If you heard that the Duke of York had recently posted a private photo to his Facebook page of The Queen and other family members, what would you think? That he was a progressive member of the monarchy who was embracing social media?
Me, too. And that's exactly what he did earlier this month, in fact. Taken in one of his mother's private rooms at Buckingham Palace before a reception, it is the first behind-the-scenes photo uploaded to a social-media site by a member of the Royal family. The royals have Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, but they're mostly administered by a communications team. But Prince Andrew is keen on technology – and photography. He was the first in the Royal family to take a selfie (a rather goofy one) in April last year at an event for entrepreneurs. And it was cute, humanizing the 88-year-old monarch.
But what if Prince Andrew had used a selfie stick? That's an extendable arm (or monopod) for a smartphone, which allows the photographer to have a wider, higher angle that can capture a large group (with him in it) and a fish-eye view of the background. And what if someone had taken a picture of him using the selfie stick for the photo?
Would the Duke of York become the Duke of Dork?
I think so, too. Not only that, the selfie-stick-aided photo would now be somewhat off-putting. It would suggest a vulgar sense of regal self-importance.
The same issue came up when President Obama used a selfie stick recently. He was doing it in a silly BuzzFeed video, titled Things Everybody Does But Doesn't Talk About, as an unconventional marketing effort to encourage a key demographic – young people – to sign up for Obamacare before the deadline. Many critics deemed the video undignified for the leader of the Western world. (He also pulled faces; drew a silly picture of his wife, Michelle; shot air hoops; and used the term YOLO, meaning, "You only live once.") Ad experts thought it was brilliant. The video garnered 23 million views on Facebook within a few days. The selfie stick was a perfect prop to underscore the goofiness of the video. It made him look idiotic – purposefully.
It's the stick that stirs the pot of cultural opinion. On the one hand, it is the "most controversial gift" of 2014, according to the New York Post. On the other, it is the "greatest invention" of 2014, says Time magazine.
Some have called it the narcississtick. More like the solipsistick, I think. We're like children in this digital age, behaving as though the self is the centre around which the world revolves.
That came home to me recently in London, England. I was sitting in a 200-year-old pub when a tourist marched through the front door, never once raising his head to make eye contact with the locals. He was looking into his large-screen smartphone, which he held aloft, as he spoke to his partner using an app that allows you to see your correspondent. He turned the eye of the device to the quaint interior of the pub, and to the people drinking at the bar, as he gave a running commentary. There was no attempt to engage in the experience. He was the star – and the background was a source of Disney World-like entertainment – for his partner in another corner of the globe.
We all do this on social media, of course – narrate the world through our personal experience of it. We're almost always in selfie mode. Twitter is a platform many people use to showcase how fascinating and witty they can be, for example. Someone asked me recently if I retweeted praise followers sometimes offer. This is a no-no to those who feel that the Twittersphere is like a cocktail party. You wouldn't stand there with your flute of champagne and regurgitate accolades about yourself, would you?
The selfie stick is an extension of that solipsism. More than 100,000 of them were purchased in December last year in the U.S., Bloomberg News reports, making it the top-selling gift of the holiday season. Sales at Best Buy across Canada have "more than doubled" since last year, reports a marketing spokesperson at the company. The most popular one is the $60 Quikpod Extreme 53, which extends from 18" to 53" and is built specifically for the GoPro action camera. (Perhaps you've seen one on a ski hill near you.)
The craze started in Asia, in late summer last year. (People have tracked the trend like it's a deadly new virus.) And now it is sweeping across North America. "We brought over five selfie sticks from the U.K. in November last year, when we were about to open our store," explains Alex Dechant, 25-year-old owner of Cell Clinic, a cellphone repair shop in downtown Vancouver that also sells accessories. His selfie sticks cost $29.99 and come with Bluetooth technology that enables the user to take a picture on demand rather than rely on a timer on the smartphone itself. "They sold immediately. So we stocked 500 more. And they sold instantly. We sold out at Christmas. People were lined up outside. Then we thought, 'We're onto something here,' so we got the selfiesticks.ca [domain name]. And since the start of January, we've sold about 1,000 all over Canada."
The stick appeals to people of all ages, he says. An older man came into the store recently and bought a pink selfie stick as an office gag gift, he says. "But it does serve a purpose," Dechant continues. "It's great for travelling. My girlfriend and I travelled through Europe last year, and we used one to take pictures of ourselves in front of the Eiffel Tower and other places."
Last month, at an Intercontinental hotel property in downtown Toronto, the sales team decided to offer selfie sticks at the concierge desk. They have six on loan and others for sale, priced at $29.99 or $49.99. Guests love them, says Sherine Sutherland, head concierge at the Front Street location. "And it's not our busiest time. Once we peak in the summer, it's going to be crazy."
They're not welcome everywhere, though. In New York, some of the city's museums are restricting the use of selfie sticks, according to the New York Times. They can be distracting to others, not to mention annoying. In the U.K., they have been banned on some football grounds, including the O2 Arena in London.
You might think (or hope, perhaps) that people would self-regulate their use of the gadget. After all, this is a magic wand that instantly transforms you into a Prince of Dork.
Don't you feel a little self-conscious using it? I asked Dechant, the young Vancouver store owner. "Only if you care what people think," he replied.
Well, yes, that's the point. There are other people in the world besides you.
Editor's note: Prince Andrew is the Duke of York. Selfiesticks.ca is the domain name. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.