I just received an email, photographs attached, from a friend in Maine, who with another friend of mine is undoubtedly having a great time. I don’t know for sure because I didn’t open the attachment. I didn’t need to.
Because it is a selfie, it goes without saying that it does not picture my friends frowning or frustrated by bad weather or not getting along. Instead, there will be bright smiles on their side and resentment on mine.
I have just realized why I dislike selfies. There is a huge gap between what the sender intends (to include you in the fun) and the receiver receives (excluded from the fun). It’s not like a postcard — a mass-produced picture whereby the sender shows his location (fabulous, but rendered “touristy” by the card) and writes “Wish you were here!” Exclamation points notwithstanding, there is nothing in-your-face about it. The card comes by snail mail, and you barely look at it. By the time it arrives, he or she may or may not be having a great time, in a place which may or may not be as beautiful or picturesque as its idealized image. And the sender may or may not wish you were there (as, reciprocally, you may not wish you were there either).
But the selfie! You are sitting at the computer or on the bus with your iPhone, editing out promotional email from Yoox.com and Library of America and TCM and West Elm and eBay, or opinion nuggets from Bloomberg, when along comes this intrusively vivid reminder of what you are missing and can’t even buy. You may not be on the bus; you may even be in a fabulous place such as Rome or Wimbledon, having a great time. But the moment you open the picture you are immediately assailed by an acute sense of something missing in your life.
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This is ignoble and feels terrible. Do other people experience this, and if so, how can I have done this to them? The picture I sent from outside a revival theater on Paris’s Left Bank! Or the view from my terrace of the ocean at sunset!
Or the interior of New York’s Central Park, where I got lost in May. Walking from East 79th Street to West 81st Street, there’s a spot in the Bramble where there are only green trees in full leaf visible. I oriented myself with my iPhone Compass app and began taking snapshots of the passing sights, trees, a bird and eventually Bethesda Fountain, where I finally emerged.
When I got home, I discovered I had inadvertently hit the video instead of the photo button and had recorded my entire walk. There are my Nikes clumping along, with an occasional swerve upward to sky or bush. I knew that should anyone stay with it for more than two seconds that this footage could not inspire envy, less still aesthetic admiration. Yet I found it so fascinating I had to send it to a few people. “Lost in Central Park!” What an adventure — an Andy Warhol film! I can still look at the video with tender amusement.
It was then, or rather that experience coupled with my recent refusal to open a selfie, that made me realize that this form of electronic epistle is doomed by its very nature to erode communication and therefore friendship. The rarely resisted impulse to send our latest thrill-filled moment reveals the narcissist in all of us, the failure of empathy, the inability to remember our own feelings of resentment when the time comes for us to unleash an update on the world. In a way, maybe it’s better to send it than to pause and consider, to face the existential question of the limits of love. Could my friends possibly be happy that I’m in Paris? In the abstract, yes, as long as they don’t have to picture me in front of Les Deux Magots. Wiser to wait until you get home and can tell them about the 2½ hours you spent getting through customs at Charles de Gaulle Airport, the hotel room with no WiFi, the Parisian Uber driver who gave you a failing grade, the must-see shows you missed, the bad meals.
So please, no more laughing pictures from Maine or Ireland or Indonesia. No more selfies unless it’s raining or you’re being stopped by a cop or have lost your passport, or you are having a lousy time that only my presence could relieve.
I make exceptions for what one friend calls “baby spam,” meaning pictures of my friends’ grandchildren. When I see Sam and Miles eating their first ice cream cones or Jackson swimming like a tadpole in his baby pool or Chloe smiling with her first tooth, I don’t feel I’m missing anything. It’s not the sort of good time you want to be in on. They don’t wish you were there, and you don’t wish you were there either — unless you’re dotty about babies. Still, one or two is enough, and no videos, please.
Molly Haskell is a film critic and author.
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