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Why We Love And Loathe The Selfie Stick

2015's most controversial gadget offers up a vision of a confusing, possibly concerning, but ultimately plausible future to its critics.

Posted on January 19, 2015, at 10:22 a.m. ET

Zoran Milich / Reuters

Six months ago I sent an email out to BuzzFeed’s editorial staff with a simple subject headline: “Selfie stick: awful or amazing?" I created a monster. The resulting 150-plus email thread has proven remarkably persistent and set off a debate that continues — much to the chagrin of basically everyone — in our inboxes to this day. Allow me to share a few examples.

There's the "quite possibly violates the Geneva Convention" crowd:

I watched two people run up the side of a volcano in Santorini, holding selfie sticks in front of then, fitted with go-pro cameras. I consider that a crime against humanity.

The "I weep for the children" crowd:

Selfie sticks make me sad. It seems like another thing tipping the scales toward formalizing and commercializing our status as weird friendless units who are more concerned with constructing a false reality than actually cultivating a real life. Maybe I'm being pedantic, but like, GET A FRIEND to take your picture? Build a real relationship or something. Stop being a self-contained self-perpetuating narcissism juggernaut.

Then there's the Luddite-shamers:

You people are such reactionaries. This is progress, people.

And the "I've clearly thought about this more than you and here's a very solid argument as to why you need to GET OVER IT" crowd:

I believe most young people see selfies as a form of discourse rather than any kind of permanent record or self portrait. Each generation is increasingly less aware, or cares less, about the fact that uploading something to the internet is a form of publishing. In that context the two main reasons for using them seem to be a) not bothering passers by at tourist attractions and b) getting more people in your photo. The selfie stick is essentially a grand altruistic gesture. It should be applauded.

Likewise, outside my inbox, the selfie stick endures. It was ubiquitous at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, and its steady rise in popularity among normal, god-fearing human beings in recent months has spurred countless meditations on the stick, nearly all of which fall very strongly on one side of the "awful or amazing" spectrum. It’s early yet, but the stick appears to have joined Google Glass in the pantheon of highly polarizing pieces of gadgetry.

But it's different, too. Due to its ability to record surreptitious video and act as a constant digital layer between your face and the physical world, Google Glass has become an easy, understandable target. It's a distracting, alienating, privacy concern-inducing device that feels like it fell backwards out of the future and effortlessly plays to our fears of the ever-advancing, shadowy 'borg.

The selfie stick, by contrast, is a stick.

The objection seems to be purely about its signifier — its accidental brand. Because the device itself is nothing new. It’s just a monopod, which has been used as a photography aid for decades, plus a bluetooth remote control. "Monopod" conjures up vague images of insects, or clunky technical gear, or both, but it's nothing to get exercised about. The rebrand, though, was genius. It turned a telescopic piece of plastic or aluminum into the logical extension of the most rampant cultural phenomenon of the smartphone era: the selfie.

Naturally, then, critics of the selfie — who already find the form and its prevalence as proof of some kind of unsustainable narcissism/harbinger of societal decline — are appalled by any instrument designed to facilitate this process. And they're not necessarily wrong. Carrying a telescopic pole around to get that perfect fishbowl wide shot that captures you entire brunch crew is weird and new and maybe reason for one to give pause and think about ~the culture~.

Channel 4/DirecTV

One of Black Mirror's various dystopian images.

But I don’t think that’s quite it. Recent entries to BuzzFeed's intra-office selfie stick email thread have begun to reference Black Mirror, the British television show that many have dubbed "The Twilight Zone for the information era." Black Mirror — which is wonderful and you should probably go watch it on Netflix right now — grapples with the way that technology weaves its way into our lives and the very fabric of our beings, often teasing out and exaggerating our best and worst qualities. It's often funny and consistently tortuous to watch, perhaps because it feels equal parts dystopian and plausible.

In a 2011 Guardian column by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker, he explains the genesis of the show, which was born out of his love/hate relationship with gadgets:

Nonetheless, I relish this stuff. I coo over gadgets, take delight in each new miracle app. Like an addict, I check my Twitter timeline the moment I wake up. And often I wonder: is this all really good for me? For us? None of these things have been foisted on humankind — we've merrily embraced them. But where is it all leading? If technology is a drug — and it does feel like a drug — then what, precisely, are the side-effects?

Brooker rather succinctly describes this notion as living in the area "between delight and discomfort," which arguably sums up the 21st century better than any long treatise on the information age I've read. It's also precisely the space where the selfie stick, in all its tubular glory, lands. It's the very opposite of technological gadget progress in that it's a purely analog device. It is, fully erect, big and clunky and awkward. Using it in public is an alienating experience (for now!). It creates some social discomfort, as well as the aforementioned cultural discomfort (we are all narcissists, etc.).

And then there's the delight, of which there's plenty. Selfie-stick photos are generally of a higher caliber; when there's a landscape involved, they're often stunning. They stretch the field of vision to add more of everything, including people, into the frame, meaning it's a more inclusive tool. Just take this Beyoncé-inspired pro-stick argument, which was written by a thoughtful co-worker and basically knocked me, an at-the-time staunchly anti-stick person, sideways:

Beyonce's selfie stick is fabulous!

Selfies have always been about forcing your self-perspective onto other people. Hold your camera up, fix your facial expression, and frame your best "you" to share with your friends. It makes sense that selfie sticks are so popular now--what happens if your best "you" begins to look just like a billion other selfies out there (your arm is only so long, selfie perspectives begin to look redundant). Time to bust out a selfie stick and there you have longer perspective, slightly skewed, outta the norm and for sure unique from the easily accessible selfie. Too bad you look super dumb when seen from the outside perspective (but that's not what gets shared w/ friends, small sacrifice to pay).

Now bring in Beyonce, whom we all already have this epic impression as a goddess, and allow her to share with us her own perspective of what she finds beautiful about herself. It's too much to even handle. She even says it, "I'm fresher than you."

As my co-worker sees it, the selfie is about putting one's self in the frame of one's own memories; a way to document one's life in the form of an image when there's no else to do so — a powerful gift of modern technology. Recode's Nellie Bowles echoes this sentiment in a recent piece that criticizes the selfie stick. "I don’t need to take a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, because I know there’s already a better one on Google, but I do like to take a selfie with a friend in front of it," she writes. "It marks that I was there, shows me moving through time on that particular morning."

Bowles goes on to argue that "the selfie stick professionalizes and disembodies these moments. The pictures are too good — like maybe someone else took it or a drone flew overhead." But that level of professionalism Bowles laments is precisely the point, it seems; the stick takes this gift of inserting one's self into one's memories and adds another dimension of control. The stick grants the photographer the ability to put one's best self forward to the world, and, in the process, gives those who view the photo more information and insight into the photographer's motivations and mindset in the moment where the shutter clicks.

And yet no amount of rationale, no matter how eloquently stated, is likely to settle the stomachs of those who look at the stick and see, like many saw/still see in Glass, yet another layer of bricks in the wall between the digital and physical: a purgatory in which humans are present in both words but whole in neither. And while I'd argue that these two worlds are now inextricably connected and really one in the same, this feeling also isn't wrong.

It's complicated, but that's more than OK. Technologies are created and iterated faster than most of us can possibly keep up with or process, yet they're woven into our cultural fabric at a far slower pace. The selfie stick may prove to be the lasting image of the mid-2010s. Or it'll be the Segway-esque butt of even more jokes in three months. Or maybe it's a gateway for widely adopted drone selfie photography. And perhaps that's what's behind the selfie stick anxiety — the idea that this seemingly ridiculous personal face-photography aid pole has become not only acceptable, but a new step forward for our culture. Looking at the stick, it's not hard to extrapolate forward and imagine the skies dark with selfie drones. Much like Black Mirror, the stick offers up a vision of a confusing, possibly concerning, but ultimately plausible future to its critics, one that's steadfastly approaching, perhaps quicker than we'd like.

I'm undecided. Seeing the stick in public still makes me cringe more than I'd like, and I feel that twinge of anxiety that suggests the selfie stick could be the tip of some dystopian tech iceberg, the consequences of which none of us can know. But in listening to the arguments of my co-workers, I begin to question that anxiety. The photos taken with the stick are often a pleasure, and the arguments from vehement pro-stickers suggest that the device brings a new excitement, joy, and ease to a popular practice/habit, which, at the end of the day, is the job of the very best pieces of technology.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter if the selfie stick is awful or amazing because it plays a far more important and subtle role. While it's easy to dismiss this gadget by its name alone, the stick does what all divisive pieces of technology do: illuminates our cultural tensions and anxieties in a tangible way. Take my office's selfie-stick email thread. The 150-plus emails aren't just about a telescopic pole, they're meditations on the joys and frustrations and limitations of self expression. They're admissions of the fear that the culture is evolving faster than some of its citizens. They're passionate defenses of the promises of the future as well as premature eulogies for the present.

It doesn't matter if the stick is awful or amazing because its very existence forces the most curious of us to interrogate the place of technology in our own lives. Divisive technology such as the selfie stick allows us to live in Brooker's world "between delight and discomfort," a place where we're likely to learn something about our changing world and ourselves. And that's progress, no?

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