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Selfies With Hillary? Not the Problem.

Victor Ng, a designer working for Hillary Clinton's campaign, posted this photo on Twitter along with the caption, "2016, ya'll."

The photo shows a crowd of people with their backs turned to the candidate. A sign of protest? Just the opposite. Camera phones held high, the Hillary fans are attempting to take selfies to capture the moment, creating proof that they were in the room with Clinton.  

The image is indeed striking. All these people taking selfies. All at the same time. (Turns out, this is because Clinton had just said something like 'If anybody wants a selfie, turn around right now.')

It's certainly a strange-looking way for a supportive crowd to behave. 

The Twitter reactions make clear that some read the image as depicting narcissism, ignorance, and disrespect, as if these ostensible "supporters" were mindlessly taking pictures of themselves instead of paying attention to their next president.

The image became a kind of "news story" (2016, ya'll), and was "reported" in articles like CNET's, "Astonishing pic of Hillary Clinton shows what we've become."  

Yes, the image is astonishing. And it does capture something of our cultural/technological moment, as Ng's caption suggests. And it does show what appears to be a new mode of crowd comportment.

But is the smug "this is what we've become" tone really necessary? 

Sure, people do odd things around celebrities. Always have. And yep, people take selfies. And ok, it still looks a little weird to see them doing it, especially if you catch a roomful of people doing it all at once. 

But our critical scrutiny could just as easily be directed at knee-jerk dismissal of the practice on the part of the "journalist." Frankly, if something absurd is happening here, it's not that people are trying to take pictures of themselves with Clinton, rather, it's that a journalist writing about new media on a new media platform thinks it makes sense to dismiss out of hand another new media practice. 

Plenty has been written about the way people are using selfies as a tool for communication, self expression, and identity play. It's not inherently more narcissistic than any other social media practice. For awhile I was trying to keep tabs on some of the more thoughtful commentary here, but eventually there was just too much of it, and anyway, The Selfies Research Network has emerged and is doing a much better job of collecting and sharing readings than I could possibly do on my own. 

I find it much more interesting to try to understand selfie-taking as a phenomenon than to just smirk it all away. When I was teaching an intro-level cultural studies courses, I'd spend a day or two exploring the selfie phenomenon with my students. If this image from the campaign trail had appeared while I was teaching that course, I can easily imagine incorporating it into the discussion. We'd talk about selfies as a practice. We'd discuss this particular photograph as a text in itself. And then we'd get into the meta discussion of the way the image is being framed by a paranoid headline like CNET's. We'd talk a lot about gender, because I think it's impossible to talk in any meaningful way about selfies in general, or about this image in particular, or about Hillary Clinton, or about this derisive headline, without it.

Selfies happen. It's ok. Really. If anything about this election is a sign of the end of civilization, this is not it.