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(Published: 2014-06-29)

President Obama did it at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Ellen did it at the Oscars. A 17-year-old Russian girl tried to out-do her peers doing it and ended up dead. I’m talking about the selfie phenomenon. Years from now, when cultural anthropologists study the 2010’s, they’ll likely call it “the selfie decade.”

On my recent trip to Europe I witnessed a literal extension of this cultural phenomenon as a well-dressed Japanese tourist used a selfie stick to take a pix of himself and his girlfriend at L’Opera. Never heard of a selfie stick? It’s an extendable handheld stick with an adjustable smartphone holder on one end. As a tongue-in-cheek ad for this product states: “this stick gadget means you can AT LAST get your camera high enough, and far enough away from you, to be able to take a selfie in which you don’t look like someone with hypothermia who has just died and been dug up by a large dog.”

How did we get to this stage? Without a doubt, the proliferation of smartphones has facilitated (accelerated!) the trend. When cameras first came on the scene in the 19th century, they were perceived as a “magic box.” The photographer was a magician who disappeared under a large black cape to work his miracle. Once point-and-shoot cameras were introduced, the camera became a tool that anyone could use to document their lives.

Prior to smartphones, cameras were brought out for ‘special occasions.’ We snapped away, sharing our view of the world from behind the lens. With the front facing camera, the tables have turned. Now we point the camera at ourselves. Today, we all walk around with a camera in our pocket. Thanks to social media we now share ourselves (and I mean every little bit of ourselves) with the world.

The Russian teen that died taking a selfie was trying for a dramatic angle as she leaned out over train tracks, lost her balance, and grabbed a power line, sending 1,500 volts of electrical current through her body. She died instantly. If that’s not selfie obsession, I don’t know what is.

Gabe Ferreira, a designer and student at California State University, recently created an art installation that calls attention to this cultural phenomenon. Titled “Screen Identity” (, it’s a 7 foot-tall wooden iPhone with a mirrored screen. Large enough to frame the entire body of anyone who walks up to it, it captures the selfie obsession phenomenon perfectly. Not long after the installation was complete, Ferreira noticed that students were using the installation to take selfies of themselves taking a selfie. His comment? “It reinforced the idea that we are indeed obsessed with sharing our face with the rest of the Internet world.” I would call that an understatement.

Somewhere along the line it became more important to obsess about how we look IN the world, rather than how we look AT the world. I wonder how long this obsession will last?

Selfie stick

Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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