Slugger O'Toole

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That #Selfie: Do our elite really ‘get’ the new grammar of digital democracy?

Wed 11 December 2013, 1:43pm

Mandela Obama selfieSo what do you make of that ‘selfie’ from the Mandela Memorial? Personally the nearest I’ve been to an African funeral/memorial service was just ordinary a Mass at the windowless Catholic Cathedral in Abuja.

I’d never quite witnessed anything like the joy, the singing the dancing and the time taken anywhere else I’ve attended Mass (from Horsens in Denmark to Los Angeles). What in the old days at least used to take some Irish priests just 35 minutes on a Sunday, took 2 hours in Africa.

The Mandela memorial seemed to have all of that, and a whole heap of politics of the crowd thrown in.

Remove those technological accoutrements of the stage which force awareness of that little piece of Michelle Obama’s hair that’s just out of place, and put them in the round and the crowd will – in all its attention and inattention – begin to predominate over individual speakers

In more than one sense, the controls were off yesterday. Much has been made of the fact that Jacob Zuma were booed by the crowd. Well, despite the appeal to the crowd about the presence of ‘visitors’, he was not the only one to be so treated in what was at times akin to a pantomime of politics.

ObamaDanish2In some respects South Africa faces the same issues that a post Franco Spain did when it first voted for Felipe Gonzalez (and later when they voted the post Franco rightist Partido Popular back in). Democracy is not much use if the people feel they must behave themselves properly all the time.

Well, they didn’t behave ‘properly’ yesterday. And nor, once the normal controls and protocols were taken off, did three of the western political elite. And, apparently, it fell to the US President’s wife to put it all right again.

Which brings me back to whether our elites understand they are in a new world in which their behaviours are always under scrutiny. If you are Sir Phillip Green, you can get your secretary to forfend the enormous amount of time it takes to ‘engage’ online.

If you are the President of the US, you get derided if you don’t at least ‘affect’ engagement. Yesterday, though was a merely human response to a less than solemn occasion (this was a memorial remember rather than a funeral) caught by the unforgiving eye of citizen journalism.

Jennifer O’Connell writes that all of this points to an age of narcissism, when a ‘statsministerial’ selfie becomes the defining moment when the western world’s leaders had cleared their diaries, virtually at a moment’s notice, to pay homage to one of Africa’s greatest statesmen.

But perhaps Chris is closer to the mark when he talks about younger people  (whose conscious sense of themselves has been shaped by the internet) “have closed the gap between self and identity”.

The privileged and alienated reserve of ‘the traditional stage’ no longer serves a useful purpose in an increasingly unpredictable political-world-in-the-round. And in those circumstances our authentic selves is pretty much all we have to get us through.

With all the risks and dangers that may bring. In plainer speak, it once again highlights the horizontal plain in which politicians are losing control over the way they are reported.

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Comments (21)

  1. Podge (profile) says:

    I cant imagine being sat between Obama and Cameron at Mandela’s funeral and not wishing to take a “Selfie”. I don’t idolise the pair and to clarify I wouldn’t take one at a normal funeral service. I certainly would like a memento of such an event in world history were I was in the company of two world leaders.

    If anything this shows that the political elite are human.

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  2. I fully take the point about the joy of celebrating a life especially in the African Culture.
    But a “selfie” is just that….a selfie.
    And Cameron and Obama made this occasion about Cameron and Obama. Surely the whole point of a funeral is the Deceased and obviously be a part of that culture…the Deceased and Family.
    We have in this part of the world a problem in that some people have a difficulty in entering into another culture even for the 35 minutes that it takes to conduct a funeral service.
    Wouldn’t it be just a little bit rude to take a selfie at a local funeral and post it on social media.
    Obviously the Deceased is beyond caring but if we wouldn’t take a selfie at Corpus Christi in Ballymurphy or Rosemary Street Presbyterian church then I dont think we should do it elsewhere.

    For the record, I dont think funerals are the “dark occasions” they once were and I welcome photographs and momentos of the Deceased (eg recently a snooker cue) but there is a line to be drawn….a four pack of Budweiser crosses the line.
    Increasingly we are told to celebrate a life, to sympathise with the bereaved….and on two occasions asked to “be happy” or “wear casual colourful clothes” and only on one of these occasions did it feel right.

    No….there is time and place for a selfie….being on the same plane as Joey Essex…..but doing it at a funeral reduces a Nobel Laureate, Statesman, Peacemaker, Freedom Fighter to the level of a “celeb” and does little for the reputation of Cameron and Obama.
    If Obama (was he there?) and Angela Merkel (was she there?) had done this at Thatchers funeral ….would it be ok in Cameron’s eyes?
    I doubt it.

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  3. cynic2 (profile) says:

    We need to not be so po faced about death – the great leveller.

    In the end we all go there and the African celebration of life for Mandela is just a different culture – like the Irish wake – that helps celebrate what the man or woman left behind and who they were

    In that context it was totally appropriate. After all – how many memorial services are held in a huge sports stadium . .where the Archbishop has to ask the crowd to quieten down The sombre time will be the family servcie at the interrment

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  4. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    The lines, in a way like all of these things, are set socially FJH.

    This was, as cynic points out, more akin to an Irish wake. The man’s remains were not there, and the funeral itself will not be such a public event.

    The selfie I think does pull on a certain narcissistic reflex, and it gives rise to larger narcissistic pathologies. The whole Google knowledge graph (like the suggestions on Amazon) is a wholly social artifact.

    But it is only powerful because of what people pour into it of themselves, and their preferences. That is now facilitated with always-on and better and better cameraware.

    By comparison, I only have pictures of three out of my four grandparents. My paternal grandad I don’t think was ever ‘snapped’ and I only have about one each of the others.

    My kids however don’t need to wait till a travelling photographer happens along, or wait till they are trusted not to drop and break the Kodak Instamatic.

    They have control from the start, and the also know they have an easy facility to take film or pictures as easily of themselves as of others just by shifting camera lens.

    Should we be surprised this all gives rise to a different generational sense of who we are, or by extension, where authority lies.

    In a real and practical, if troubling way, we are becoming our own experts from a very very early age.

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  5. Coll Ciotach (profile) says:

    In short – selfish

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  6. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    In long?

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  7. Oh I can certainly identify with much of that.
    One grandfather was dead 30 years before I was born and only last year did I receive a copy of an old photograph.
    Three other grandparents dead before I was 9 years old and no photograph exists of me with them.
    One treasured photograph of paternal grandparents in Dublin during WW2 has gone missing in this house. I’m distressed when I think about it. And only a handful of photographs of them…and none together.
    A maternal grandmother who wore black every day of her life after 1922 and died in 1956 and refused to be photographed after 1922. (Was there an ID card in WW2…did they have photographs…no idea).
    And only one distant photograph.
    It almost angers me that most days in life Someone uses this ipad….1,300 pics in a year apparently.
    But how many pics of the night out are actually kept?
    Too many sources are as bad as too few.
    And it has produced a narcissism.
    And thats Facebook and Twitter.
    We are essentially talking about ourselves…”I did…” And here is a pic of me at….”
    We record too much.
    Long before the selfie, I wondered about the protocol of photographing the dead.
    The deceased is a very visible presence at a Wake.
    But I dont ever recall…seriously is it a taboo? …anyone taking a pic.
    One last family pic.
    Actually on reflection I recall several photographs on the day and after a death…simply because there could not have been any before the death. But thats a particuarly tragic circumstance.
    For years I have seen no good reason that it is “taboo” but the fact that everyone …kids included have camera phones HAS changed culture..
    …Tweeting during a funeral?
    …A pic of the coffin in a grave before its covered.?

    Surely with the “Selfie” it is beyond doubt that had the three people concerned given it thought or a special advisor close by…the advice would have been “dont do it”
    It was always the case that it would genuinely upset some people and synthetically upset Obama and Cameron critics.
    And a poor decision.
    But its now set a precedent. A bad one.

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  8. sherdy (profile) says:

    Possibly we should find out from Obama what he now thinks of the antics. Because judging from Michelle’s face at the time, she seriously disapproved of the Three Stooges, and would have given Barack a severe barracking afterwards.
    Oh, to have a recording of that one-way conversation, especially with video. I’ll bet he cringed. The most powerful man on earth being brought to his knees!

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  9. Son of Strongbow (profile) says:

    The ubiquitous presence of personal technology will inevitably mean that it will be increasingly used on every occasion, and with image sharing platforms everywhere photos will be the first choice of many.

    If someone had been tweeting, as I’m sure they were, would it have been worthy of comment as well?

    The Mandela event appeared, from the TV coverage at least, to have lots of breaks and downtime. Was the selfie taken during an important speech or during a lull in the proceedings?

    Many people live their lives through their phone’s lens. To not have a photo is not to have had the experience. Although this can, even for the Digital Native, sometimes cross a line; as with the young woman who did a selfie on a bridge in New York (?) the other day that included a person threatening to jump off the bridge to commit suicide as her backdrop,

    Btw the clipping of the Danish PM’s presence (the person seemingly making the selfie) from some of the above comments suggests that some are more concerned with having a cheap shot at our PM and the US President (particularly Mr Cameron I suspect is the target) rather than their having issues with digital etiquette. #drearysteeples

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  10. USA (profile) says:

    I thought it was dignified. They should have known better.

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  11. USA (profile) says:

    “undignified”

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  12. Paulk (profile) says:

    I think it was ill-judged to be honest. I’m not particularly outraged at it just have the attitude that they really should’ve known better. I understand they are all (allegedly!) humans too but, they are also statesmen/women and a certain standard is expected of them especially at an occasion such as this. I no problems with prime ministers or presidents relaxing or having fun at various state functions but choose the occasion you let your hair down a little more carefully.

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  13. Paulk (profile) says:

    * i have no problems… except trying to form sentences!!!

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  14. pauluk (profile) says:

    With life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa hovering somewhere around 54, for Mandela to live to the ripe old age of 95 is something for South Africans to celebrate. Maybe it was all that good exercise he had during his prison years.

    Not sure why, and at the risk of being called a racist, it’s ironic life expectancy has actually dropped in South Africa since the end of White rule.

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  15. foyle observer (profile) says:

    Very undignified.

    Rest assured you wouldn’t have witnessed Cameron posing for a ‘selfie’ at Thatcher’s funeral.

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  16. Tochais Síoraí (profile) says:

    @pauluk – Maybe if you’d exercise yourself by actually reading the article you’d linked to you might discover the reason.

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  17. The Raven (profile) says:

    “Rest assured you wouldn’t have witnessed Cameron posing for a ‘selfie’ at Thatcher’s funeral.”

    Funeral at suitably intimate (compared to a football stadium) venue where cameras are pointed from all angles, with capacity for extreme close-up

    verses

    Memorial, in a stadium, with music, dancing, a huge crowd in ‘celebration’, no casket, and essentially, not a funeral. That’s “not a funeral”.

    “All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader. It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid,” Roberto Schmidt said. That’s the photographer.

    We also have the whole “Oh look at the bake on Jealous Michelle” issue, which precludes the other stills which weren’t broadcast as widely, with Michelle and Helle sharing a joke.

    “I later read on social media that Michelle Obama seemed to be rather peeved on seeing the Danish prime minister take the picture. But photos can lie. In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included. Her stern look was captured by chance.”

    Perhaps we need to look at what isn’t shown, as much as what is. But sure, isn’t that always the way?

    World leaders in not-automaton-aide-groomed behaviour shocker. “That #Selfie”?? Get over yourselves, folks.

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  18. pauluk (profile) says:

    Well done, TS. Here’s another interesting article that I haven’t read… possibly Mandela’s greatest failure.

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  19. USA (profile) says:

    I can certainly accept that the tone of the occasion was celebratory. This was probably a major reason they let their hair down a little.

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  20. gendjinn (profile) says:

    The photographer has provided context for the photograph.

    In summary, there’s not much there there.

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  21. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Pretty much, thanks for that gendjinn!

    It’s a big fat theatre in the round… The audience sees what it wants to see and, unlike conventional theatre, everyone can see something slightly (or majorly) different…

    Anyway, suddenly this woman pulled out her mobile phone and took a photo of herself smiling with Cameron and the US president. I captured the scene reflexively. All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader. It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid. The ceremony had already gone on for two hours and would last another two. The atmosphere was totally relaxed – I didn’t see anything shocking in my viewfinder, president of the US or not. We are in Africa.

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