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BW Businessworld

Point, Smile, Shoot

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What do President Barack Obama, Deepika Padukone, Ellen DeGeneres, Narendra Modi and you have in common? What’s plastered all over Instagram, Facebook and Twitter? What has become the stuff of advertisements and the butt of jokes?

The not-so-humble selfie, of course; that phenomenon born of the marriage of smartphone cameras and social networks; that silly word granted acceptance by the Oxford English Dictionary; that unstoppable epidemic of self-shots. Go where you will — even outer space — you can’t escape the almighty selfie. There are sexy sporty selfies, artistically morose selfies, plain happy selfies and bizarre selfies. One man took a selfie on a train track while he was getting kicked by the conductor. If young people do the selfie thing, older folks are just as eager. Even pets have caught the selfie bug!

So what’s happening here, exactly? Is this selfitis a mass mental disorder? Or have we just become a self-obsessed species? Is the selfie just one expression from the ‘Me Generation’ or is it natural, given the tools, that we should love pictures of ourselves?

Whatever it is, the phenomenon is causing various selfie-related products to make an appearance. Front cameras on phones are upping the megapixel count, and there are innovations like a swivelling camera just for that selfie. Unnerving products like a selfie-taking bathroom mirror are being invented. The Self-Enhancing Live Feed Image Engine (S.E.L.F.I.E.) is a mirror with a camera in the cabinet. You stand in front of it, and when you smile, it takes a picture. A set of lights come on to prepare you, and of course, light you up. From there, it’s straight to your social network; after all, your friends need to know how you look this particular morning.

Selfie apps are beginning to make their way to app stores. CamMe, by Israeli firm PointGrab, is an example. You place the iOS device and go off to your position. When you’re ready, you raise your hand and make a fist, the timer activates and you have yourself a photo. The same thing can be done with phones that let you use voice commands such as in Samsung Galaxy phones. Regular cameras, of course, have always used timers.

Selfies and the way we project ourselves on social networks seem to have become so important that people may now undergo plastic surgery to make themselves look just right for that profile shot. The case of a woman who spent $15,000 on selfie surgery has already become old hat. If this isn’t narcissism, what is? It isn’t, says Anisha Motwani, director and chief marketing officer, Max Life Insurance. Speaking at the launch of the BW | Businessworld Marketing Whitebook and a special session on marketing to the selfie generation, she said: “Self-love is not the same thing as narcissism. It’s only natural for humans to love themselves — before they expect others to love them.”

The selfie-taking generation has been ridiculed for being thoroughly self-absorbed and self-indulgent, but Motwani explains that far from being the same thing as wanting to be on Page 3, it’s just about nurturing the self. “Isn’t it (taking selfies) about self-exploration and seeking self-identity,” asks Motwani, pointing out that at one time, one only posed for a photograph, picture-perfect smile in place, but today, with selfies, it is about transparency and openness. Also implicit is some kind of vulnerability. “When you take your pictures, you are exposing yourself. It’s about reality and emotion, and letting it be seen. It’s real, not staged,” says Motwani.

Alok Bharadwaj, senior vice-president, Canon India, disagrees somewhat and thinks selfie takers often have a clear agenda, such as is the case with celebrities who want to further their fame. And it’s quite clear that they want something for that selfie. “A selfie with no comments is a very bad selfie,” he quips, pointing to another aspect of portraits that he calls ‘elsies’ or the activity around the discussion of someone else’s selfies. There is also the ‘wefie’, when a group takes a self-shot. “The reason is communication and networking,” he says.

Former Samsung India mobile and IT country head Vineet Taneja says about 10 million people in India are able to take selfies, given the kind of smartphones and activity on Facebook. Nevertheless, it’s time for marketers to sit up and take notice of the selfie movement. Many are already doing so, given the number of selfie-based ads. Beyond this, there is, however, a need to understand the behaviour, and what causes it so that communication to this generation of selfie-takers can be shaped. One way to use selfies in marketing, says Motwani, is to build them into recommendations and reviews in an age when social endorsement has become so important.

“Most organisations are doing so much in the digital space. But how do I build opinions and reviews, and broadcast them in real time? That’s how selfies can be used,” says Motwani. “For some industries, it is easier. Like the fashion and cosmetics industries; you can crowdsource images with beautiful skin types and use them. If you were to get selfies of people showing that they love their life, and use them, it would create influence,” she says. What is the future of the selfie? Bharadwaj believes we could soon see the ‘dronie’, with drones taking photographs. Will the selfie madness ever end and, if so, when? Not any time soon, by the looks of it. For now, the selfie phenomenon is gathering momentum and it seems no one is immune. 

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 30-06-2014) ]]>