Illustration by Rob Dobi
The selfie stick is a retractable rod that allows users to take photos with their phones farther than arm's reach via Bluetooth, cable, or the phone’s self-timer. It's like a prosthetic limb for snapping Instagram photos. In hindsight, its creation was inevitable, like dairy-free butter or weaponized smallpox. Rated one of the best inventions of 2014 by TIME, the selfie-improving device is quickly gaining momentum in the West. In Hong Kong and Shanghai, where I was a few months ago, it is already ubiquitous and some are predicting that 2015 will be the year of the selfie stick.
But the rise of the stick has not been without its controversies. Citing health, safety, and disturbance issues, many major UK music venues have banned the device. Said a spokesperson from the O2 Arena, the country’s largest indoor music venue, to NME, "The O2 do [sic] not allow selfie sticks into the arena due to safety considerations. We welcome selfies, but please leave the stick at home.”
So should the US, the birthplace of the selfie, follow suit?
Chris Diaz, a manager at The Roxy Theater in LA, says that while he only sees selfie sticks in small amounts and mostly with the younger crowds, he could easily envision them becoming an issue if they became more popular. “I could see a lot of complaints coming from people who aren’t able to enjoy a concert that they have purchased a ticket for. I could see people using the stick as some sort of weapon. Maybe someone gets too drunk and knocks a drink out of someone else’s hand and suddenly it’s being used as a baton.”
But beyond safety issues, selfie sticks at a concert might just be an inconvenient pain in the ass. Picture this: you're in a crowd at a show and your favorite band is playing. The energy is building. The lead singer leans in with the mic stand and wails over the audience. Everyone’s going nuts. Then out of nowhere, a big plastic rod pops up in front of you and hovers around the singer, bobbing in front of her like some forging ostrich. Then two more spring up. Your view is impaired, the band’s attention is distracted and the moment's been ruined. Would this situation define live music with the selfie stick?
Brian May of Queen, using the stick.
"Personally I think the concept is pretty obnoxious," says Meghan Galewski, manager of Rough Trade’s venue space in Brooklyn. "To me, it's the same annoyance-level as people who use their iPads to take photos and video at a show; you have this large obstruction in the way of other people being able to view the band.”
But the selfie stick is certainly a welcomed addition to photography. Epic images like this one and this one, among others, could only have been possible with the use of the device. And no doubt they would take some sweet concert photos. But so would a remote-controlled drone or a professional film crew and those definitely aren’t allowed for just anyone to bring into a show. Should the selfie stick be barred as well?
“I don't think they should be outright banned,” says Galewski. “As long as you aren't doing something so obtrusive that it's ruining everyone else's night, knock yourself out with your selfie sticks and your iPad pictures and whatnot. I'll just be silently judging you,” she added.
Critics have panned the selfie stick for contributing to a culture of narcissism, suggesting it as the manifestation of our 21st century vanity. “In the cultural war over whether selfies are self-expressive art worth elevating or digital narcissism taken to new levels of ridiculousness, the selfie stick is a new battle line,” said Kashmir Hill of Forbes. “Maybe I’m being pedantic, but like, GET A FRIEND to take your picture? Build a real relationship or something. Stop being a self-contained self-perpetuating narcissism juggernaut,” said an anonymous member of the Buzzfeed editorial staff.
But that issue doesn’t seem to be a solid defense of a selfie stick ban within concert venues. The debate over the concert ban focuses more on the safety and disturbance concerns and less on the nationwide narcissism. People who would rather not see a selfie stick at a show don’t want to not because they worry about the sociological implications of the stick’s proliferation, but because they don’t want a bunch of rods, camera-holding or not, at at a concert they may be attending, in the same way that they probably wouldn’t want people bringing hand fans or giant foam gloves.
The unspoken suggestion by pro-ban concertgoers is to just take a selfie the old-fashioned way (which apparently is a thing now). Said the O2 Arena in the rest of their statement to NME, "The sticks might mean you are refused entry to the venue so our advice is don't bring them and stick with the tried and tested use of an arm.”
We have moved into a post-arm-selfie era and, as happens in any society-wide transition, we must now reconfigure our obsolete ways. As the popularity of the selfie stick increases, so to will the amount of complaints from people annoyed by them. Zoos. Rollercoasters. Airplanes. Pools. Concert venues are just the first battleground in this remaking. One wonders what kind of example they’ll set.
Brent Crane is on Twitter and has a selfie as his profile picture. Follow him.