Tag Archives: smartphone

Why do we take selfies?

Some ten years ago, my childhood best friend and I would head down to our baroque capital each Saturday morning to window shop, gossip and sip strawberry McDonald’s milkshakes while overlooking the spectacular grand harbour views.

Then, we would visit the Savoy shopping mall and as part of our weekly ritual, squeeze ourselves into a photo-booth, insert an Lm1 coin (which would nowadays be roughly the equivalent of €2) and pull funny faces at the automated camera.

In 2003, neither of us had a mobile phone nor a digital camera. The photo-booth was our only means of documenting the outing.

If we were the same teens now, we’d undoubtedly be using our smartphones to capture selfies, and instead of keeping the shameful photos in our wallets (as we did), we’d keep a log of them on instagram for the entire world to admire.

The “selfie” has quickly come to symbolise our culture in 2013.

In fact, the word selfie has recently been included in the Oxford English dictionary as the most influential word of the year.

Here’s the official definition: “(n.) a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”

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What intrigues me about the selfie is just how an act of vanity is quickly coming to be accepted as a norm by society.

Boys Collage 1

Moreover, none of these people seem to be taking themselves too seriously. The expressions are mainly sexy, mysterious and playful.

How are selfies different in comparison to posing in front of a ‘traditional’ camera?

I’d like to think of the selfie as being very similar to looking into a mirror.

At least whenever I switch on my front-facing smartphone camera to capture a furtive selfie, first thing I do is check that my face is in order, before eventually pouting or squinting at my reflection on the screen.

You see, whenever we look into a mirror, we go through an internal process of scrutinizing our appearance – we try to cover up the elements we dislike, and enhance the attributes we like.

Girls Mirror Selfie 2

However, we tend to do all this in the privacy of our bedrooms or in the bathroom.

We pull faces at ourselves in the mirror, experiment with our hair, try on new make-up, play dress-up – we perform and experiment with different identities within a safe and secure environment.

Now with the selfie, we are placing the behavior considered normal in front of a bedroom or bathroom mirror, into the public sphere.

And this is perhaps one of the reasons why the selfie has sparked up controversy; it is a new phenomenon, one that we love to hate. Purely because the art of selfie taking requires not taking yourself too seriously, acting goofy, and making public what was once carried out in private.

Girls Selfie 1

As a generation, we are the pioneers of the selfie as a means of expression. Meaning: there are those who have already embraced the selfie and harness it (e.g. teens and celebrities). Then there are those who are still testing the waters, and in the process, delaying the selfie from fully becoming a normalised aspect of our culture.

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A selfie shared online is simply a process of bringing to the forefront what was once done in the background.

Basically, what the selfie is doing, is unleashing our obsession with self-portraits; it has made what was once invisible, visible across the entire internet universe.

In fact, selfies have always existed, albeit in a different format.

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Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter, best known for her self-portraits.

Through a set of brushes and a vibrant palette, Kahlo depicted how she perceives herself to be, on an external level. In today’s vocabulary, she painted her selfie.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait

Painting is nowadays often perceived as time-consuming and expensive. In this regard, the smartphone has democratised the art of self-portraiture to the extent that selfies are taken, modified and shared instantaneously at no cost, whatsoever.

But if we could take pictures of anything, why are we so interested in our faces?

Our face is the organ that distinguishes us from other persons and is crucial for our identity. By flipping the lens and entering into the frame, we come to communicate deep ideas about who we are and where we fit into the world.

One of my favourite, and probably Frida Kahlo’s most famous quotes reads: “I paint myself because I am so often alone, and because I am the subject I know best.”

The selfie is a phenomenon in which the photographer is also the subject of the photograph – just like the self-portrait, but through a different medium.

What is perhaps most gauging about the selfie is the fact that we are given control over how we are seen by the world – definitely lacking in the filter-less photo-booth that had my first selfies taken, ten years ago.

Networked Intimacy

Whether it’s for work, study or leisure, it has become fairly common for twenty-somethings to pack their suitcases and jet off to travel the world. What could have once been a unique experience in terms of travelling alone and to experience one’s culture anew, has now become somewhat of a lived dichotomy between being home and away through the marked use of technology.

In the pre-networked days, to travel alone meant leaving your whole world behind you to teeter into unknown cultural terrains. The only news from home would be through snail mail or the monthly (expensive) phone call.

Nowadays, the Internet holds our world together in a network infrastructure, and wireless Internet devices, make our networks portable. What’s more is that online communication (such as e-mail or Skype) is free and instant, championing both constraints of these classic communication methods. Therefore, tethered, we carry a sense of ‘home’ with us, through our mobile Internet devices.

During my solo travels in Asia and continental Europe, the smartphone was my Swiss Army knife of sociality since it carried my physically scattered social networks intact. It offered an instant portal to people, news and memes that kept me up to date with the rhythm of life in Malta. As heavenly as it might read on paper, in practice, it proved to create somewhat of an inner-conflict.

In a sense, I was in-between worlds, because my best-friends weren’t necessarily in the city I was nor in Malta – but on the Internet.

For instance: while I rattled my bicycle to and from the library, in a quaint cobble-stoned city in the Netherlands, one of my best-friends attended pub-quizzes behind the York Minster after lectures, while another boiled haggis for occasional Sunday lunches in Glasgow. The three of us Maltese ventured alone, yet social networking apps such as Facebook messenger or WhatsApp allowed us to remain pretty much together.

Irrespective of where our loved ones are, the idea of here and there is somehow shattered through this newly acquired networked intimacy. The phone has facilitated communication with all our friends, irrespective of where they are, altering our perception of time and space; it has come to represent a ‘mobile home’.

My German friend Saba had once told me, “I moved from Germany four years ago, I went to Botswana, I went to Luxemburg, to France. I always took my friends with me, through my smartphone. That’s how I felt. Now I can talk to my friends instantly through my phone.”

Like Saba, my friends travelled with me from the Philippines, to Italy, to Belgium and to the Netherlands thanks to the Internet, and more intimately via Skype.

Video-conferencing (like Skype or FaceTime), is a fairly new and very common means of maintaining close contact with those that matter most. The quality of the call makes up for physical meetings, when these are not possible. While living in the Netherlands, my Polish housemate used to Skype with his mother in Warsaw almost every evening, “I feel that we are near each other during the conversation,” he used to tell me.

Our brains seem to record so-called ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ events so similarly that modern technologies conspire to blur these realms as well. As a matter of fact, we code face-to-face and online experiences similarly, often with equal realness. One may notice this in everyday language, when we speak of online encounters as if they were real: How is Sarah doing? Fine, I guess. I spoke to her on WhatsApp. Did you meet her new boyfriend? Yes, I saw them together on Facebook.

The sense of visual immediacy experienced via video-conferencing and modern social networking creates a simulation of presence and intimacy. Such that, even when people are physically distant, social networks could act as a connective tissue, coordinating and synchronising conversations with friends who are scattered across the world that would otherwise dissolve into silence.

Nonetheless, these mediated communication platforms do not merely substitute face-to-face interaction, but constitute a new kind of presence.

The Internet and smartphone could be used to either enhance a sense of belonging to the place where one is physically present, or it could alienate the individual from fully experiencing the actual place, culture and surroundings.

From my experience, technology compensates for rarity of physical encounters, but doesn’t replace them. Even though the Internet eliminates feelings of distance, the sense of presence and level of intimacy is only short-lived. At the end of the day, we all need to live certain aspects of our lives together with the people that we love most, and cannot be replaced through a screen.

Before the emergence of online social networking, communities were formed around a fixed geographical space and therefore led to a tangible concept of what it means to belong and feel at home within a given space.

Now the Internet beckons us to ‘come together’ across a medium, suggesting that we can feel and experience home, and belong somewhere that is not necessarily the same place we are physically bound to.

Living in a network society, it has become easier for me to define home in terms of people who are scattered, than a physical town or city. To the upcoming generation, our sense of belonging need not necessarily be tied down to residential geography but a new, emotional geography.

This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of The Sunday Circle.

Does foodtography ruin our appetite?

Over the past two years, my social media feeds have more or less evolved into a culinary still-life expo. We’ve gone from Facebook to Recipebook. But in truth, why are we meticulously documenting our culinary adventures and sharing them with a virtual public?

A leisurely scroll along what was once a cacophony of people’s concerns and whereabouts has suddenly become more visual – and it’s not merely selfies, but also what people are eating. Because let’s face it, even Nanna’s lampuki pie deserves to have its online moment.

Foodtography is the relatively recent trend of taking pictures of food and sharing them online via social media platforms such as instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. What I find particularly interesting about this phenomenon is that the photos generally feature food, sans people.

A quick browse through my childhood photo albums shows pictures of people seated at long tables during summer barbecues and anniversary fenkati. But whatever the occasion, the main actor was not food – the focus was on the people and the eating experience as a whole.

On the other hand, with foodtography, the food has become the subject of the photograph, with most photos excluding the diner. Social media does what food does best – it brings people together.

This concept is pertinent in marketing and advertising strategies. Take Foodspotting for instance – this app, integrated with a map of restaurants close to your current location, showcases dishes that people have eaten. The app tagline – find and share great dishes, not just restaurants – encourages diners to shoot, tag and rate dishes under the #foodspotting hashtag. Then restaurants can promote their food while enticing new clients, for free.

Unless, of course, the people you are eating with believe that taking pictures of your food spoil the atmosphere of the meal. Food alone is a basic need for nourishment and survival, but eating together is deeply rooted in human culture. People who gather around a table are present to share more than just a meal, but also a conversation. People come together for special occasions and construct collective memories and experiences over food.

Professor Signe Rousseau from Cape Town University, South Africa, believes that: “Most of us love to eat, and we also love to tell stories through food. We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, and as communication is becoming increasingly visual, we rely on others to make sense and interpret the food we share.”

Perhaps this is what we are trying to emulate through foodtography – a sense of virtual togetherness.

Self-proclaimed foodie Kim Davidson from Brooklyn, the US, recently ventured into people’s motivations behind foodtography. A former avid foodtographer herself, she explains that: “By combining photography with our storytelling capability, we are able to easily build discourses, especially for those who cannot partake in the meal with us.”

Photos capture special moments, thus providing information to those who aren’t present. Moreover, sharing such moments with an online audience enables people to engage in a discourse where personal memories are cued by photographs. “People’s relationship with food does not only satisfy our biological needs,” she continues. “It is also a profoundly social urge.”

Based on the ethos that sharing is caring, the internet and social media have created a virtual platform for foodie communities to gather and exchange their love and appreciation of good food. “Social media and food have one unique and seemingly genuine commonality, that of integrating people,” Davidson says. Indeed, social media does what food does best – it brings people together.

In this way, foodtography could also be perceived as a means of attracting people to one’s profile, increasing the chances of interaction via likes and comments, and thus satisfying one’s need for recognition. Additionally, the saying “you are what you eat” could also sustain the claim that foodtography could be linked to the online shaping of our identity.

Recently, a group of researchers from Brigham Young University, Utah, the US, found that an obsession with foodtography could be spoiling our appetite. They claim that looking at too many photos of food can make our eating less enjoyable due to sensory boredom.

As far-fetched as this may seem, there might actually be a grain of truth here. After a whole morning shooting irresistible dishes for a restaurant’s new menu, a food photographer friend of mine told me: “I didn’t eat anything for lunch. It felt like my body had already digested the food.”

Pictures are a representation of our environment – they have the ability to evoke emotions and may thus seem to reproduce reality. In this way, when we trawl through foodies’ profiles, our bodies could be fooled into experiencing the food as if it were present in front of us. If you pay close attention, you might realise that you start to salivate as a result of our body’s physiological reaction.

By the end of 2010, 80 billion photos were published on social media platforms – that goes to explain how nowadays, a lot of people don’t just write about what they’re up to – smartphones have facilitated visual communication, such that people also share photos of what they think, do and eat.

Foodtography has also facilitated the exchange of recipe ideas and created a whole new realm for advertisers. Moreover, food diaries may also eliminate the sense of loneliness one may feel when eating alone. However, we must remember to enjoy the company of others during a meal, since taking photos of food can alter the atmosphere when actually eating together.

This article was originally published in The Times of Malta, October 23, 2013.

Disconnect to Reconnect?

A couple of months ago, I travelled to Alsace and stopped for one night in Paris.

I was staying at a youth hostel, and before I dozed off, I overheard an Australian in my dorm whisper, “Hey, there’s no wi-fi!” His friend replied, “Dude, you’re in Paris. Why the hell do you need wi-fi?”

And I thought about how two good friends backpacking across Europe and savouring its scenery, history and culture, still felt the need to be connected elsewhere.

Somewhere in the corners of the Australian backpacker’s mind hung the potential for a different connection and the looming fear that he was missing out on something that was happening elsewhere; something that he would never know unless he logged on.

With smartphones connecting us to the internet directly from our pockets, we now have the ability to span distances – the potential of acquiring a different connection within a pinch and a tap on a small screen is closing down the borders between virtual and physical space.

Social media provides us with a platform through which we can share content at no cost, to a boundless audience.

For instance, I wake up to see pictures of what my friends in Asia are having for breakfast, or what another friend bought while shopping in Paris or London – all this in real-time even though physically we’re in different time-zones.

Nonetheless, our perceived level of interconnectedness is only psychological.

What we are inherently creating via social media is what blogger Nicholas Scalice called the “Biggest, most engaging conversation in the history of human communication.” Social media has not opened a window but a horizon for self-disclosure. But what exactly are we getting out of sharing ourselves online?

By nature, we cannot help but share our subjective take on things, no matter who is listening. Statistics show that 40 per cent of our conversations are about the self, and the popularity of social media might be related to our primal urge of talking about ourselves.

In fact, recent neuroscientific research demonstrates that acts of self-disclosure were accompanied by spurts of heightened activity in brain regions, belonging to the meso-limbic dopamine system, which is associated with the sense of reward and satisfaction we also obtain from food, money or sex. Thus, the brain is positively reinforced and that is why we find talking about ourselves so enjoyable.

The habit of online self-disclosure is not necessarily taken up by people who are bored or in need of company. A survey conducted by T-Mobile in the UK has shown that people are sharing their lives online even while on holiday. I would think that people travel to get away from the stresses and routines of home, and yet 60 per cent of Britons admittedly log on to Facebook or Twitter while on holiday, specifically to boast about what they are up to.

Smoasters (neologism: social media + boasters), was coined to refer to people who use social media to talk with excessive pride and self-satisfaction about their achievements, possessions or abilities.

Yet updating others while on holiday is not a new trend. Take the early 14th century Italian poet Petrarch, for instance. He documented his ascent to Mt Ventoux in France, describing the journey to the summit and the views over the Rhone to the bay of Marseilles.

It could be argued that if the same poet had to climb the same mountain today, he too would tweet verses about it. Of course: But would his subjective experience of the ascent be the same, or would it be existentially different?

Petrarch had the luxury of being alone, to process and reflect about his experience without being interrupted by other peoples’ updates rolling in, on his Newsfeed. Sometimes, I feel that we may be losing the beauty of the “now” because we are constantly pining for a different connection, possibly triggered by the fear of missing out.

Nobody can wait anymore, not because we can’t, but because we don’t have to.

Then again, new technology always sparks up some sort of controversy, possibly instilled by an intrinsic fear churned by our ignorance or misunderstanding of it. Nonetheless, we have always adapted it to our needs.

Sherry Turkle wrote that our relationship with technology is still in its infancy and evolving gradually.

Moreover, Howard Rheingold, in his recent publication Net Smart, encourages us to continue growing in this symbiotic relationship by learning to use media intelligently, humanely and mindfully.

Originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta on August 26, 2012.