Are we over ourselves?

24 : 10 : 2017 Youth : Media : Digital

The next decade could be defined as a search for substance among the selfies and elsies.

Daniela Walker, insight editor, LS:N Global
Museum of Ice Cream, US. Photography by Jake Stangel Museum of Ice Cream, US. Photography by Jake Stangel
Museum of Ice Cream, US Museum of Ice Cream, US
The Color Factory, San Francisco The Color Factory, San Francisco
Ryoji Ikeda for Everything at Once at The Vinyl Factory, London Ryoji Ikeda for Everything at Once at The Vinyl Factory, London

Are we there yet? Have we reached peak narcissism? The other day a new app, ElsiePic, was released. The premise of the app was that instead of taking selfies, you use the app to find someone in your vicinity to take an ‘elsie’, a picture taken by someone else. Until the advent of the reverse smartphone camera, it is the way we’ve been taking pictures since the Kodak camera first came out in 1888.

And yet ElsiePic founder Tatiana Cooke and her business partner Tony Hajdari are also addressing a very 21st-century need: we not only want to have pictures of ourselves, but these pictures must be perfectly curated with the right crop and lighting. Otherwise, they may not be shareable, and that means that moment you’re capturing didn’t really happen at all.

The need to document what we are doing, where and with whom has become so rampant that our cultural institutions are becoming slaves to spectacle. From Rain Room at the Barbican in 2012 to the 2015 smash show Wonder at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to Lisson Gallery and Vinyl Factory’s group show Everything at Once, now on at 180 The Strand, museum installations are becoming larger and larger, and increasingly photogenic.

That is not to say there isn’t value to the art that lies therein, but we are now at a stage where museums are opening that aren’t so much museums but studio backdrops for selfies – from Color Factory in San Francisco to the Museum of Ice Cream, which initially popped up in New York in summer 2016 and was sold out, and is now charging people £29 ($38, €32) a ticket to dive into a pool of plastic sprinkles in San Francisco.

Thinking about how our behaviour may change as we enter a new decade, it is worth considering whether our culture can maintain this level of narcissism.

These social media spaces remain popular, despite the fact that recent studies repeatedly reveal the negative effects of social media on feelings of loneliness and anxiety. A survey of almost 1,500 14–24-year-olds by the Royal Society of Public Health found that Instagram and Snapchat ranked as the worst for mental health and wellbeing. This anxiety around documenting a perfect life may be why more people are turning to digital detoxes. In 2016, 15m UK internet users said they had undertaken a digital detox in a bid to strike a healthier balance between technology and life beyond the screen (source: Ofcom).

Thinking about how our behaviour may change as we enter a new decade, it is worth considering whether our culture can maintain this level of narcissism. ‘We have a narcissistic society when self-promotion and individuality seem to be essential, yet in our hearts that’s not what we want,’ Pat MacDonald, author of the paper Narcissism in the Modern World told The Guardian. ‘We want to be part of a community, we want to be supported when we’re struggling and we want a sense of belonging.’

In The Future Laboratory’s research into consumers of the 2020s we found that this yearning for belonging is pushing a new tribal mentality among groups of people who want to connect offline rather than online. This has given rise to a new generation of collectives, and is resulting in new-found cultural pride for the youth of emerging markets. It’s a sentiment that is reflected on Yelp reviews of the Museum of Ice Cream, where one reviewer warned: ‘It was such an infuriatingly disappointing experience because it appears to have been constructed solely to create backdrops for selfies. Steer clear: this place is overly self-absorbed and saccharine with no substance.’

Indeed, the next decade could be defined as a search for substance among the selfies and elsies. This brings me back to ElsiePic, and why its premise rings hollow at a time when connection is needed more than ever. Founder Cooke says she started the app because she didn’t want to find a stranger to take a group picture of her family when they were visiting the Alamo. It seems she would prefer to hire a stranger rather than rely on the kindness of one. If we are moving towards the end of mass-narcissism, we will need to stop turning moments of potential contemplation and connection into transactions.

The Future Laboratory has launched Consumer 2020 – an exploration of six emerging mindsets that will shape the consumer landscape of the next decade. To book an in-house presentation, click here.