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CHICAGO — We haven’t figured out the boundaries of a private vs. public internet. For one, it’s a highly subjective matter and doesn’t require hard and fast rules — especially not for the teenagers who are shaping it. Our selfies, this aesthetic of adolescent self-portraiture, have become a visual symbol of individuality in an evolving networked culture.
In Fast Company Senior Editor Jason Feifer’s project Tumblr Selfies at Funerals, he compiles 20 photos of teenagers taking selfies at, before, after, or related to funerals. The majority of teenagers pictured are white, Hispanic, or biracial — there is only one dark-skinned black girl present, and no young black men.
Moreover, with only two pages of about 20 Instagram and Twitter photos hashtagged #funeralselfie or with “funeral” and “selfie” as visible keywords, this curated Tumblr presents very limited evidence of what purports to be a “trend.” According to statistics released by Instagram in January 2013, there are 90 million monthly active users and 40 million photos posted per day on this social network. To claim that a mere 20 photographs constitutes a “trend” is a stretch. But the internet is eager for more selfie exploration, and Feifer named this concept and dropped it onto a neat white minimalist-themed Tumblr.
This Tumblr project is focused on adolescents who take selfies either while en route to or at funerals, or just in memoriam. Like the popular Band of Horses song “The Funeral,” with lyrics that echo the omnipresent funeral — “At every occasion I’ll be ready for the funeral / At every occasion, once more, it’s called the funeral / At every occasion, oh, one billion day funeral” — teenagers on the internet are always ready for the funeral, smartphones in hand, selfie faces ready to express a fleeting feeling.
Sure, there’s the girl making duck lips while heading to a funeral, which comes off as both funny and weird. But I remember being a teenager and laughing my ass off when serious and sad events occurred mostly because I didn’t know how else to deal. I was too afraid to tell someone how I was really feeling for fear of judgment, or something worse. Instead, I went home and journaled for hours on end or announced my feelings to friends on the playground, in private homes, or while on long walks. These teenagers are doing the same thing online — it’s just that the new media neighborhood they inhabit is far more public.
As a result, their selfie-expressions are read as exhibitionist and performative — but when you’re growing up online, where else do you learn about social rules? Beyond the strange yet familiarly adolescent poses, a closer look at these selfies reveals emotional nuances and serious approaches. Teenagers are trying to communicate something to you, whoever you are. Chances are this was meant mostly for their friends though, which makes you a voyeur.
In this funeral selfie in memoriam, a young woman eloquently writes: “I’m ready for his funeral, burial, & candlelight, but I don’t want to say goodbye. #selfie te extrañaremos Ángel.” Capturing her face with a two-handed long-arm selfie, she smiles shyly, not quite gazing into her smartphone lens. She documents her bittersweet goodbye, and it is quite moving — a private and vulnerable moment made public through the selfie-as-mirror. We are left to wonder who Ángel was, why he’s dead, and what their relationship was like. In looking through the mirror, she becomes humanized to the viewer. Yet decontextualized from the original space of her Instagram stream, and anonymized via inclusion in this Tumblr, she exists as a face of her Instagrammed generation. This is a moment — her moment — that she is sharing with her friends. It’s just that she happened to #hashtag it, and so it pops up in a public stream.
In another funeral selfie, a young boy flexes his muscles in front of a bedroom mirror while snapping a pre-funeral selfie. He’s visually communicating how he is feeling. He’s also looking sharp, and he knows it — it’s important to look good when you’re saying goodbye to the dead. One of the comments he receives, name blocked out, says: “Hope you’re okay, love you <3 <3.” Why did the Tumblr blog’s creator cut those comments, which offer the humanizing backdrop of these teenagers’ lives?
CNN declared that “selfies at funerals on Tumblr must die” and ran a “selfies at funerals” etiquette Q&A with Emily Post Institute’s Lizzie Post, 31, who is the supposed authority on what is behaviorally “normal” and “proper”; those who deviate from these behaviors are shamed for not knowing better, or for being different.
In response to a question about whether photos are appropriate at funerals, she says: “You know it’s not about you, it’s about the deceased, so can you back down on the selfies for the moment?” Did she stop and ask one of these teenagers, or any teenager for that matter, about taking selfies at funerals? Outraged responses like these send a clear message that teenagers expressing themselves in selfie medium, which is familiar and natural to them, really isn’t okay. Yet it’s the adults who can’t stop looking.
There’s also a clear judgment to responses like Post’s. Through these types of vitriolic headlines and accusatory statements, adolescents are told that they are wrong for expressing themselves. Somewhere in the internet void, these adults behind screens are screaming at the virtual shadows of adolescents they don’t know or care to know, and in turn at their own adolescent selves.
The University of Virginia researchers wrote that the data “provides compelling evidence that these symbols are associated with hate.”
We are waiting for spectacle and when the quotidian, yet incongruous actions occur I wonder whether there is any real payoff coming.
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