The Instagram Generation

Obama was caught taking a selfie at Mandela’s memorial service. Was he trying to show that, unlike the other world leaders there, he was just like the rest of us, an ordinary guy?

Sheri Turkle, noting the incident, commented: “Until recently . . . people didn’t seem to feel like themselves unless they shared a thought or feeling . . . . These days, we still want to share, but now our first focus is to have, to possess, a photograph of our experience.”

It is astonishing how frequently cell phone cameras are used, not to capture an interesting image or unusual event, but just to mark a passing moment on a street corner, munching a hot dog, or with friends in front of a landmark. And then there are selfies. What’s it all about?

Turkle argues against the practice, noting: “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 price we pay for our constant stream of texts and images is a loss of thoughtfulness.

She adds: “These days, when people are alone, or feel a moment of boredom, they tend to reach for a device. In a movie theater, at a stop sign, at the checkout line at a supermarket and, yes, at a memorial service, reaching for a device becomes so natural that we start to forget that there is a reason, a good reason, to sit still with our thoughts.” (See, “The Documented Life.”)

She’s right, of course. But the more interesting question is “Why do we do it?”

She implies it happens when we are bored or lonely, and that certainly has to be part of the answer. But do we also fear fading away without documentation? Or that, unrecorded, we aren’t real? Are our selfies our personal “media,” so that if The Daily Beast doesn’t get around to noticing us on the red carpets of our lives, we try to make sure somebody does?

There are many reasons for taking photos, of course, but I think a common thread running through them all is that the photos add a sense of importance. Documenting our lives them helps make them seem, well, worth documenting. The pics and tweets don’t actually make us more important, to be sure, but they create the illusion of importance.

So, then, we must do it because our daily lives don’t actually feel important enough, not compared with the constant stream of celebrity coverage and reality TV. The soldiers who took the now infamous photos at Abu Graib were standing in for the absent media. They couldn’t possibly anticipate the full extent of the world-wide attention they ended up getting, but clearly they were asking for it. Those who “leaked” the photos were realizing the unconscious intent of those who took them.

And if something news worthy does occur, such as a terrorist bombing at the finish line at the Boston marathon, those with cell phones stand ready to record history – and, for a brief moment, they actually are important.