Selfies or Selfless this Holiday Season?

barack-obama-selfieIn the past week since Nelson Mandela passed on, and Obama’s selfie at the memorial service went viral, digital documentation practices have understandably come under fire in the mass media.

Most pointedly, Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together and frequent commentator on the sociology of a digital era, wrote a response to the Obama-selfie-drama in a New York Times Op-Ed this week:

“Technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are. The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us ‘on pause’ in order to document our lives. It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations ‘on pause’ when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.”

The NYT also published a critique of Instagram this week (“The Agony of Instagram”), describing through the experience of several users that levels of “FOMO” – fear of missing out – may be reaching epidemic proportions:

“Members of the Facebook generation are no strangers to the sensation of feeling a little left out when their friends post from that book party they weren’t invited to, or from someone’s latest transporting trip to the white sands of Tulum. Yet even for those familiar with the concept of social-media envy, Instagram — the highest achievement yet in social-media voyeurism — presents a new form of torture.”

Lastly, the DailyMail reported on a study of the negative effects of photography on our memories, and how taking something in with our own eyes and not our smartphones is the most sure way we will actually retain the memory:

When people rely on technology to remember for them, it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences.’ Previous studies have suggested that reviewing old photos can help us remember, but only if we spend long enough doing it. ‘In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them,’ said Dr Henkel.

As the holidays draw near, it seems these critiques are well-timed, since so many of us use our phones and various applications to capture precious moments with our friends and families. These pieces prompted several self reflections on my part: Am I unknowingly putting a ‘pause’ in important life moments when I go to capture a moment? Do any of my Instrgram posts cause agony for others, and do I ever – even if sub-consciously – feel a sense of FOMO from looking at others’ posts? Am I risking the chance I’ll retain a precious life experience by digitally capturing it, instead of taking a moment (or eight, as the research suggests), to assess it with my own two eyes? 

An important nuance all of these pieces point out is that it’s not that technology itself is doing us damage; rather it’s the way we are using it. And too often, we allow the culture and conditioning around a behavior like self-photography become part of our own self-expectations and social norms. We are naturally more self-centered and, as Turkle notes, more likely to think we can ‘pause’ real-life instead of face it head on. As a result we become less sensitive, not only to our own thoughts and feelings, but to the needs of others around us.

And if the holidays are for anything, are they not for celebrating the spirit and joy of genuine human connection? For the act of going out of our way to take care of others and put their needs before our own?

There’s certainly nothing wrong with using selfies to celebrate those connections, but this season it’s important to be extra aware of what we might be missing around us when we’re staring back at ourselves too much. I can’t help but think to my own city of Boston, for example. I work part-time at a primary health care center, serving a largely low-income population, and my small office has been crammed full of beautifully wrapped gifts that my co-workers graciously buy and donate every year to households where Santa otherwise would never visit. Talk about selfless!

This touching act of outreach got me pondering further about Turkle’s assertion that too much stop-and-go digital action means, “you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.” Am I concerned more about approval from a virtual audience, than about care-taking for the human neighbors (and family) around me?

So I tried out a pretty literal thought exercise in regards to self-centered versus selfless behavior this holiday: where am I, and what am I thinking? I’m in Boston, and a few minutes of Google-ing taught me that:

  • This time last year, almost 7,000 of my neighbors were homeless and sleeping on the snowy, frigid streets in this freezing weather. A 2013 census conducted this week will assess how that number has fluctuated, and recent reports detail the growing housing crisis. Do I get to come home to a bed? Heck, do I even get to come home, period?
  • The latest Greater Boston Food Bank study revealed that nearly 550,000 people (of roughly 4.5 million) needed their services in 2010. Do I pretty much get to buy not only what I need to ear, but also what I want, on weekly grocery runs? Am I fortunate enough to even get to experiment with different kinds of food and recipes?
  • The same report detailed that, of the hungry in Boston, 44% had to choose to spend their limited resources on either food or heat, 34% had to choose between food and rent, and 37% had to choose between food and medical care. Never mind thinking about the level of choice I have in what to eat – do I have something to eat? Am I able to eat, pay my rent, heat, and healthcare?

(Of course, the answer to all is “Yes.” These thoughts are all the more staggering having just returned back from Haiti, where 78% of the population living in poverty is a reality that seems almost too heavy to bear.)

But such questions are NOT intended to spark mere thoughts of appreciation for our treasures – and certainly NOT meant to promote wallowing in guilt over our comparative wealth –  but rather meant to encourage acting on gratitude. When I take my eyes off myself and really take a look at the situation around me (through my own two eyes), what do I see? And what am I going to do about it?

The selfie debate is NOT about admitting technology addiction or committing to technology abstinence for the sake of saving our humanity – in fact oftentimes it is technology that allows us to act more effectively, efficiently, and even more humanistically to express and advance our gratitude. For example, the Boston Homeless Census team pioneered a mobile app this year to more precisely document data, which in turn will help improve the quality of services provided to tackle homelessness. And if selfies really are a source of social currency and influence, then why not flood Instagram feeds with more pics of positivity and kindness?

Selfies vs. selflessness is not a zero sum, either/or game. The debate is rather about realizing when acts of digital documentation and communication, such as selfies, detract from humanly connective qualities, such as selflessness. As we say often here on Everyday Ambassador, a clear guiding principle is to strive to use technology in ways that bring you closer to others who are otherwise far, rather than ways that pull you away from people who are already close by.

So rock out those selfies (thoughtfully!), and take every opportunity you can for selflessness. Whatever level of technology you want to keep in hand (or prefer to stash away) this holiday, we hope you’ll spend it acting on gratitude and compassion for the human beings directly around you. And if you need some inspiration, we think this little guy did a pretty stellar job :)

#HappyHolidays from our EA family to yours :)

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