Look, It’s Me!

There’s this really interesting phenomenon going on in digital media right now. People who are active on social media have seen it, and people who are really active on social media have even done it. But there are few things that engender a generational divide as wide as this behavior. I’m talking about the selfie. That close-up picture of someone’s face seems to be the mascot of today’s digital world.

Have you used your phone to snap a picture of yourself and send it to a friend, or post for everyone to see it? Did you make a duckface? What about your kids?

The reason I say that the selfie exposes a huge generational divide because kids seem to do it all the time. They know exactly where to position the camera to get a great shot of themselves and take multiple pictures, all ready for posting. Older folks seem to see the selfie as vanity and over-sharing run amok and if they do post images online, it’s always with the camera facing outward.

Why the divide? I think it’s because of how different generations view online sharing (and I believe I sit right on the cusp, personally, which is why I think I can distance myself from both groups). Older folks tend to feel that sharing online is a special activity, reserved for special topics or insights, and should spur meaningful conversation. They don’t want to waste others’ time, nor do they want their time wasted. If you want an example of what I mean by this look at, oh, I don’t know, ANY government agency social media account. All business, no time-wasting there. Real, insightful and dripping with importance.

Younger folks (the duck-faced, one might call them), on the other hand, have grown up sharing things online. Sharing isn’t some special thing that happens after serious consideration. They share like they breathe. Selfies, and pictures of people’s lunches, and vague Facebook posts aren’t intended to spur discussion or pull people over to a particular argument, they’ve been shared because it’s what that person is doing and sharing is just a natural part of doing.

In fact, the NY Times published a great article recently on the art of the selfie and says that this isn’t some fad that will be going away soon:

In fact, I’ve even noticed that the occasional selfie appears to nudge some friends who I haven’t seen in a while to get in touch via e-mail or text to suggest that we meet for a drink to catch up, as if seeing my face on a screen reminds them it’s been awhile since they’ve see it in real life.

Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center, says that’s how the human brain works.

“We are hard-wired to respond to faces,” she said. “It’s unconscious. Our brains process visuals faster, and we are more engaged when we see faces. If you’re looking at a whole page of photos, the ones you will notice are the close-ups and selfies.”

So, what does that mean for us? Should we replace our focus group-tested, subject-matter expert-approved messaging with dozens of selfies? Should we trade in our fact sheets for Instagram accounts? Probably not.

But we should be seriously considering what the growing popularity of this new, very personal form of communication will mean for our communication efforts moving forward. Should we be more personable? (Yes) Should we integrate images more often? (Yes) Should we spend some more time on the minutiae of our day-to-day work? (Yes) Should we maybe try to humanize ourselves a bit? (Yes) Should we take a selfie every once in a while and try out our duckfaces? (Probably)

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Profile Photo Alan Pentz

Great post. Government social media often leaves a lot to be desired. It’s definitely generational. Those of us in between understand what those who control the accounts now fear but know they risk irrelevance with the upcoming generation.