The Almighty Camera (Phone)

I’ve been thinking about how technology is changing social interaction a considerable amount. I feel the best way to think constructively about how social behavior is changing is by first hand observation.

So when I went to the MoMa in San Francisco last week, besides observing the art, I observed museum goers behavior. The focal point of many people’s behavior was the camera on their phone.

I saw one girl ask her friend to take her photo in front of Ellsworth Kelly Spectrum I (for those of you that don’t know, it’s a painting of a vertical band of colors that look like a rainbow). As she saw an older gentleman near her, unprovoked, she apologized and promised that “this was the only selfie she was taking in the whole museum.” Her friend took 3 or so photos that the girl immediately reviewed after. Noticing that the museum sticker stuck to her chest was somehow making her look worse in photos, she removed it, and then asked her friend to take one last photo.

I saw another girl asking her friend on the terrace in front of the vertical garden to take her photo as she posed in a variety of prancing positions. I know prancing sounds odd, but that’s the best way to describe her posture. This girl took her time and made sure her photographer friend took plenty of photos, even directing her friend from what angle and position to stand. She seemed much more comfortable than the “sticker girl”, not apologizing at all for her behavior to the numerous people milling about nearby. Behind “prancing girl” a family composed of a mother, father and son had asked a stranger to take their photo. The stranger hurriedly snapped a photo and then passed the phone back to one of the family members. The rest of the family arched their heads to glance at the playback — their expressions were ones of disappointment.

On the top floor, a toe-head brother and sister, both younger than 8, held iPhones and snapped photos of a sculpture. Their parents were down the hall and called to them to keep up.

On the floor with the photography exhibit, my social observing got fairly meta. Amid the Japanese post-war photography, there were a lot of people taking selfies, or asking a friend to take a photo of them with the photograph. So there are a lot of photographs within a photograph on mobile phones of MoMa museum goers. Do you follow?

After a few hours of observation, I became acutely aware of the powerful rationale and prescience of Snap’s rebrand into a “camera company.”

A camera is far from trivial. The camera phone is the champion of the self. It empowers the ego, and can disempower it. It is a malleable, imperfect, purposefully filtered mirror for our continuous, evolving sense of identity. It’s an integral part of how we communicate, be it positive or negative; how we express our personality, either accurately or inaccurately; and how we succeed or fail in fulfilling our belonging, and self-esteem.

Sure, the camera also enables us to “ live in the moment, learn about the world, and have fun together,” as Snap’s website states, — but the real power of Snap comes in the psychological power it holds over the I. “I think, therefore I am”, becomes “I snap, therefore I am.”