Yesterday when the media became fixated on the fact that President Obama, David Cameron, and the Prime Minister of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, took a selfie, I jokingly asked in the office whether this was going to be a two-day story or three-day story.
Well, it wasn’t a joke. The Presidential selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial event dominated much of the media, and realistically there will probably be more tomorrow.
The AFP photographer who took the photo, Roberto Schmidt, wrote a great blog post about how silly the controversy is, noting among other things that this wasn’t a funeral, and that it fit very much into the festive mood of the event.
Schmidt is right that the controversy is dumb. But Presidential selfies are actually a much bigger deal than people realise for two reasons.
First, they tell us about the nature of selfies. Why do people take selfies? It’s probably for the same reason that I used to take notes during class in high school and college. I have always had horrendous handwriting so there was no chance I could ever read my notes to study. But I had the sense that just the process of writing stuff down probably helped me absorb the lecture even more.
There were probably any number of people around who could have come by and taken a very nice portrait of Obama, Thorning-Schmidt, and Cameron. Surely the official White House photographer Pete Souza could have come over and told them all to say “cheese.” But that would have robbed them of the chance to do an action themselves, and directly connect to the moment.
This doesn’t just explain selfies, it explains all kinds of social media: Why do people tweet the same story that everyone else is tweeting? Why do people take Instagrams of their meals, when everyone at the table is taking the same picture? Why do people check in at venues on Foursquare? People want to commit an act that registers something in their mind confirming that they were there.
More importantly, the Presidential selfie reveals something about the nature of power. People who are in power tend to speak in a really grandiose terms about the tremendous honour and awesome responsibilities that have been bestowed on them by shareholders or voters. And probably most leaders do feel that. But the other thing that leaders must be thinking all the time is: “Holy crap, how did I get here!?” Obama, Thorning-Schmidt, and Cameron are three of the most powerful people in the world. Obama and Cameron have instant access to the bomb. And yet here they were at this amazing event, signalling that it just doesn’t get old. Being around powerful people in historic moments is awesome, and you want to do something to make it permanent in your mind.
One photo yesterday explained much of social media and also the mindset of the powerful. This was a big deal.
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