version of yourself that you wanted to show the world. People would comment on it, and then that feedback would go back and help feed into your real perception of how you view your life. The selfie stick is nothing more than a quick, easy way to give others the best you you possibly can.
Selfie sticks are fine. They really are. And besides, if you're using one and anybody gives you grief about it, at least you've got a nice, blunt object to hit them with.
Drew Millard is on Twitter.
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