Selfies are suddenly back in news. In a tragic accident in Amritsar, a collective of people stood on train tracks, surrounded by the festive fire and the ferocious fireworks of Dussehra, taking selfies, and so involved in this immersive environment of self-gratified feedback loops that they did not see or hear a fast train hurtling at them in the dark. In the aftermath, as video footage and people’s testimonies stitched the gruesome picture together, selfies have emerged as a part of the problem. Apparently, there is something that goes off in our brains, when we see ourselves, glittery, lit, filtered, and modified on the flickering light of our cellphones – in that brief long moment of us watching ourselves, everything else seems to disappear. All that is left is that hungry moment where we consume the self, and the world can literally collapse around us.
These incidents of selfie-love leading to danger and death of the self has been globally reported, and reported often. Each time, over the grief and pain of the families and friend who lament these deaths which looked like just fun and games till they were not, we hear the warning signs that selfies can be dangerous for health. We don’t yet know enough about why we become completely oblivious to everything and everyone around us, in this minute of peak narcissism, when we see ourselves in an image of our own. However, one thing is certain, lately, every time we hear news of public accidents and private tragedies, selfies seem to be implicated.
India leads the way in selfie-related deaths in the world, accounting for 60 per cent of all such deaths around the globe. Selfies are the reason behind fatal accidents on the road as people, whether driving, or walking, seem to lose all sense of self and crash to death. Selfies seem to be lurking in stories of people going on holidays and falling down cliffs, losing themselves in watery depths, or even being mauled by wild animals in their quest for snapping their own images. Selfies seem to be just around the corner in stories of household accidents, street-corner collisions, and even personal fights.
Selfies, like cigarettes, are soon going to come with statutory warnings and images of all the ridiculous ways in which people have harmed themselves in the pursuit of a selfie. I have spent the last two weeks, engaging with the good folks at the online group, Selfie Research Network, and one of the things that has stood out is that selfies are no longer just describing our reality, they are defining it. Selfies used to be a way of capturing some moments of our lives — they now seem to be the only way by which our life can be defined. Selfies are not about our relationship with ourselves — but about our relationship with the world out there, that is no longer accessible but mediated only through the algorithmic platforms of selfie-interaction.
Or to put it other way, we used to think that selfies are the occasional manifestations of our inner narcissus, surfacing in performative moments, to capture an exceptional state of affairs. From there, we have come to a straight-forward internet maxim “pic or it didn’t happen”. We have learned to externalise ourselves, and, in the process, created selfies that stand as a beacon of hope, joy, celebration, attention — superficial, flat, caricatures of life, and trapped in the minutes of their posting, hoping that life will be an endless loop of that endless happiness. Even as we post selfies, we are aware of the hollowness that surrounds them, and desperately hope that if we perform enough happiness, distributing our pearlies on display, maybe things will change. Selfies are now how we live.
And this is not just a personal phenomenon any more. The erection of the Statue of Unity, on a river-island, overlooking an artificial lake, facing the Narmada Dam is a great example of the selfie times we live in. A look at the statue, in its gargantuan stature, smiling benignly for the whole world to look at, and we can now forget the reality that it hides in its concrete steadfastness. It stands on a site that witnessed enormous agitations over people’s rights to their lands. It stands in a state where 25 per cent of its population face hunger and malnutrition, according to International Food Policy Research Institute (Ifpri). It celebrates the man who organised peasants in Gujarat for non-violent civil disobedience, and was inaugurated by a leader whose party has preached and practised communal hatred and violence. It is a selfie of the country that hides the self, and the state of the state where people are struggling to eat, drink, and breathe.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru.