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Last week, a website hosted on the microblogging platform Tumblr caused waves of outrage in the Internet world. The blog in question, Selfies at Funerals, hosts a collection of self-photographs (or “selfies”) of mostly adolescents taken en-route or in the midst of funerals and memorial services. News agencies and the blogosphere alike were quick to tout the unflattering collection of photographs as society’s death rattle, signs of an impending apocalypse, or further proof that the millennial generation is the most self-obsessed of all the generations. A horrified response is certainly appropriate for what seems to be gratuitous narcissism even in the face of death and mourning. However, there might be something more innocent going on behind these morbid photo-ops.
Ten years ago, the inner workings of an adolescent’s mind were published primarily in diaries or journals and safely stowed away in crawl spaces or under mattresses. In a societal plot twist few saw coming, the diary was unceremoniously replaced with the social networking site. A brief look at status posts on Facebook or Twitter will reveal the kind of personal content you used to find in private diaries – relationship issues, concerns about gossiping friends, dismay over low test scores, and more. Few seem to be deterred by the fact that many people can see what they write; if anything, it motivates them to write more specific statements on their doings. So what gives?
First, there’s the issue of self-obsession and narcissism. What trend better encompasses these traits than the ubiquitous “selfie”? Young people seem to take these one-armed close-ups at every available moment, whether it be during lunch break in school or (more distressingly) at a funeral. Yet adolescence as a whole is a period of self-absorption in which many kids require constant reaffirmation about their identities. It’s just that nowadays, kids have online sources to affirm themselves and each other.
One teenager, when asked to comment on the subject of selfies, even described the trend as “a kind of visual diary; you can look back on what you did that day while also tracking how you’ve changed.” When put in that light, a selfie at a funeral becomes just something the kid can look back on as a concrete reminder of what happened that day and how they looked.
Moreover, death (especially the death of someone far removed) is a strange experience for a young person. Many could probably sympathize with an overwhelming desire to laugh or giggle at inappropriate moments during funerals for people they don’t know well, if only as an expression of nervousness. With today’s technology, maybe taking a self-photograph to memorialize the moment isn’t as insidious as it seems. After all, some of the captions on these “selfies” are actually quite heartfelt. One of the selfies shows the subject in question making a silly face at his grandmother’s funeral, but his explanation is that he’s “trying to imagine the face she’d pull if she was there! Love you!” And that really seems to be more of a coping mechanism than an attempt at self-promotion.
That being said, it still doesn’t excuse the fact that there seems to be a lack of respect for the dead from these kids’ perspectives. What does this mean for our young people if many don’t see an issue with using funerals as photo opportunities? For one thing, it means that kids are turning primarily to online sources for ratification as opposed to family members or loved ones. If the instinct during a momentous occasion is to post something online to be viewed by the masses, rather than to be in the present moment with your loved ones, then we know that technology has succeeded in overshadowing reality.
There’s no doubt that the concept of taking self-photographs at a funeral is distressing and should be discouraged, if only because it indicates disrespect for those present and to the person being memorialized. But our technology has enabled this kind of over-sharing, and it comes as no surprise that young people will drag that into every aspect of their lives, even in situations where self-promotion is tasteless. The challenge society now faces is to teach our young people the proper time and place for self-affirmation in a world where 24-hour access to vast social networks is a reality.