Why is everyone in their car?

After a hiatus of a few years, I recently started playing Words with Friends on my phone again with some regularity. Of the sundry interface changes since the last time I was hooked on this pastime, the one that, at first, most baffled, and then came to thoroughly intrigue me, is the implementation of a Tinder-like opponent-choosing system.

There, on the “community match” tab, you can swipe right if you like the looks of someone as a potential Words foe, and swipe left to summarily dismiss them. If selected, they must right-swipe you in return for the engagement to begin. Some, but not all, of these swipe-able competitors are adorned with a badge proclaiming their average word score. Presumably, this is the criteria upon which you are chiefly meant to make your swiping decisions — unless you have ulterior motives with your wordplay, such dating, friendship or unadulterated ogling of those by whose tiny square avatar you are attracted.

I would have thought that the display of more Words stats would be useful in this matchmaking. For those of us for whom faux-Scrabble is serious business, at least.

But then I realized I was addicted to swiping people.

Not having been on the gentleman-companion market since the advent of Tinder, I had only somewhat vicarious experience of that phenomenon. But, through this Words feature, I came to see the addicting appeal. Especially without romantic partnership at stake, it’s pure, guiltless voyeurism. And absolutely fascinating.

It’s endlessly interesting what people choose as their photo. Words automatically grabs your Facebook avatar, so that’s what, I would assume, most of these are. You can choose, from within the app, to substitute a different photo, or show no photo — but I’d venture that the majority of what one sees are people’s Facebook pictures.

Full disclosure: I play Words represented by a picture of my dog (and he chooses to play other dogs almost exclusively, with the exceptions of 2 cats, a few IRL old friends of mine, some random guy from India who knows cool words and 1 chicken.)

Where else do you have a chance to flip through so many strangers’ Facebook profile photos? It is an immediate, deep glimpse into the world’s psyche. (Though, since I only play WWF in English, my slice of the world is slanted towards English-speaking countries, and, for a number of guessable reasons, that tends to sway towards the USA.)

It’s a sort of cultural anthropology which relies solely on millisecond visual impressions. It’s hundreds of Gladwellian blinks with a handy interface and from the comfort of your own bedroom.

Late at night, when it’s not my move in any of my matches, I’ve found myself swiping through the cultural zeitgeist.

Because our brains sort and stack like things, my “study” has lead me to identify a weird number of tropes that repeat again and again in these profile photos. For the most part, they’re the things you’ve already noticed if you look at a lot of social media, especially in any sort of mainstream vein. But the regularity and repetitiveness of these recurring visual themes shocked me.

How and why are so many people doing the same thing?

This is, I suppose, the nature of trends and fashions. Fads spread in mysterious ways (to us common folk) that are understood by those who study such things. Leggings as pants, Uggs boots, Breakfast sandwiches. Advertising, media and connectors (again, in the Gladwellian sense) rain these things upon middle class culture stickily and make it seem natural.

Before I go on, I want to say that I write what follows not in the spirit of judgment, but only in thrall to the weirdness of trends and the voyeuristic realization that people make such different (to me) choices in how they wish to represent themselves—and lots of people also make those same choices. [Ok, there’s an exception, I’m completely judging the people who kill animals for sport.]

There are some tropes you can probably guess, and ones that are pretty obvious:

Young women making pouty-fish-lips

I’m not sure why people do this, but I know it’s “a thing”. And I bet if I googled it, there’s a reason.

Wedding photos

Pretty obvious why one might use this sort of photo — often they’re professionally taken, you’re meant to look especially good at your wedding, and it’s the “happiest day of your life” or whatever. People are excited about getting married. Fair enough. There are a lot of wedding pictures on WWF. Often, it’s not clear (as in the example above, where the name has been anonymized by the app) whether you’re playing the bride or the groom.

There are also a fair number of graduation photos, school photos and other studio shots. And what’s more common than not, is for the photographer’s watermark to be plainly visible. People have not purchased the photo, but they are using it for their avatar. That struck me as unexpected. But I am an old fuddy-duddy who actually looks up things related to copyright law when the occasion arises.

Multiple people

A surprising number of people use pictures containing multiple people for their profile photo. And it’s unclear which person is the profilee. I guess it doesn’t matter. Friends are important.

At a Disney Park with a Plushy Person

This trope is more popular than you’d think — well, more popular than I’d think. That many people go to Disney places and are happy to be attacked by a creepy costumed licensed character? I guess I know, anecdotally, and because they have an enormous, powerful empire, that people like Disney stuff. It just always surprises me a bit.

Oddly, the second-most-comment travel-related thing to pose with seems to be the Eiffel Tower.

Boobs

This is the internet. A certain percentage of people with boobs will need to show them off, I suppose. Slightly off-topic seeming in a word game, but WWF is still the internet.

Ok, here’s where things start to get very strange…

In the bathroom

A lot, and I mean a lot, of people take and post pictures of themselves in bathrooms. Usually public bathrooms. I understand mirrors are generally found in bathrooms and that they wish to shoot into the mirror, but I find the lack of concern for the background often quite at odds with the sexy poses and sultry faces. Especially considering the nation’s rampant germophobia, squeamishness about bodily functions and belief that unspeakable things happen in public bathrooms (at least according to the mainstream media), it seems less than intuitive that you’d want to portray yourself in one. But a very large number of profile photos show just that.

With something dead

This is, by far, the most disturbing trend, and speaks to a much larger cultural/political phenomenon that I will try not to go into too much here (lest I get really mad).

Part 1: Fish
There are a lot of men that like to show themselves holding a dead fish or fishes. Again, I know this is a “thing”. Dudes (and dudettes) like to kill fishes and then are really proud of themselves. (In most cases) it is cruel, pointless and gratuitous ego-stroking. Sure, there are subsistence fisherpeople and hunters out there and they’re a different story. As far as I can tell, or have seen so far, they’re not posting their dead-fish pix to WWF.

Personally, I find the dead fish offensive, although I know these photos are not posted in that spirit. People have their different takes on morality, spirituality, hunting laws and so forth, and I recognize that. But to me, these photos are glorifying recreational cruelty, with a smile.

Part 2: Mammals
When you’re swiping along merrily, thinking dreamily of triple-word-scores, one thing you might not imagine you’d come across, time and time again, is people posing with big weapons and dead beasts.

There are pictures of men and women shooting guns of all sorts. I know (though for the life of me I cannot come to grips with) that this is a fact of life in the USA. Some people like their guns. OK.

But the dead mammals. There was one picture that was so gory, of three deer or elk or similar in a pickup truck covered in blood, that I actually clicked the button to flag it as offensive. And this is not like me. I’m very much for everyone’s right to offend everyone else if done in a physically pacific manner. Call it a gut reaction (no pun intended), but I just couldn’t deal with this one animal-cruelty enshrining Words with Friends profile photo.

So, I can’t show you that picture, since I swiped left pretty fast. But here are some other, pretty shocking, if you ask me, pictures people use to represent themselves with mammals they have murdered:

What even is the animal that that smiling chap with the… um… four-arrow crossbow thing… has merrily slaughtered? A wildebeest? A donkey?

OK, enough of my far-left vegan ranting and trying to take people’s guns away despite The Constitution…

Here is the thing that made me write this somewhat pointless article. The grand finale.

Everyone is in their car

Once you start looking for it, you’ll notice, in the WWF swipey thing, and really everywhere else that people represent themselves, that everyone is in their car. I don’t know why. I don’t understand it.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve been thinking about it as I swipe through hundreds of pictures while waiting for it to be my turn. And every few shots, sometimes, for several shots in a row, people have taken selfies in their cars. Or pictures of themselves with their families, of their partners, of their dogs, of any combination of the above. In their cars.

At least they usually have their seatbelts on.

In the case of the actual selfies, when someone is alone in the car, I figure, perhaps they looked in the rearview mirror and thought “I look good” and decided to take a picture.

They weren’t using Facebook or playing Words with Friends in the car and providing an avatar picture. It must have been taken at some other time. Because there are mirrors in cars, and people see themselves and want to immortalize a good hair day. Perhaps?

Or they are playing with their phones in the car. All of them, all of the time?

People are in their cars because they are going somewhere “out” and have thus done their hair or makeup or 2-day stubble up specially, so it’s a good time to take a picture?

Or are people just in their cars that much that it is the default location? That is where they mostly are? This idea really upsets me on a number of levels, but I fear it might be the case.

I really don’t know. I thought I’d write it up first, and then try to figure out a real answer using google and/or my friends who know about pop culture and such things. Maybe there is a reason, and I’m just out of it. But in the mean time, I dare you, once you start looking for seat belts, car windows and headrests not to start noticing that everyone is in their car in pictures.

Are you in your car right now? (I’m not.)