How Britain Exported Next-Generation Surveillance

Thousands of cameras, millions of photographs, terabytes of data. You’re tracked, wherever you go.


IT WAS A COOL, QUIET MONDAY EVENING in northeast England when the computer first told them about Peter Chapman. The clock read a little after five, and two officers from Cleveland police were cruising in their patrol car. A screen lit up next to them: the on-board computer was flashing an alert from the local police network. The message told them the target was a blue Ford Mondeo and gave them its registration number.

It was only a few minutes before they came across the car and pulled it over with a sounding of their siren. Inside was Chapman, a 33-year-old convict wanted for questioning in connection with a string of offences, including arson and theft. The officers verified his identity and took him to a station just a few miles away.

At 5:07 p.m. on October 26, 2009, just 20 minutes before he was arrested, Chapman had driven past an Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) camera stationed next to the road. As his car passed, the camera recorded its registration number, together with the time and location, and sent the information to Cleveland Police’s internal computer network, where it was checked against a hotlist downloaded from Britain’s central police database.

There was a hit: a request to detain anyone driving Chapman’s car had been entered into the system three days earlier. Once the computers had processed their search — a matter of fractions of a second — the command to apprehend the driver was broadcast to local officers, who stopped and arrested Chapman as soon as they were able.

This feat was made possible by the continuous operation of a vast automated surveillance network that sits astride Britain’s roads. The technology — known as License Plate Recognition (LPR) in the US, where it is also used — captures and stores data on up to 15 million journeys in the UK each day.

It is the most extensive system of its kind in the world.

Yet the true extent of the network, the areas it covers, and the locations of the cameras, is a matter of secrecy. In order to function fully, say the police, such details cannot be revealed. As a result, we do not know precisely how the technology is used, nor how it is abused.

It is only in cases like Peter Chapman’s that this secret system becomes visible.

WHEN CHAPMAN’S CAR triggered that alert on the evening of October 26, it took the police just 20 minutes to find and stop him. But, as a later investigation discovered, it was not the first warning that had been issued. In fact, a total of 16 ANPR alerts had been put out over the previous three days — including four on the day he was arrested.

Three police forces spotted Peter Chapman. Between them they cover a combined area of more than 10,000 square km.

The combined area covered by Cleveland, Durham, and North Yorkshire police forces is over 10,000 square kilometers. It is policed by close to 5,000 officers and home to almost two million people — similar in size to Houston, Texas, but spread across an area 10 times greater. The report for Chapman’s vehicle said the driver was “to be immediately stopped”, but it was only graded as medium priority. In truth, the alerts were just a tiny handful of those that tumble onto police computers in a never-ending avalanche of data: in Cleveland alone, roadside cameras generate around 2,500 alerts every day. Officers were sent to find his car six times, but for four days attempts had proved futile. After all, knowing where a vehicle had been 10 minutes earlier is not necessarily enough to find it on Britain’s crowded road network.

In the space of three days, 16 alerts were generated by Chapman’s car. Each one urged police to arrest the driver.

There is a reason so much is known about Chapman’s arrest: it was the subject of an extensive investigation by Britain’s law enforcement watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The reason for their inquiry was that Chapman’s capture, rather than being a striking model of efficient police work, was a disaster.

Chapman had been wanted for arson and theft, but he was also a convicted rapist. And after his arrest he made a startling confession: he had murdered Ashleigh Hall, a 17-year-old student from the nearby town of Darlington. Chapman had met her on Facebook, posing as a teenager in order to win her trust. On Sunday evening, two days and eight alerts after the request to apprehend Chapman had been made, Hall told her mother she was spending the night at a friend’s house.

On Tuesday, Chapman led police officers to her body, hidden in a field by the roadside just a few miles away from where they had pulled him over.

ANPR IS A BRITISH INVENTION: created, developed, and tested in the UK. Its first major outing was in 1984, when police scientists set themselves up in a small, unmarked cabin on a bridge overlooking the busy M1 motorway.

The road is one of the country’s most important north-south arteries, running 193 miles between London and Leeds. Inside the cabin, video cameras were trained on every lane of traffic. As cars passed beneath, the cameras captured their registration numbers and sent the data along a cable to a hut hidden a hundred meters away and out of sight of the road, where a computer checked a list of stolen vehicles. This was Britain’s first fully functioning ANPR installation.

“At the moment there is no intention of using it for anything other than detecting stolen cars”, a police spokesperson noted at the time.

Scientists had been working on the system for eight years, but the M1 set-up was the most advanced deployment to date: not only was it capable of tracking moving cars but, using infrared, it could read plates at night.

Concerns about the new technology were raised immediately, including from within the government. A 1984 report for the Greater London Council Police Committee warned that the system made every car a potential suspect and handed policy on mass surveillance to the police. “This possibility in a democracy is unacceptable,” it concluded.

Democratically unacceptable or not, the development of networked ANPR continued.

DURING THE 1990s, thousands of cameras, including plate readers, were installed to form a so-called “ring of steel” around the City of London, a massive operation aimed at ending the string of Irish Republican bombings in the financial district. Laws were changed to make the technology more effective: legislation enacted in 2001 required characters used on plates to be displayed in a font that made them easier for ANPR cameras to recognize.

In the same year, the government decided to deploy “spectrum vans” — mobile units with multiple ANPR cameras, connected by radio to local control stations — across every police force in England and Wales. The success of the scheme led to Project Laser, a 2005 plan to deploy more than 2,000 fixed cameras nationwide, and to the creation of the National ANPR Data Centre, which is tasked with handling the information collected.

Since that time, the system has been continually, if largely invisibly, expanded throughout the UK. In 2012 the Metropolitan Police, which patrols Greater London, announced its own ANPR bureau, and rolled out a new fleet of dedicated “ANPR interceptors”: at least 110 police vehicles on London’s roads, each equipped with mobile camera equipment and a live link to the central computer.

Meanwhile, local governments and private businesses have been installing their own ANPR systems for parking security, fuel station payments and to catch speeding drivers. Some of these systems, too, have been absorbed into the police network. By 2005, more than 50 local authorities — almost one sixth of the country — had agreed to use their traffic cameras for monitoring purposes.

Many of these systems were sold to local residents using promises that were quickly broken.

One example is the London Congestion Charge, which was introduced in 2003 as a traffic-reduction scheme. The charge zone, which covers 20 square kilometers of the capital, is monitored by a ring of almost 700 cameras that are trained on every road in and out. As vehicles drive in, their plates are read and checked against the payment records; those that have paid are deleted from the system’s database the following day. Data on those with outstanding fees may be retained for no longer than 13 months. These restrictions were designed in part to assure the public that the congestion cameras were not going to become a system for spying on Londoners.

In 2007, however, the government signed a certificate of exemption that granted the Metropolitan Police full, real-time access to the zone’s cameras. The certificate gives the Met all the data they can gather, where that data relates to “the safeguarding of national security”.

We have made repeated requests for more information on how their system works, but a Met spokesman would only say that the service “manages ANPR data in accordance with the Data Protection Act and all relevant ACPO [Association of Chief Police Officers] policies”.

This is despite the fact that the data in question is specifically exempted from these laws. He refused to comment further on the specific details of how these records are kept separate from the police’s own network of ANPR camera data, or even whether they are kept separate at all.

BRITAIN IS ONE OF THE MOST surveilled countries in the world. Studies put the number of operational CCTV cameras at between two and four million, for a population of 60 million people. The country’s national DNA database holds records on six million people. Telecoms companies are mandated to store logs of all mobile-phone calls and text messages for 12 months, and to make the data available to government at all levels.

In many cities, closed-circuit cameras have built-in loudspeakers that allow operators — mainly local government employees — to speak directly to those they see live on-screen and suspect of foul behavior. As a result, British people are accustomed to the sight of cameras fixed to the outside of buildings, and on poles by the side of the road.

These are mostly of two kinds: standard CCTV cameras, in various sizes, perched like inquisitive birds on lamp posts and shopfronts; and speed cameras: boxy, painted yellow, which flash brightly when triggered by a speeding motorist.

At first glance, ANPR cameras resemble CCTV: indeed, many systems, such as the London Congestion Zone, run on repurposed standard cameras. Newer systems often incorporate two or three distinct lenses — “multiple eyes” — to capture wider areas at greater resolution, for better license plate recognition. But ultimately, the cameras are of many makes and many designs; there’s no way to tell what they’re being used for unless the operators choose to divulge that information. And the British police, the largest users of ANPR in the country, are reluctant to do so.

In 2009, a House of Lords report described the explosion of surveillance technologies as one of the most significant changes to Britain since the Second World War. It noted:

“Mass surveillance has the potential to erode privacy. As privacy is an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom, its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country.”

This has been described as an acceptable price to pay for greater security, but studies of surveillance technology fail to support that argument.

One review of 44 separate CCTV studies, published the same year as the House of Lords report, showed that the more than £500 million ($780 million) spent on CCTV in Britain in the decade up to 2006 had produced only modest benefits. The report’s most damning conclusion found that where CCTV was at its most effective — preventing vehicle crime in car parks — the same results could be achieved simply by improving lighting in the parking area.

Advocates of surveillance technology also highlight the legal safeguards that govern its use, but this argument is open to criticism too. It is true that some data logs are subject to strict restrictions: security video from rail stations, for example, is kept for just 14 days. But police data procedures are very different. The National ANPR Data Centre stores a full two years of vehicle records, which are accessible to anyone with ANPR authorization for 90 days. This is possible because Britain’s privacy laws do not consider vehicle records to be personal data, a bizarre stance given that the vast majority of vehicles are registered to individuals.

Even when the privacy safeguards designed to prevent the abuse of surveillance technology kick in, the systems can still survive.

In July 2013, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which is responsible for overseeing Britain’s privacy laws, issued an enforcement notice regarding Hertfordshire Police’s use of ANPR around the small town of Royston.

Despite having a population of just 15,000 and a relatively low crime rate, the town was encircled in 2011 by ANPR cameras that record every vehicle that enters and leaves, 24 hours a day. Following a complaint by privacy groups, the ICO ruled that the system had not taken privacy into account, making it a violation of the Data Protection Act. The town’s police force reacted by saying that while they will work with the commissioner, they would continue using the cameras, and monitoring the citizens of Royston, for the foreseeable future.

BY 2010, THE NATIONAL ANPR system was capturing up to 12 million records per day, using over 5,000 cameras. Internal police figures show that increasing to 15 million reads in 2011, while access to private camera data doubled the size of the network. What is not known is how many of the UK’s 34 million registered vehicles are captured, and at what rate. Also unknown is the true reach of the system, which areas it covers and what the distribution of cameras is. This opacity, it turns out, is entirely deliberate: the police have repeatedly and forcefully rejected efforts to understand the true magnitude of the network.

In August 2009, MATTER’s SA Mathieson filed a Freedom of Information request on behalf of The Guardian, asking for the locations of ANPR cameras used by police in Devon and Cornwall, two large but sparsely populated counties that make up much of England’s south-west peninsula. The idea was to explore how the force had configured its cameras to cover such a large area.

But instead of being processed as normal, the request became the subject of a tug of war that lasted three years.

First the application was turned down by Devon and Cornwall Police, and then by the Information Commissioner’s Office. That decision was taken to the Information Rights Tribunal, where it was appealed and the earlier decision subsequently overturned. However, the police counter-appealed and had the reversal struck down. In June 2012, a final tribunal conclusively dismissed the application: the attempt to force the disclosure of camera locations had failed.

Despite the extensive, convoluted efforts by the police to keep the data out of the public domain, their push for secrecy was not entirely successful. While they kept camera locations under wraps in order to make their case, the police were forced to disclose hundreds of pages of evidence on the workings of ANPR. These included information on how some criminals were avoiding and sabotaging the very system the police were trying so hard to protect.

In the evidence, the police detailed how professional criminals were aware of the location of many ANPR installations, and had developed ways to avoid detection. These include changing the way they drive “a properly trained driver can adopt a particular driving style that will greatly reduce the chance of the vehicle being detected by ANPR,” said one statement, “and modifying plates so that they are harder to read.” These sections of the documents were blacked out until their redaction was successfully challenged in court.

Meanwhile, a statement from the Police Service of Northern Ireland — operators of an extensive camera network which is not counted among the estimates for England and Wales — provided even more evidence that camera positions are widely known by those who take a direct interest in finding them.

“There has been a concentrated effort by criminals to damage a number of our sites,” it said. “One such site has been damaged and rendered non-effective three times in the past few months, the cost to repair, apply counter measures and re-install has amounted to over £12,000. Another site has been set on fire and completely destroyed; the cost to repair and apply counter measures has amounted to over £24,000.”

Despite evidence that criminals are already familiar with the system and its weaknesses, the police contend that knowledge of ANPR locations decreases the efficacy of the whole system. But the physical locations, and their obscurity, stand in for a wider obfuscation of the system, as well as the often-mistaken public perceptions of it.

In their deposition to the Freedom of Information case, Devon and Cornwall police referred to a burglary case that was dropped because it would have required them to divulge the location of an ANPR camera. Instead, they said, it was preferable to withdraw the prosecution “so that the integrity of that camera could be maintained for future use.” In this case, and an unknowable number of others, the covert operation that is apparently required for the system to function to its full potential is in direct conflict with that potential.

Thus a system shrouded in secrecy is compelled to prioritize that secrecy over the full exercise of the law, degrading justice in the same manner in which secret courts and secret intelligence have led to the gradual erosion of ancient legal rights, among them habeas corpus.

This culture of secrecy surrounding technology-led policing is corrosive in other ways.

In 2010, Birmingham City Council and West Midlands Police announced Project Champion, an initiative to combat anti-social behavior and street crime. Over 150 ANPR cameras and almost 50 CCTV cameras were installed in and around the neighbourhoods of Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook. Forty were classified as covert, most likely hidden in trees and walls. The result was another version of the ring of steel, preventing local residents from entering or leaving the area without their cars being tracked.

Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook both have large Muslim populations, and Birmingham councillors were concerned that the program would unfairly target their Muslim constituents and damage community relations. Their misgivings were dismissed by West Midlands Police, who repeatedly said the scheme was in place for public “reassurance” and “crime prevention.”

But in June 2010, an investigation revealed that the £3 million ($4.6 million) camera network had actually been funded entirely by a national anti-terrorism initiative. The object was not to protect local residents: it was to create a “vehicle movement net” that would allow operators to covertly watch potential terrorism suspects.

It was a public relations disaster, and West Midlands Police and the city council were forced to apologize for masking the true intentions of the system. Residents voiced their anger at public meetings, graffiti on local walls declared “you are now entering a police state” and bags were placed over the cameras to prevent them from being used.

THE NATIONAL NETWORK DOES NOT just observe in real time: it can be used to look back through history, too. Take one routine traffic stop in June 2012 as an example.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and a South Yorkshire police officer pulled over an ageing Renault Laguna on the M1. When the man at the wheel gave conflicting answers to the officer’s questions, the registration details were run through the police computer; the car, it emerged, was not insured. According to procedure, the vehicle was impounded, and the occupants, two young men named Omar Khan and Jewel Uddin, were sent to the nearest train station to get home.

The following Monday, the police received a call from the pound: inside the car, workers had discovered an arsenal that included knives, swords and shotguns, as well as a homemade explosive device adapted from a firework that contained 350 nails and almost 100 ball bearings. Officers were shocked by the discovery, and a massive counter-terrorism operation swung into action. The aim was to track down not just Khan, 27, and Uddin, 26, but anyone who might have been associated with whatever plot they were involved in before they could destroy evidence or leave the country.

Earlier on the day they were stopped, it emerged, Khan and Uddin had travelled from Birmingham to Dewsbury, where they planned to attack a rally by the English Defence League, a controversial far-right group. They had prepared carefully, building their stash of weapons, purchasing the Laguna at short notice and leaving their mobile phones at home to avoid leaving a trail of data. But the trip did not go as planned: the EDL march, lacking speakers, finished early, and the group’s supporters had dispersed by the time the men arrived. Instead of launching an attack, they dropped into a local shop for fish and chips, before getting back into their car for the trip home.

When the police used ANPR data to study Khan and Uddin’s movements, they uncovered another surprise: the duo hadn’t travelled alone. Officers dug into the national database using a technique called “convoy analysis.” First, every record of Khan and Uddin’s car trip was recalled from the system. Then another set of plate numbers was generated: those of every car that had passed by those same cameras within a few seconds or minutes of the pair. By comparing this set with those at the next camera site, and the next, and the next, the police identified a second car that had travelled in convoy with them from Birmingham to Dewsbury. Within 48 hours, police arrested not only Khan and Uddin, but four further members of the group from the second car. All six men later plead guilty to preparing an act of terrorism, and were sentenced to a total of 111 years in prison.

Mohammed Hasseen, Jewel Uddin, Anzal Hussain, Zohaid Ahmed, Omar Khan and Mohammed Saud were convicted for a total of 111 years

Convoy analysis is not the only advanced technique made possible by the ANPR database. One common criminal tactic for avoiding insurance, speeding tickets, or having a car identified in any way, is to clone the plate of a vehicle that is registered to a different owner. (Most European countries mandate a single national supplier for license plates, but the UK has 40,000 suppliers and virtually no oversight of production quality, or security.)

So, in addition to looking for vehicles already under suspicion, the ANPR system seeks out “impossible journeys” records in the database that should simply not be achievable, such as a car apparently passing two cameras, hundreds of miles apart, in the space of a few minutes. Data like that suggests a cloned plate, and an alert can be issued to find out which vehicle is using the plate illegally.

Other types of algorithmic investigation are being developed all the time. The police now use pattern analysis not just to see where a car has been, but to predict where it might be in the future. Sometimes this is used to re-establish human surveillance of a target who has slipped the net. It is also used to build a list of potential witnesses to an incident by finding those who regularly travel past the spot in question at a specific time. And then, sometimes, it helps law enforcement decide where to wait if they want to stop a car that has produced a hit on the hotlist.

These techniques show the real key to the power of the ANPR network. It is not merely a group of roadside cameras, and it does not just react to what it sees immediately: it is a vast database of historical movements. Every vehicle it captures is saved, analyzed and reviewed. This is what transforms the network from a simple, real-time identification tool into a system of pervasive and algorithmic surveillance.

It’s easy to think that automated, networked surveillance methods such as ANPR, CCTV and internet monitoring could not truly be useful because there is simply too much information to be adequately processed and comprehended. As the Chapman case shows, this can be true. Nobody can watch all of the monitors all of the time or follow up every lead as soon as it is generated. In a great number of cases, ANPR will fail to provide a basis for real-time action.

But the technology is advancing fast enough to push many of these concerns to the side. Thanks to the falling cost of data storage, and the increased sophistication of algorithmic analysis, far more complex operations are becoming possible. And this is the real outcome of ANPR and all other contemporary surveillance technologies. They have the potential to create a comprehensive database of peoples’ activity, that, over time, can be stored, searched, analyzed, and exploited.

OVER THE PAST DECADE, countries all around the world have started to employ the same technologies Britain has been building for 30 years. Australia began fitting mobile ANPR units to its highway patrol vehicles in 2009. The small Belgian city of Mechelen was selected to trial the system in 2011: by the following year, the city was already monitoring a quarter of a million vehicles every month. The results of the program, including the discovery of 224 stolen vehicles, are now being used to justify the installation of high-definition CCTV and facial recognition systems throughout the city center.

Italy, the Netherlands, Ukraine and Turkey: all are among the ever-expanding list of countries now rolling out plate-reading systems at scale.

In the United States, implementations have multiplied many times over in recent years. Thanks to lobbying and financial support from insurance companies, Oklahoma and Arizona, among other states, have introduced extensive ANPR networks aimed at catching uninsured drivers. Other deployments, meanwhile, have a more familiar feeling.

When the city of San Leandro, California, purchased ANPR cameras for its police force in 2009, local resident Michael Katz-Lacabe, using a Freedom of Information request, discovered that his car had been captured by the system more than 100 times in a matter of months. The report generated by the local police department included a photograph of him and his daughters getting out of their car in their own driveway.

The photograph of Michael Katz-Lacabe and his daughters from the local police report

Up and down California, cities are using the ring of steel model to surveil citizens. Just a few miles to the north of San Leandro, another adopter is the upmarket enclave of Piedmont: a tiny city of some 10,000 well-heeled residents that is completely encircled by the larger, poorer and more crime-ridden city of Oakland. Piedmont residents, concerned about a spate of burglaries and robberies in their area, recently voted to install 36 cameras, enough to cover every road into or out of the city.

On the other side of the country, New York state, flush with homeland security funding in the years after 9/11, has installed more than 100 cameras, with no limits to how long the data they collect may be retained. In December 2013, Boston Police halted its license plate collection after it inadvertently released more than 68,000 detailed vehicle records to the public, including plate numbers and GPS locations. Every single police department in the Boston region uses ANPR.

The unregulated nature of ANPR in the United States means that the information regularly leaks out, and can be acquired by third parties — or even sold. Among the vendors is a Texas-based company called TLO, which provides so-called data solutions to law enforcement agencies, lawyers, and private investigators. These “solutions” include individuals’ personal information, addresses, employment, relatives and assets. TLO maintains a vehicle sightings database containing, it claims, one billion location records, with an additional 50 million added each month. For $10, anyone can look up a vehicle’s log to see when and where it has been seen, and even obtain the sort of photographic evidence uncovered by Katz-Lacabe.

In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union mapped the data retention policies of American police departments.

Not every nation is so enthusiastic about the technology. In Germany, the federal court ruled in 2008 that ANPR systems that keep data without a predetermined reason — such as to track suspected terrorists — violated privacy laws. But this is an isolated position. Complex analysis requires the routine storage of sightings of all vehicles, not just those under immediate suspicion. Indeed, convoy analysis is so powerful that it now comes as a built-in feature of many ANPR systems.

In one of the less-discussed revelations from the recent National Security Agency congressional hearings in Washington DC, the agency revealed that it routinely looks at a network “two or three hops” from any given suspect when analysing the data it picks up. That means it observes not just a person’s direct associates, but associates’ of those associates, and the associates of the associates of the associates.

When dealing with data, it is easy to make connections, which then justifies making further connections. This, in turn, encourages the retention of data for longer and longer periods. The ease of technological analysis makes retention, not deletion, the default option: a subtle twist on the old argument that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.

Today, the legal basis for such searches often lives in the gray areas of existing law. The UK’s privacy legislation, for example, was passed at a time when the focus was on individual access to data, not algorithmic searches. The legal principles around accessing stored data concern who has the right to request particular kinds of information from the database and how far back those searches can go.

What is not considered is how such information may be reviewed automatically, algorithmically, and retrospectively. This failure results in a huge swathe of personal information, supposedly protected information, constantly being accessed by the system itself.

The computerized nature of these searches can make them appear irreproachable: it’s not people looking at the data, just machines. But this is a dangerous assumption, and you do not have to look far to see why: the commissioner who oversees Britain’s warrant-based surveillance recently revealed that six people were wrongfully detained and falsely accused of crimes last year after police and security services incorrectly analyzed their internet use.

DESPITE THE ARGUMENTS made in favor of algorithmic collection and analysis, ANPR’s track record is poor. Unlike many other surveillance systems, no major study of its efficiency has yet been conducted, leaving those who support it with a handful of highly-publicised cases where technological intervention was deemed a success.

Yet even in these instances, ANPR’s success is often nothing of the sort. Peter Chapman may have plead guilty to murdering Ashleigh Hall and received a 35 year minimum sentence for his crime, but it wasn’t murder that the police wanted to stop him for. And it wasn’t ANPR that prevented a tragedy in Dewsbury: it was the incompetence of the would-be attackers. They were arrested after their planned strike, not before — and it was because the group missed their target rally, not because law enforcement had intervened. Likewise, their motives were discovered only because their car was impounded for not being insured. This, it turns out, was because they had entered their details incorrectly when buying insurance online.

In fact, Dewsbury was in many ways a failure of surveillance, not a success: Jewel Uddin had actually been under observation by the West Midlands Counter-Terrorism Unit, a joint team of detectives and MI5 intelligence staff. Just five days before the failed attack, a surveillance officer watched him and Khan enter a home store in Birmingham, where they bought the knives they stashed in the back of the Laguna. But nobody was watching earlier in the month, on the day when Uddin and another plotter, their 22-year-old friend Mohammed Hasseen, went on a reconnaissance trip to Dewsbury, nor when they returned to carry out their grisly mission. Internal enquiries by West Midlands Police concluded that everything that could have been done was done… and yet uncovering the intent of Uddin and his conspirators relied on a daisy chain of good luck and coincidence.

In 2005, Frank Whiteley, then chief constable of Hertfordshire and the man responsible for nationwide implementation of ANPR, was asked what the technology’s long-term effects on policing might be, and whether it might be as as important as the forensic use of fingerprints or DNA profiling.

Whiteley replied: “It has the capability to be as revolutionary. I would describe it as a ubiquitous policing tool. You can use it in all sorts of different ways.”

In fact, both the Dewsbury case and that of Peter Chapman would appear to show that ANPR is neither as ubiquitous, nor as effective, as it is presented by the police. Instead it works best as an adjunct to other investigatory techniques, many of which do not require widespread surveillance of millions of innocent people.

JOHN AND LINDA CATT were driving into central London early one Sunday morning when they were stopped and searched by police officers. At the time of the stop, in July 2005, Linda was 45, and John, her father, was an 80-year-old with a shock of white hair. Officers told them they were being searched under the Terrorism Act. The Catts, who had no criminal convictions, were threatened with arrest if they refused to answer police questions.

Although they didn’t know it at the time, minutes before they were stopped their van had been captured by the ANPR network, which had triggered an alert: “Of interest to Public Order Unit, Sussex police.”

This is why most ANPR stops occur: on the basis of a single, non-specific alert among a flood of thousands issued each day. But the Catts weren’t terrorists or drug dealers or armed robbers. After they filed a complaint about the incident, they discovered what had made them of interest to law enforcement: they had attended a series of legal and peaceful protests against the EDO Corporation, an American arms manufacturer that used to supply weapons systems to the United States and Israel.

Police had spotted their vehicle at protests and decided that it should be tracked, tagging them as “domestic extremists”.

John Catt

Notes disclosed as a result of John Catt’s complaint showed exactly how extreme he had been: at one protest he had been wearing a T-shirt urging the United States to free Omar Khadr, a 15-year-old boy who had been captured and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay since 2002, making him the first child to be prosecuted by a military tribunal since the Second World War. Catt, the police file said, was “very quiet” and was “holding up a board with orange people on it”.

In the eight years since they were stopped, Linda and John have tried to get their lawful activities removed from the police databases that track them. Along the way, the police watchdog has said that Sussex Police acted unlawfully by marking his vehicle, and some of the country’s most senior judges have ruled that the Metropolitan Police wrongly interfered with his right to a private life. But the police have fought back every step of the way, and the case is ongoing.

The Catts are not alone. Another man, who spoke to journalists but chose to remain anonymous to prevent further harassment, says he was stopped more than 25 times by police under a variety of pretences after he had attended a peaceful local protest against duck and pheasant shooting. He finally made a formal complaint after police armed with machine guns pulled him over during an evening out with his wife.

The police collect data at other events too, like the 2009 demonstration that took place in fields around Kingsnorth power station, in Kent. After protestors assembled for what they described as “a piece of political theater,” local police confiscated all of their supplies, from tents to clown costumes, and moved mobile ANPR units to the surrounding roads. Local government officials were appalled, but it soon emerged that surveillance and tracking of vehicles associated with legal public protest was not only routine, but actively encouraged by a number of police forces. In a 2008 briefing document, senior officers were instructed to “fully and strategically exploit” the ANPR database for tracking anyone involved in protests, or those who had previous convictions for motoring offences, such as drunk-driving.

What is common to all of these cases is that in each one the police followed established guidelines laid down in laws and public policy documents. The intent was debatable, but it is the regulations that are flawed. It is the regulations that exempted vehicle data from privacy protections, and it is the regulations that do not mention the very real possibilities of harassment, intrusion of privacy and wrongful arrest that are inherent risks of blanket and automated surveillance systems.

The public, of course, is just as susceptible to the glamour of technology as policy-makers are. A separation has long existed in the minds of the public between government and corporate surveillance structures, despite the symmetrical nature of, say, the ANPR network and a private social network like Foursquare — a service that allows people to “check in” and record their locations on their phones. Both are well-distributed systems devised to track individual movements, store that data potentially indefinitely and mine it for useful information.

In contrast to the ANPR database, the social database — one of Facebook connections, Instagram tags, Gmails and much else — is one we have built ourselves, but it does as much as any top-down system to weaken both our expectations and the reality of our privacy.

London riots. Matthew Lloyd/Getty

FOLLOWING THE LONDON RIOTS, the Metropolitan Police held talks with the BBC and other aggregators of user-generated content about how it could best monitor the flow of social data during crisis situations. The New York Police Department’s Facial Recognition Unit, meanwhile, routinely downloads photos from Facebook and Instagram to match against its database of wanted persons. And, as has been revealed in the hundreds of secret documents that Edward Snowden and others have leaked into the public domain, the security services regularly access vast amounts of our data, either by requesting it from information providers, or by tapping directly into the cables that carry it.

A service like Foursquare differs from ANPR in that it has the formal, individual consent of those it tracks, but what is common to both is that the intangibility of contemporary networks conceals the true extent of their operation. This is particularly obvious in the case of ANPR, a system that the police insist must remain partially secret in order to function correctly, even as that secrecy corrodes the laws and social contracts the technology is supposed to uphold. Members of the public, so the argument goes, cannot be allowed to know when and where they are being monitored, while the law cannot be framed in a way that accounts sufficiently for potential future data-mining techniques based on the information gathered.

This invisibility extends through physical, virtual, and legal spaces. British guidelines stipulate that under most circumstances video surveillance must be accompanied by notification: usually visible signage stating the presence of surveillance and the details of who operates it. In practice, such rules are frequently ignored — and even when followed to the letter, they are insufficient. What is required is not only a notice about the ownership of such information, but the ways in which it is used: not just “surveillance is in operation here,” but “data storage and analysis is in operation here, and elsewhere, and will be for some time”.

The failure to adequately explain and signpost these technologies is why the police and intelligence agencies must fight a constant public relations battle over surveillance. It’s also why the public reacts with such shock to revelations about the true nature of the rings of steel around Royston and Birmingham, and of the far more intrusive operations of the NSA and the British equivalent, GCHQ.

This shock stems from a breakdown of consent.

Consent, the bedrock on which the agreement to be policed is based, is meaningless without comprehension, and comprehension is impossible without visibility. It is only when people are brought face-to-face with the reality of surveillance — as the Catts were, and as the people of Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook were — that they see how their privacy, and their right to be presumed innocent, have been affected.

Yet the retention of data by the current ANPR system, and by similar technologies, is not inevitable. Many decisions were made during its implementation, and many can be remade without affecting its primary function. In the United States, where there is no national oversight of license plate scanners, a number of states have proposed laws that would severely curtail data storage. The UK could follow. It has now created a new code of conduct and appointed another watchdog, known as the Surveillance Camera Commissioner, although it has yet to be seen what the results will be.

Technology is a tool: it is a process by which political and human desires are instantiated in the world. What is significant about that instantiation is that it must take a visible form. It may be a written, readable code, or a physical infrastructure in the landscape: servers in data centres, cameras on poles by the roadside, rusting signs on forecourt walls declaring the owner’s intentions.

When there is pressure to obscure that infrastructure — camouflaging cameras, closing down networks, or blocking freedom of information requests — a corresponding pressure is exerted on the very democracy it purports to uphold.

The arguments about privacy and public consent that ANPR stimulates are crucial and necessary, and of concern to us all. They are not abstract, but instead rooted in the environment around us: on street corners, road bridges and city centers, in the everyday.

This story was written by James Bridle, edited by Bobbie Johnson with assistance from SA Mathieson, fact-checked by Lewis Scrafton and copy-edited by Georgia Cool. Penny Scott-Andrews narrated the audio version.

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Next Story — Quit Your Job and Go to Work
Currently Reading - Quit Your Job and Go to Work

Quit Your Job and Go to Work

The future of employment was meant to liberate us from the shackles of a 9-to-5. In fact, it’s leaving people in an impossibly annoying, semi-flexible purgatory.

By Lauren Smiley


This spring, Michanne was striding out of a San Francisco apartment lobby in her Google Express jacket, fresh off delivering a mirror. Her van beckoned at the curb. It was branded in Google’s playful primary colors and logo, and on the side was the image of a package getting dropped from a parachute, easy-peasy. Michanne’s job was to make same-day, seamless deliveries of bottled water and kitty litter for Google Express, but she doesn’t actually work for Google Express — not directly, anyway. If you looked carefully, just below the van door, a few small, gray letters spelled out something most people didn’t realize: this vehicle wasn’t Google’s after all. It belonged to a company called 1–800Courier.

That day had actually been a good one. Michanne, who is 27, had worked the full eight hour shift that she’d been scheduled by 1–800Courier — one of several companies that delivers for Google Express in the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York City. But full days like that were becoming rare. (She didn’t want to use her last name for privacy reasons.)

When I called her back a month later and asked her to rate her job from 1 to 10, she was more upfront about her level of annoyance: “If 1 is a nightmare, I’m like a 1.5.” In fact, she’d quit.

Her complaint came down to this: she says 1–800Courier had verbally assured her full-time work when she started with the company back in October. It was a paycheck the new mother was counting on, one that didn’t leave her time to work another job. And in the company’s scheduling app she was technically scheduled for 40 hours a week for weeks in advance.

Yet, increasingly, her actual hours were decided the day of work. Michanne had to check her email an hour and a half before her first shift started to see if she would actually get to work the hours she’d been allotted. Many times she did not. She was a supposedly full-time employee who was, effectively, on-call. She’d put aside the day so she could work, but when it turned out they didn’t need her, that meant no work — and no pay.

In April, an email plunked into Michanne’s inbox, describing what she says was business as usual:

Even when she got the go-ahead to turn up for the day, Michanne’s shifts would often be cut once she was already at work. Around 5 p.m., as she ate in her van during an hour-long meal break, she would frequently get a call from the dispatcher, telling her to go home early without working her scheduled second shift. She’d still get paid something— California law mandates payment of between two hour and four hours of “reporting time” depending on the length of a cancelled shift. But it was still a huge issue: Although she was expected to be on-call for 40 hours a week, shift changes meant she was regularly dipping down to 25 hours of paid work, and even once as low as 17 hours, she recalls. At $13 an hour, she was hoping for $520 of work each week — but 17 hours is just $221.

Google pointed questions towards its contractor, which manages all scheduling for its deliveries. 1–800Courier’s California Director of Operations David Finney said that across the industry, the delivery business slows down after the holidays. “I personally empathize with that,” he said about employees whose hours get cut. “But at the same time, look at any industry in the state of California — especially in the service industry — and some days it’s just like ‘Hey, we’re sorry, we don’t need you to come in.’”

An apparent employee review of 1–800Courier on Glassdoor.

Another employee of 1–800Courier, who asked to remain anonymous so as to not irk the company, says the scheduling problems were sometimes bad for the company, too. Back in January and February, when business seemed especially slow, this worker would clock in and sit in the delivery car near the hub for hours, waiting to be dispatched. “I’d have movies picked out to watch, I got a pillow and took naps, and had stuff I wanted to read and write. I’m getting paid to do nothing. But I wouldn’t call [dispatch] and say, ‘I need a route.’ It didn’t bother me at all.”

What did bother the Netflix-watching worker was this: more than 10 times during seven months on the job, their first shift was cut while it was already happening. But the worker was booked on to a second shift, and was made to wait around until that started. Since driving the vehicle back to the parking lot in Silicon Valley from the San Francisco dispatch hub would eat up most of the time, the worker would often drive to the movies or the mall in the city to kill time until the second shift. (The worker once got written up for taking the vehicle to Safeway during that time — saying they expected employees to just wait in the vehicle for the next shift, or drive it back to the Silicon Valley lot.)

The complaint is echoed by another former 1–800Courier worker who recently quit: “I was really getting irritated. They said ‘it’s not as high demand right now, we don’t have a lot of orders coming through, so we’re cutting the hours.’” A couple times, while the worker was in a carpool on the way to work, the dispatcher would call and say, “Oh, we removed you from the 12–5 window, you can just work for 5:30 to 10. I’d just go home and say ‘Remove me from the last window.’” The current driver says things have picked up lately, especially after a major lay-off of drivers in March that has given those who remain more work to do. 1-800's David Finney wouldn’t confirm a layoff, but said drivers are now regularly working overtime hours.

The whole idea behind the on-demand economy — touch-of-a-button delivery, often guaranteed within minutes — creates the potential for a sudden rush or dearth of customers at any moment. So how does a company make sure that the right amount of workers are around at the moment it needs them to be?

You’d think that this is something that Google, the emperor of analytics, might be able to figure out. But the company it had chosen to organize the deliveries, 1–800Courier, had not. Sometimes workers lucked out and watched movies in their cars, but more often they suffered for their employer’s failure. There may have been an abundance of employees scheduled for shifts, but ultimately the people were just as on-demand as the Costco kitty litter they delivered.

Outside of Silicon Valley, American labor is looking a lot like this already. The old, sanctified status of “employee” is getting egged in the face. The days of blue-collar job, suburban tract home, Disney vacay, and pension awaiting at the end of the 9–5 rainbow looks like a curious blip on the way to a more profit-maximized, capitalist future. It’s the age of the precariat: unions are nearly kaput, many will only know pensions from history books, and most “at will” workers can be fired as easily as Uber can kick its drivers off the app. Now many old titans of industry have latched onto this idea of on-call shift work — which many call “just-in-time scheduling,” — a grayish labor abuse tailored for the age of the text message that has lawmakers hustling to curb it.

Since the recession, millions of workers have taken part-time gigs when they’d prefer to have full-time ones — especially in hospitality and retail. And those part-time jobs increasingly jerk the workers around: In a University of Chicago study of young workers in hourly jobs, 41 percent said they got their shifts a week or less in advance. It gets worse from there: as a recent story in Harper’s Magazine laid out, companies use software to track customer flow down to the minute; resulting in managers who ask workers to be on call for work shifts, or clock out while on the job and hang around without pay during slow times to see if the workflow will pick up. Sarah Leberstein is a senior staff attorney from the National Employment Law Project, which has been monitoring the hellish scheduling practices. “The companies want to unload all the flexibility onto the workers, but workers can’t afford to live in such a state of flux.”

This spring, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent letters to 13 national retailers including Urban Outfitters to Target to Gap to Sears, questioning them about using software tracking systems and whether they made employees get the go-ahead for work less than a day before a shift:

Re: Request for Information Regarding “on call shifts”
Our office has received reports that a growing number of employers, particularly in the retail industry, require their hourly workers to work what are sometimes known as “on call shifts” — that is, requiring their employees to call in to work just a few hours in advance, or the night before, to determine whether the worker needs to appear for work that day or the next. If the employee is told that his or her services are not needed, the employee will receive no pay for that day, despite being required to be available to appear on the job site the next day or even just a few hours later on the same day. For many workers, that is too little time to make arrangements for family needs, let alone to find an alternative source of income to compensate for the lost pay.

If “just-in-time scheduling” sounds a whole lot like on-demand work, that’s because it is.

It’s not just in America that this practice is increasing. In Europe, it’s called the “zero hour” job — you’re promised work, but guaranteed nothing. And these contracts have been causing controversy in Britain ever since the financial crisis, which saw a dramatic rise in the number of just-in-time jobs as employers offloaded their risks onto the workforce. Today, almost 2 million jobs in the U.K. are now on-call. In some cases, workers are denied the benefits of full-time employees, or are prevented from finding other paying gigs without the permission of their employer — even if that employer cancels all of their shifts.

And it’s not just service industry jobs: zero hours have spread into other areas of the British economy, too. Recent figures suggest 13 percent of all healthcare workers and 10 percent of all education jobs are now in the same kind of hole that Michanne found herself in. (Finney from 1–800 said he does not consider the company’s scheduling to fall into the “just-in-time” trend.)

“The writing on the wall is we’re going to see more of an Uber and Lyft approach to workforce management in more industries,” says Carrie Gleason from the Center for Popular Democracy, a Brooklyn-based labor and social justice nonprofit. “You can see that in the just-in-time scheduling — you only want to pay for people when they’re doing the most productive work. The cost of doing business is put on the worker, so any time they’re not producing a car fare or a retail sale, it’s the worker paying for that time, not the company.”

On-demand companies pitch themselves as ultimate disrupters, breaking free of stuffy, old-world straitjackets of work. For many companies in this exploding area, there are no zero hour jobs — because the jobs have no set hours at all. The workers are independent contractors, not employees, and, at many companies, can log into work when they choose. In fact, Silicon Valley’s Chief Optimism Officer, Marc Andreessen — the venture capitalist who is funding Lyft and Instacart to build our app-based freelancer future —recently waved away a reporter’s comment about the precarious app workers in the New Yorker: “Maybe there’s an alternate way of living,” he said. “A free-form life where you press the button and get work when you want to.”

It also saves companies payroll taxes, wages, benefits — and the headache of scheduling workers. (“What other job out there can you just turn it on when you want to start and off when you want to stop — whenever you feel like it?” asked Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in his five-year company anniversary speech last week.)

“Uber doesn’t care if 100 or 200 are reporting to work because Uber will get the same percentage of the fare” says Leberstein, the National Employment Law Project attorney. “They’re shifting the burden of deciding whether there’s enough work onto the workers.” Many companies go so far as to give drivers a weekly breakdown on the most high-earning hours — in fact, there are entire apps dedicated to helping workers track that for themselves.

Companies claim these freedom-loving toilers will flee the moment they’re pinned down by shifts or bureaucracy. Their own internal studies suggest this is true: one Uber-commissioned poll of drivers showed more than 70 percent preferred to be their own boss rather than work a 9-to-5. About 50 percent of Lyft’s drivers drive five hours a week or less. A survey by the Freelancer’s Union found 42 percent went freelance to have more flexibility in their schedule.

“If everybody has to work a certain amount of hours, then it would put the model at risk because then it would be a very rigid model,” says Pascal Levy-Garboua, the head of business at Checkr, and organizer of a conference about the on-demand economy held in San Francisco last month. He has driven for Lyft in the past anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a week to see how it works for himself — then goes months without driving at all. “That would be the opposite of on-demand. Demand and supply are elastic, and the model works because there’s an equilibrium. If supply” — the industry’s term for what the rest of the world usually calls “workers” — “is not elastic, the model breaks.”

Yet a survey of more than 1,000 workers released last month by Requests for Startups, a tech-booster newsletter, popped a hole in what had been the great selling point of contract work in the new economy:

Work hours are demand-dependent despite the touted schedule flexibility. Although schedule flexibility is the #1 stated reason for joining a company as a contractor, ‘Peak hours / demand’ ranked highest amongst influencers of their work schedules, with nearly 50% selecting it as a very important influencer (‘My Family’ was the 2nd highest at 35%). This influence is particularly glaring when comparing current vs. ideal hours of ridesharing respondents, whose responses suggest that their ideal working hours aren’t too far off from the traditional 9–5.

Among the top reasons for leaving the job were insufficient pay (43 percent) and — spoiler alert for industry cheerleaders — insufficient flexibility (26 percent). In short, while the apps may be good for people who have another job and merely want to pad their income, if workers want to make a living on these apps, they actually have little flexibility — they need to work full-time or more, and they better be signed into work during the peak times.

The on-demand workplace is not one-size-fits-all: while complete flexibility works well for driving services with a 24-hour demand and a ready stable of drivers, companies dependent on burritos and Thai take-out reaching hungry customers have to be a bit more organized about who is on hand at meal times.

To get around this problem, many companies have started doing to their independent contractors exactly what 1-800Courier does to its employees: schedule them onto shifts.

At Postmates, an on-demand food delivery company, contractors sign up the week before for shifts in down-to-the-hour increments — those who confirm their availability are offered potential jobs first, meaning they can end up making substantially more than those hopping on the app to work spontaneously. As further motivation, Postmates also guarantees couriers who sign up for shifts a minimum of $15 an hour on weekends — if their jobs don’t add up to that, Postmates will pay them directly.

Scheduling contractors is a legally gray thing to do — since shifts are one of the IRS’ criteria in determining that a worker is an employee. (Indeed, Postmates, like many companies, is currently facing a lawsuit over classifying the couriers as contractors.)

Postmates says they aren’t shifts, exactly: workers aren’t bound to the hours they pre-select — they could just not sign into the app during the shift. Yet there are consequences. If they miss five of their allotted hours in a week, they’ll be suspended from work for 48 hours, as this email forwarded by one courier warns:

In order to avoid banishment, Postmates contractors ask for swaps on the app, much like employees have to do when they can’t make a shift.

And, like ridesharing companies, Postmates has another mechanism to get unscheduled contractors out on the road during peak times: its own surge-pricing model called “blitzes.” While the courier’s take of the delivery fee always stays the same —80 percent — blitzes increase that fee two or even three times the usual amount.

A text conversation between Postmates and a NYC courier.

Postmates also polices the workers once signed in: one courier in New York City who asked not to be named (he didn’t want to get kicked off the app) showed me texts from the company: sometimes Postmates asks him why he’s not accepting more jobs, sometimes it commands him to stop only accepting jobs that he determines will be worth his time, and sometimes it suspends him temporarily from the app entirely. A Postmates spokeswoman says the real-time texts are aimed at getting feedback on why certain jobs aren’t attractive to couriers.

The take-away: as traditional jobs are looking more on-demand, on-demand contractor ones aren’t looking as flexible as they claim.

So where does that leave us? Employment and contractor labor models already seem to be converging at some sort of semi-flexible purgatory.

I n the eyes of those who cry that companies like Uber or Lyft or Postmates are getting rich off exploiting a labor loophole — blithely skipping out of paying wages, benefits, and expenses like gas because they classify workers as freelancers—companies like 1–800Courier are actually playing the good guy. (Or at least the less evil guy.) The company has official employees which it pays $12.50 to $13 an hour, plus worker’s comp, overtime, and expenses, including gas and the occasional parking ticket.

“I do want to go on the record to say we try really hard to do right by our employees,” Finney from 1–800Courier says. “We’re not going to pass that cost onto someone else so we can save a buck… We’re practically one of the only companies in the state of California that uses the employee model. It’s the right thing to do, and, in the long run, it will be the best solution because we’ll be able to provide the best service because we have employees. With independent contractors, there’s a lot of control you give up because you can’t tell independent contractors what to do.”

Still, 1–800Courier's own problems show that employers in the on-demand economy have to be adept at managing their workflow. Otherwise they’ll lose money on wasted labor when there’s low demand, or be caught short when there’s a sudden surge.

This is not impossible. Already some on-demand companies claim to have figured it out.

One vocal proponent of employees in the industry is Managed by Q’s CEO Dan Teran, who has written about the decision to employ its workers to clean and manage offices in New York City. Their workers get to choose their work days and receive a steady schedule, and the company books them at worksites that are on convenient subway routes from their home or other job sites. Still, the company gets off easy since most of the workflow is pre-determined and consistent week to week.

The San Francisco food service Munchery has been also held up as one of the good guys in the new push-button delivery business — one of a short list that employs its couriers. One San Francisco bike messenger named Jennifer told me Munchery pays $18-an-hour plus tips from a collective tip pool — much higher than minimum wage. Still, Munchery experienced its own trip-ups. Jennifer told me that after she started working for them at the beginning of the year, there were too many messengers working the four-and-a-half hour dinner delivery window. “They were just sitting around waiting. I was told that it had been really slow for many months,” she says.

Around the end of January, Jennifer says Munchery laid off 11 bike messengers. (CEO Tri Tran would not give details of the company’s staffing, but says the layoffs were not a huge correction considering the size of his payroll: “Ten people we need to shift around — that’s a very small number for the workforce we have.”) Munchery also gets out ahead of its demand by putting parameters on how instantaneously “on-demand” it can be: outside of San Francisco’s city limits, you have to have ordered dinner by 2:00 in the afternoon, and choose an hour-long delivery window.

The workflow problems seem to be resolved for now. Since the layoffs, Jennifer says she’s delivered a steady flow of meals with little loafing.

Still, Munchery has a strong advantage: people generally eat dinner at a predictable time. Consistency is a harder promise in truly in-the-moment businesses, like Uber and Lyft, Postmates, or Google Express. How can employees ever be scheduled with perfect accuracy in those businesses? Does an hourly employee have to work rigid shifts?

Shannon Liss-Riordan is a Boston-based labor attorney suing many on-demand companies over their attempts to classify workers as contractors. She says flexible shifts aren’t incompatible with employee status: “That’s total BS. Employees can have flexible work schedules, employers are doing that all the time. All of these arguments being made are real red herrings that they’re trying to throw out there. It’s part of the whole ‘Oh, the workers love this, because they love the flexibility.’ You can give them flexibility, and pay their worker’s comp. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.” She cites one precedent-setting California case about cucumber growers who were found in California Supreme Court to be employees, even though they could set their own hours.

Of course, salaried, white-collar workers — who can call their own shots and rarely earn overtime — often have a great deal in flexibility at work. That’s harder for employees getting paid by the hour. Could part-time employees log in and out of work willy nilly, paid by the hours they actually work? Highly unlikely. If companies have to pony up for the workers, there’s little benefit to them for allowing workers to come and go as they please. Shelby Clark, executive director of Peers, which helps on-demand workers find and manage their workload, has done some back-of-the-envelope calculations on the base cost of having employees. Companies only start recovering their employee costs if workers are putting in a baseline of hours, but not overtime, “so you’d probably have a floor and a cap [on hours], and then not more than eight hours a day. You’d start to see a lot of constraints that defeat why people work in the sharing economy.”

That’s exactly what the disgruntled New York City Postmates courier told me. Despite getting pestered by texts to accept more jobs and bad tips, he explained why he stayed: “The only thing I like about this job is the freedom and flexibility.” Take away that, and he’d do what companies fear the most, especially as the competition for these workers grows: he’d never sign in for work again.

Which was exactly what Michanne at 1-800Courier did, after being forced to be flexible when she wanted stable work. In late April, she quit. Ironically, even though she was an employee, her reasons for leaving were the same as all those on-demand workers who were surveyed: lack of flexibility and low pay. She now works at a car dealership, 9-to-6.

The 1–800Courier ad on Craigslist.

It appears 1–800, on the other hand, is only ramping up. In the last month, the company has blanketed Craigslist with job ads for Google Express drivers to deliver for a “new upscale concierge service,” “a really cool company” to deliver retail items to homes and businesses around Silicon Valley. “It makes me wonder why they fired all those people, if they’re just going turn around and hire more,” the current employee told me while sitting in her van waiting for a second shift to begin last week. “Just so you can fire everyone again?”

Among the listed perks in the ad? “Stable schedules” and “multiple shift choices.”

Read more from stories from the On-Demand Economy:

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Next Story — A SEA OF FACES
Currently Reading - A SEA OF FACES

A SEA OF FACES

Don’t forget to also read my seven-part essay “Selfie.”

For the last six months, I have been collecting faces. People send them to me in all different ways: email, DMs, texts, at-replies, late night Gchats. These selfies and the stories behind them have flooded my feeds and my inboxes, and yet I always find myself wanting more. And the words that come with these pictures continue to surprise me: there is so much more going on underneath the surface of a selfie than most of us ever guess. I have found myself heartbroken, buoyed, and haunted by these narratives, and I have an appetite for so many more.

That is where you come in.

Below is a selection of selfies I have gathered this year, and the stories of the people who took them, in their own words. You can leave your own (and I hope you will) in the response section. Join the stream.


Matt

This was on my 24th birthday. I’d had a difficult summer (roommate troubles, parents got cancer, single AF — in a nutshell) and I had to square with the possibility of a life alone. So I spent my birthday by myself and it was fun! As I walked around Brooklyn, I found myself at the spot where I broke up with my ex-boyfriend a year ago. I took this selfie so I could see myself how I felt: owning a day on my own, doing it my way, happy.


Stella

I took the first one in the bathroom of a fancy gala where I felt very out of place. In the other, I had bought this bikini online and when I put it on at home, I remember thinking: “How could I have ever hated all this?” and almost cried. For years, I thought that the size of my body and the fact that I am queer meant that any sort of femininity wasn’t available to me. Luckily, I’ve since realized that femininity is a choose-your-own-adventure, and taking selfies like this remind me that I’m statuesque and gorgeous as hell.


Matthew

In late 2010, two years after I’d uprooted my life and moved from suburban Indianapolis to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with and then marry the girl from that long-distance thing, I experienced a severe depressive breakdown. I couldn’t seem to accomplish anything, no matter how I tried. Up to that point, I had thrived on the energy that writing and music gave me, but I just couldn’t do it any more.

But — maybe by instinct, maybe by desperation — I kept taking selfies on my iPhone. Depression selfies definitely weren’t a thing then, but that seems to be what I was doing — documenting myself to remind myself that I was still there. One day, in late 2010, I stepped into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, decided I looked great, smiled as big as I could, and snapped a picture. The above was the result. I don’t know why I thought that was a smile, why I thought that a sweat-stained plain white tee was a great look, why I didn’t notice that my eyes were swollen from constant almost-crying, or that my eyes were almost completely vacant. Also my haircut was stupid, but my haircuts were always stupid until pretty recently. I do know why I thought I looked great, though: I wasn’t asleep or doubled over in the shower trying to convince myself to stop wanting to die. That ugly selfie was both a declaration of victory in that day’s battle and a rallying cry for the months to come. I could at least stand up. When my brain was screaming for me to kill myself, I could choose to do nothing.

I lost a job to that depression. My marriage spoiled into an abusive dynamic. (Which is a total chicken/egg discussion. I don’t remember which came first. I suspect depression did, largely because I was in such a vulnerable position for manipulation — I wanted to die every second I was awake; why would I not also believe that I was unloveable, unworthy of eating, deserving of being hit?)

New Year’s Eve, 2011, my wife insisted that she bring a friend over and didn’t allow me to invite anyone. It was the guy whose house she had been spending several nights a week at. By midnight, she had fallen asleep on his shoulder, after putting a pillow between us. I don’t know how I worked up the nerve to document that with a selfie:

On showing that picture to my therapist, he rightly insisted I move out. Which I did, but not until she told me to. About a week later.

It was weirdly magic. The difference happened almost immediately. This is from May 2012:

It wasn’t a sudden, complete change, but very rapidly (and really, I’ve only noticed while collecting these selfies), the light came back to my eyes, I re-learned how to smile (if only slightly).


Jolie

#SELFIEARMY is about radical self-love. I truly believe that for a woman, loving yourself is an act of social disobedience. We’re taught to critique ourselves constantly, ingrained to hate ourselves. We’re taught that anything less than perfection is not good enough, and we’re reminded damn well that we will never be perfect. We could always be thinner, prettier, have bigger boobs, a nicer ass, have clearer skin — and due to the Photoshopping epidemic we find ourselves in today, when we see women in the media, we compare ourselves to literally (literally) unattainable standards. Above all, we aren’t taught to define ourselves, but to instead see ourselves only through the eyes of the men around us. If we receive a compliment, we may say “thank you,” but we are never to compliment ourselves first. More than a virtue, modesty was invented to silence women. Historically, men have been the artist and women have been the muse. Taking a selfie is about reclaiming our right to be both — yes, I agree that I am a beautiful, magnificent, one-of-a-kind work of art, I just don’t understand why you think you deserve any credit for that. The selfie, a love story: I AM ART AND I AM AN ARTIST. YOU’VE held MY body for ransom for centuries and I am returning it to its rightful owner.


Meredith

I think of selfies like a timeline-diary, a way to document my adventures. I get an overwhelming desired to make an image sometimes. Like my circumstances will be really curious or beautiful and it’ll be like an itch I have to scratch. I have to put the moment down. I was a very early proponent of the selfie, growing up with a camera and being on livejournal and MySpace as a teen. Making pictures of myself has always been a part of my regular art practice.

After the worst breakup of my life, I took a picture of myself everyday for SO LONG just to remind myself I was real. I have an old broken laptop with probably 1,000 photos of myself at age 23–24. In a weird way, I cherish the selfie practice I’ve adopted because now, being in a band, I have my picture taken all the time and I know my angles. When it comes time for me to be on camera, I don’t panic. I’ve gained a lot of weight in the last year and I’m getting older… but this is my face, and it’s the only one I’ve got. Ergo: selfies. This is me, regardless of how I or you feel about it. I exist.

I have had such huge life changes between November 2013, when my band first started touring, and now, and I look back at my Instagram and I’m just shocked. My life has done three or four 180s, and there I am, surviving all of it, still getting on stage and smiling. Like whoa, little dude, there you are. Being as open as I have about my history with mental illness, maybe seeing a photo of my not only living but thriving might be important for someone.

Selfies are giving me agency to show people there’s more to me than the incendiary parts focused on by the media. People definitely want me to be this violent angry person all the time. All screaming pictures. So like, me feeding boys donuts or holding a bunch of flowers or working on one of my cakes is important. I’m a very nice, mild-mannered person. I don’t want people to be afraid of me. I’m a boring old lady!


Megan

Taking a selfie is the act of reflecting light I’ve already felt back to myself again and again. It’s an active attempt to remind myself I exist. I guess anytime I’m looking into a camera I’m facing my own mortality, then demanding there be a chance to last forever−but, with a selfie, it’s only in the way I want to be remembered. Like writing my name on some wall as a kid: I WAS HERE. That’s the thing: it’s this intimate promise to myself — I don’t have to be forgotten. There will always be this.



Ryan and Sara

Ryan: The first shot is one of my favorite selfies. It was taken while Sara and I were on vacation in Amsterdam. Usually I have about a seven attempt limit. I also shy away when we are surrounded by large groups of strangers. This picture is about attempt number 12 for a good selfie, and on the other side of the camera, there is a group of around 20 people at a cafe. As you can see, Sara has a different opinion. She has no limit to the number of pictures she could take to ensure she gets a good vacation selfie pic. It’s just one of the many reasons why I love her. This picture is also demonstrative of our selfie-taking process and me, likely not at my best.

Sara: The second picture was taken in the elevator of our hotel after dancing the night away at our friend’s wedding. I am a major believer in the couple selfie. It really helps capture the moments I might otherwise forget or just simply want to remember whether big or small or just goofy. When I’m away missing Ryan or bored one day, I’ll look through our selfies and instantly be transported back to that moment and relive all the emotions I felt. This selfie was taken almost a year ago and it still reminds me of the truly great night we had and all the laughs and love we shared. I think about how much fun I am always able to have with my husband, even if we don’t know anyone else at the wedding other than the bride and groom. Ryan will always make me laugh until I cry and make me feel so loved. Couple selfies help me relive these amazing memories and cherish my relationship.


Jessica

This is my favorite selfie. I took it last September. I was a few months into a relationship with a guy and pissed off at him. I wanted time to think before I spoke, but he kept texting me, urging me to respond. I sent this angry selfie in order to convey my displeasure without saying anything out of anger that I’d later regret.


Ira

Selfies for me are things I don’t take often — I prefer taking photos of my friends and my surroundings — probably because I’ve yet to perfect a fact that doesn’t look awkward while I’m selfie-ing, as opposed to the general neutral face I keep whenever I’m having my photo taken. It’s why I try and replicate that stony gaze with a shot designed to show: “I’m on vacation!” But the framing is nice.


Ava

For a long time I felt very beholden to the guilt complex around selfies and selfie culture, seeing them as self-indulgent and even potentially deceptive (insert unpacking of the rank sexism coursing through the veins of this trope here). Although I’ve been taking selfies since long before the term had even been coined — think haphazardly aiming with my 6-megapixel digital camera — I mostly kept them private or, if I ever did post one online, I always accompanied it with an apologetic or self-deprecating caption. I definitely saw selfies as an aspect of artifice that my real-life acquaintances would somehow “see through,” even as I also held a deep adolescent wish to be able to take control of my own self-presentation.

It wasn’t until this past year when I started an anonymous Twitter account (insofar as anything can really be anonymous online) that I was really able to embrace selfies and view them as a tool for caring for and humanizing myself — I can be paralyzingly self-critical. I have to give a huge amount of credit here to my beautiful angel of a friend, Jolie (@princess_labia) and the #selfiearmy hashtag for creating a space where I was welcome and allowed to experiment with selfies as a sort of habitual or ritual practice. Now, I take selfies almost every day, both when I feel good about myself and when I feel the opposite. I take selfies to practice seeing myself as a whole rather than the sum of my flaws; I post selfies online (enthusiastically, and often!) to practice unapologetically taking up space.


Joe

I took 25 pictures of myself laying in different positions across my bed. Some funny, some blurry, and two or three I like. Taking all those pictures made me put my guard down. To do that I imagined my phone to be the face of a friend I admire.

I feel strange sometimes, because selfies are about people declaring agency over how they are seen. Frankly, men who look like me are seen pretty positively by society. When women, trans, non-binary, and people of color post them it is a celebration and political statement: them taking control of their bodies and presentation is a radical move because it rewrites the narrative around their lives one snapshot at a time. I like selfies because they offer me control over my body.


Caroline

I took this selfie a few Fridays ago during my first visit to Planned Parenthood. I was recently cheated on by my former longtime partner and wanted to make sure he hadn’t given me anything, and I figured it would be cheaper than going to my regular doc. Everyone was so nice and wonderful. I took this photo while waiting in the exam room and posted it on Instagram with the caption “Portrait of The Artist As a Young Woman Who is Tired of Your Shit.”


Rohin

I love raising plants. Earlier this year, around spring, I finished eating an avocado and decided I would try to coax a plant out of the pit. This selfie features me holding an avocado plant I have successfully willed into this world — it took about six months or so to get this big, but now nothing’s stopping it from getting bigger. Something like this is always a gentle reminder that in a world filled with so much death and destruction, we’re capable of building and creation.


Rebecca

I took this on the day I was told that I would die if I removed the tube in my nose. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and forming the smile was the hardest thing I could do… I took the picture because I was determined to have a "before" shot because I was adamant that that day was the beginning of my recovery "after."


Matt

When I have my daughter, it’s usually just her and I alone together. So the only way for me to have pictures of the two of us together are selfies. Otherwise, it’s me taking shots of her alone. But I want her to see pictures of the two of us together having fun one day. So, lots of selfies.


Ashley

About two weeks before I took this photo, I was lying in bed naked and said to myself, “I’m tired of thinking of my body as a problem.” Every time I looked in the mirror, I had something awful to say (or think) about my body, and quite suddenly, the thought of going through that old emotional routine felt distinctly and profoundly boring. A week later I found this crop top on sale, and wore it proudly into a conversation with a group of thin white women who worked in fashion writing. On my way out of the meeting, I stopped in front of this mirror next to the elevator, and I posed like I was as fabulous and non-boring as I felt.


Summer Anne

A good selfie makes me love myself more than any compliment from a man ever has; I guess that must be really intimidating and difficult for them. If women don’t need dudes to feel good about themselves, do we need dudes at all?


Helena

This summer I slipped a disc in my back and was rendered basically immobile for almost a month. When I finally started recovering and could walk again, I felt uglier than I had since I was a teenager. It’s a stupidly dramatic phrase, but I felt like someone who had “lost her looks.” I also felt like I’d visibly aged about ten years in three weeks. I found I no longer wanted to take selfies because I didn’t want to look at myself. But when I started taking them anyway, it made a difference. They never looked the way I expected them to look, and even if this was only because my expectations were so low, I stopped seeing the monstrous version of myself I saw in my mind. Even if each selfie had controlled angles and well-chosen light and all of that, I could look at it and admire myself, an ability I thought I’d lost. I took photos and then eagerly scrolled back through the camera roll, astounded by my own face, a face I had not expected to see. Selfies helped me get back to wanting to see myself, to wanting to be seen.


Thomas

Being with my partner Helena has changed my motivation for selfies. As small as New York can be, I miss her so much when I go to work. Sending her a selfie makes that a little better, and the reaction she sends back to me is always sweet and kind. I don’t have to pose; I just have to be myself.​ ​

The cat selfies are something I’ll do when I get home before Helena is
there, as our schedules don’t always align. I’ll come in the door and
Sophie is so excited to see one of her humans, so I’ll pick her up
with one hand and take a selfie with the other. The result is often
blurry from a squirming kitten, but I send it on to Helena and it’s
another way to be in the same place when we’re apart.


Sherrie

I don’t like following people who tend to take a selfie every day — meaning in the Instagram grid of life, their face appears once in every row of three pictures. They have to be taking a lot of pictures of food in between those selfies for me to keep following them. And it’s not like I don’t like their faces, right? I just don’t know what they see there that warrants daily documentation. Maybe the makeup changes but your face stays the same — shouldn’t it?

Anyhow, I don’t selfie very often. This is maybe the only selfie of mine I truly love: I’m an L.A. girl through and through, and the blossoming bougainvillea that blankets my beautiful city ​was too eye-catching to pass up. This isn’t even much of a selfie considering you can only see a quarter of my face — I believe I entitled it “sorry for the semi-selfie.” I just saw this vibrant wall of color and wanted to be part of it for a short moment. I wasn’t thinking about me. I was thinking about how blessed I am to live in a city that provides me with so much visual stimulation day in and day out. How can people live in concrete metropolises? That’s all this damn selfie is about.


Caryn

At the Cadillac Ranch. When The River came out in 1980, and I saw the picture of the Cadillac Ranch on the inner sleeve, I said, “Some day, I will go there.” It’s in Amarillo, Texas, a place I had no reason to go, except to visit the Cadillac Ranch. It took me a couple of decades, but I made it. I made it!


Octavia

This selfie is one of my top ten because I’m happy, the lighting is perfect, I’m radiant, and it’s also the first day of the pumpkin spice latte comeback this season. I don’t know if this sounds vain, but I love selfies. I love taking them and I love being a part of others. In a culture so centered around the reachability of technology and specifically our phones, it’s an exhilarating feeling seeing so many beautiful people embrace this, which is why I love retweeting these beautiful people. I’m enamored by all the women I encounter online and I love to uplift them. I’ll never understand people who aren’t for selfies. Then again, it takes a lot of courage, time, good lighting, energy and a strong arm to get the right picture and to know your angles, which could be intimidating for these same people.


Elisabeth

My October birthday was a significant one this year: I didn’t cross any particular age Rubicon, or hit any arbitrary marker — rather, it was my first birthday after my mother died from cancer. When my mother died in March, there was one point of relief — no longer would I have to wait for the inevitable — and yet, that was one small relief in what has, essentially, been a major severing in my life, a journey of unmooring, a feeling that a source of unconditional love in my life (both ways) was gone from the earth. I took this selfie on my birthday as a record, to see where I am in this new world. It was at the beginning of a day that was hard, of a day that I felt my mother’s absence all around me, but in that small moment where I took my cat and my camera, I could look out at the world and say: I’m here, I’m standing, I’m working on being my own mother these days. It was a small moment where I felt brave, and for that, I have my selfie, I have my camera, and I have my cat — no matter how reluctant a conspirator.


Corey

I’m not really sure when I started taking selfies, but I know why I take them. I guess for me, it has a lot to do with loving who I am. I’ve learned that I am exactly where I need to be right now in terms of looks. I may not be the cutest twink this side of the Mason Dixon, but I damn sure believe I am. My selfies are a reflection of my confidence. My teeth are crooked and my pores are quite big, but I love that about me. It’s cliche, but it adds character. When you spend a majority of your life hating who you are and then learning to love yourself, it should be a celebration.


Alana

I take selfies because I hated my appearance for so long that I avoided photos altogether for several years in early adulthood. I’m sad that there is no evidence of me during that time and so maybe I’m overcompensating now by taking selfies as often as I do. Most of the selfies I take include either my cat or my ass, though never at the same time. In the case of this selfie, I like that my semi-nakedness seems inconsequential to me. The electric blue is a nice touch, but I think this would be a sexy photo even if I was clothed because my expression is so quintessentially me.


Craig

I took this selfie around midnight to send to a high school friend I recently reconnected with. I didn’t have intentions o​f​ sending a picture, but she requested, so I wanted to send the best selfie I could at the time. I figured lights and shower curtain patterns would help distract from my fatigued face and portray me in all of my mid-twenties crust and shimmer. ​Short of gym progression, I don’t know why I take selfies. Maybe there’s introspection in looking at a timestamp of my current wear and tear.


Tam

Usually, people take selfies of their most attractive/confident selves, but I am oddly only ever motivated to take selfies after something particularly awkward or memorable has happened (and this doesn’t seem to overlap with my feeling cute, unfortunately).

This was taken at JFK, right after TSA officers publicly patted down my hair and boobs because my “ethnic” hair (a term used by the TSA officers) set off the airport body scanner for the ninth time in four weeks. Apparently, thick hair blocks the scanner from working and conceals any area that the hair rests on. If you put your hair up in a bun, they’ll pat the bun and sometimes undo it, just in case you may be concealing a knife or tiny antique pistol within your locks.


Tyler

This was from when I first got my braids. I took this right after I woke up. I take selfies when I don’t want to get out of bed yet. When I took this, I remember thinking, damn, I look so pretty. I hadn’t had long hair since I was 16, and I was super excited about it. I came out when I was 20 as trans, and my hair was super short; then I was living as a man for two years, and my hair was super short. Then I went off testosterone almost two years ago and started growing my hair out. I was super excited to get my braids. It was very gender-affirming for me, and I couldn’t really stop staring at myself and playing with it. I took this selfie and I was like, this is everything. I am killing it right now.

I definitely take selfies for myself, but a big reason why I post them is that I want to be a visible agender person of color, and I want other young trans people to have someone to look at and see themselves reflected. I never had that growing up, and that is super important to me. I feel like my life would be very different if I had known anyone who was non-binary, or if I had known there were other genders than male and female. So my purpose with selfies is 1) I look cute as hell and 2) I want to be very out and accessible.


Kiana

I take selfies on two occasions: whenever I’m extremely happy and proud of myself, and whenever I’m lonely. I post them on Instagram and Twitter only, once a month or so, but mostly I just keep them to myself as a reminder that I can get through tough times and that the happy days far outnumber the lonely ones. Selfies in general, based on my experience with them and also based on Minna Gilligan’s essay on the selfie, is a way of “solidifying yourself over time” and a manifestation that screams, “I exist. I am here.”


Kara

I recently chopped my hair into a super short bob. It was a pretty spur of the moment thing; I’m really impulsive when it comes to my hair. It hasn’t been this short since I was 4! People keep telling me I look like Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail. As with all major hair changes, though, sometimes I’m like WTF did I just do? Therefore I selfie, and the Instagram hearts and texts from friends raving about the cut confirm I did the right thing.

I love selfies because a) I love my friends and peers so why wouldn’t I want to see their faces all the time? And also, being a beauty writer means that people who follow me via xoVain want to see my face, with products on it! Selfies are just another way for us to show off how we see ourselves and our world, and I love it. My world and Kim K’s have a few glaring differences, but at the end of the day we are both showing off our new haircuts from our POV.


Esmé

I took this because I wanted to capture a time shortly after beginning a new treatment protocol for late-stage Lyme disease. I was feeling better than I had in years, and it seemed like being able to freeze that experience of hope could magically prolong it, or at least commemorate it.


Georgie

Here is a picture of me with Sasha the Husky after I hadn’t seen her for a year. Sasha is my ex-boyfriend’s roommate’s dog, and I have known her since she was only six weeks old. She (like all pups that I take selfies with) represents unconditional love, and even though things didn’t work out with the guy, I’m so glad that she became a part of my life.

Selfie-ing as male has always been less fraught for me, since I identify as gay and haven’t struggled with performing masculinity since high school (and plenty of gay men do struggle with masculinity; I haven’t really felt that and I certainly think that’s a blessing). I do think that selfie-ing is definitely seen as a feminine act, and I’m sure many other men don’t feel as comfortable taking selfies as I do. I also think gay men use selfies as a form of self love similar to how women do, although some take it further and use hashtags like #instagay, which I think adds a dimension of narcissism to it.


Wendy

I see my selfies as an extension of the different personas I embody every day. Just like with my writing — usually memoir, personal essays — I’m trying to show different facets of this one body I live in. There is definitely power in that act. I took this selfie because it captures what I believe is my outer spirit as well as my inner spirit. I never tire of telling people my age — 42 — because I grew up around women who were ashamed of aging, and I want to counteract that.


Christin

I don’t have a ton of selfies on my phone because I take waaayyyyy too long setting them up, usually long enough to go “what’s the point” and not bother. I care just a little too much about the mise en scene, my office is kinda boring, and I’m self-conscious about taking pictures in public. I think selfies are awesome and I always want to see my friends’ beautiful faces, but I draw the line when it comes to myself.

Like, even writing this. Whenever people post stuff like “I want to hear from you, and yes I mean you” I always think, “Yeah but not. Like, ME though.” All that empowering stuff on Twitter and Tumblr like “You look cute today” or “Send me your address so I can send Christmas cards.” I always think “Oh, that’s sweet but they don’t mean me.” So that’s something I’m working on.

Also getting acquainted with my own face. Like, I honestly have no idea what I look like. The picture I took is pretty close to what I see in the mirror but there are photos of me from a party this weekend and they made me want to stay inside with a blanket over my head. Have I been walking around that ugly all the time? (Really opening up the floodgates here.) So part of why I like the few selfies I take is I get to control the narrative.


Trace

I’m 28 years old, an ever-aware member of the last generation to ever experience life pre-internet (or, at least, pre-internet dominance). We saw the internet rise and we lived through the tipping point. I believe that selfies and each person’s forever in-flux social media identities have worked together quite beautifully to more or less legalize pride — to make self-confidence okay. We can see this extended to our favorite artists (Kanye West comes to mind) and we can detect this same renewed sense of self-worth at the heart of generational conflicts (many people over 40 detest selfies and use social media in a much different way). Selfies are an exploration of the self, yes — but they are also a democratized narrative on what it truly means to be alive in a world of true connection. There is no narcissism here, just the art of the self — our greatest creation and contribution.


Alli

This selfie came as the result of extreme self-love. My new Hysterics shirt had just come in the mail, I was having a bomb hair day, and I decided to blow everyone off to put a mask on my face and watch Jane the Virgin. After a long week of getting shit done as a high-powered lady living my city dreams while still retaining my punk-ass attitude, why not celebrate with a selfie?

Also, who am I kidding? It was for the Twitter fans.


Morgan

I take selfies because, to be quite honest, I don’t look in mirrors to observe my beauty but rather to see if I don’t have leftover toothpaste or shea butter residue on my face. When I’m out in the world, I’m so busy looking at everyone else and how beautiful they are that I forget myself. So my selfies almost always happen when I’m alone in my room or in some corner where no one can find me, because it’s easier to center myself both literally and figuratively. It reminds me that I can appreciate my own beauty from time to time and that the woman immortalized in the photo really is me.


Jessica Eve

I have a deep, abiding love for other people’s selfies, but yesterday someone tagged me in a “post six favorite selfies” meme on Tumblr, and I suddenly realized that I probably didn’t even have six total. Why do I feel so much shame about accepting, let alone liking, my appearance? Whenever I see selfies, I feel such a burst of admiration for that person.

This one is from this past Sunday. I’d just finished running a 10-mile race — my first. I was feeling super proud of myself and wanted to yell about it on social media so I took a post-race selfie right afterwards. Of course, by the time I got home, I’d talked myself out of posting it. I looked sweaty and tired and with some space between me and the moment, I was thinking more about that than the cool thing I just achieved. I hate that. I hate it and I know I want to feel liberated by posting copious pictures of my face on my Instagram/Tumblr feeds with an “idgaf” kind of attitude, and yet something stops me every time.


Jeva

I took this when I went to a conference in Minneapolis by myself. It was my first time ever visiting the city and also my first time traveling without my parents or a friend or a boyfriend. I did all of my exploring solo, which was new and exciting and totally different from how I’d ever traveled before. I wanted to get a shot of me with the city behind me, but I’m a kind of quiet, shy person so I didn’t want to stop and ask a passerby to take a picture of just me standing their awkwardly by myself. Because that’s what selfies are for.


Sam

I ding-donged on the idea of sending this in, owing to my self-consciousness. This was taken as I was coming to the end of a two-year-long long distance relationship. One of the unintended consequences of that was an increase in my selfie-taking. Sending selfies back and forth in conversation is one of the little pieces of intimacy I hang on to dearly. This one was taken when I had (evidently) just waken up and she was going to sleep.


Emma

I guess I take selfies to express myself. The Internet allows us to share who we think we are. Who we want to be… I posted this one with blue lipstick recently at work because a perk of my job is I get sent weird make-up. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t use selfies as a way to work out if something “works” or not. Like in a changing room: “shall I buy this?”, “does this look OK?” and sometimes I’ll see what people’s reaction are. I think we ALL looking for a bit of validation when we post a selfie. Getting only two likes would make you feel crappier than if you got 200. Its’s true, we want people to like our faces! I like seeing selfies of people I like/admire in my TL. Makes the scary Internet all a bit more comforting. More human I suppose.


Mackenzie

Last year, a month after my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I spent all of October in Los Angeles. My mom was really nervous about me going because she rightfully thought I’d fall in love with it and not want to come back to the East Coast. To ease the fear and tension around it, I would send her selfies to help erase the miles and show that I was happy and hadn’t like, done anything to my look that she’d missed. So I took this one in the bathroom of my office there and sent it with the text “getting that Cali glow but miss you lots” then I tossed it through a filter and put it up on Instagram as my first Instagram selfie.


Dave

I took this selfie while stuck in an elevator and waiting for the fire department to come and get me out. I live in an older apartment building with an elevator that breaks with some frequency. Thankfully I get cell service in the elevator, so when I got stuck, I was able to both call 911 and then take a selfie. Maybe it was silly to do so, but it’s one of those moments where all I had was time, so why not? I’m fine with people who do pose and set them up to be perfect, but I also like the spur-of-the-moment selfie. The genuine, peek into my day selfie.


Fran

I took this selfie at my parents’ a few weeks back. I really believe it’s the best picture of myself online right now. I felt really good about myself on this day and thought I looked like a protagonist in my own life (versus maybe the villain or side character). I go back and look at it from time to time, and I try to remind myself to keep going forward.


Anmol

I am on the left. This picture is a reminder that:
1. Friends at least try to stop your self-destructive behaviors (i.e. drinking, binge-watching Netflix, sleeping 60 hours in three days, etc) even if that’s just going to parties with you, taking selfies to distract you from your awaiting shots, and making sure you make it home at the end of the night.
2. You did look good before your makeup sweat off from dancing and you woke up in your room not knowing how you got there; the day after is always worth the selfies your friends send you from the previous evening and who better to appreciate your good looks than your friends?


Derek

I think I’m typically one of those people that just don’t selfie well. I’ve never really been self-conscious about myself in photos, dating back to my acne-filled teen years, but once selfies began to blow up, I suddenly found myself very critical of my appearance. I don’t owe it to some egotistical, competitive drive to be more handsome than others on social media or show myself in cool places; I think it honestly comes down to the fact that front-facing cameras are just different than their outward-facing ancestors. They distort the truth of the image, these finicky front-facers, and I can’t get my head over the mental hump that I look better than what’s being presented on the screen in front of me.

“I’m positive I look better than this,” I try to remind myself. Yet, half the time I end up abandoning the endeavor, and putting that selfie away in my pocket. “Maybe some other time.” The days when the front-facing camera can’t get in my way are the best days. They don’t make my forehead look abnormal or my nose too big. “I woke up like thiiiis” begins echoing in my head, with a small reverb of “flawless.”

The day I took this selfie, my friend Tom and I were doing some local traveling, the sun was out, the weather ideal, and for once, my fickle hair was all up and obeying me. Not only did I look good, but I felt good. It all comes across in the photo: a bit of a cocky smile, a professional get-up that looks only slightly classier than a restaurant waiter, and that hair. I uploaded it without a second thought. The likes didn’t matter in a photo like that. That was just an unfiltered moment of “life is good” that I wanted to share. I hurdled the technological distortion of myself, and I got to enjoy a moment of positive self-image. I shared it with the world, but it was a photo for myself.


Lindsay

Where to begin: I for some reason have to suppress a weird self-conscious guilt every time I post a selfie. Which is not to say that I don’t still do it rather frequently — primarily when I want to show off something snazzy I am wearing, because I just really enjoy clothes and fashion — but that I consider it greatly every time I do so. I admit to even trying to make sure I post at least three to four non-selfie images between selfies for fear of seeming too self(ie)-absorbed.

I just read something Sarah Jessica Parker said about how Instagram brings out a “bizarre boldness” in her, which I thought was a pretty fitting to explain the way social media has a weird power to amplify our ego (or allow us to present an alter ego.) But for me, the boldness dissolves once I actually post the photo and start worrying about whether it’s going to come across as self-indulgent or immature or calculating. And then I feel stupid for overanalyzing a dumb picture I just plopped on the internet because that thought pattern seems to mirror the exact kind of self-obsession that I worry selfies themselves represent.

Another funny thing I’ve noticed is that I also tend to view likes or positive comments on pictures of myself as more of a referendum on my likability than my appearance; each one is a little validation that, if my selfie-taking is not greeted with an eye roll of disgust but rather a little upvote of "you-do-you, girl" by friends and acquaintances, I must not strike them as a hideously self-obsessed person IRL. Right?


Marian

I have a friend who goes to the Allure Best of Beauty awards every year where they give you a rolling suitcase full of products, and she had some pink hair dye, and somehow we decided that I needed to dye my hair pink. I’d do it the day before my birthday, because there is no surer way to make sure everyone pays attention to you on YOUR SPECIAL DAY.

I also just really like expressing myself visually. I have always had a deep-seated fear of being boring — I think it’s because a) I’m white and blonde and I like the way I look, but nobody ever sees my face and is like, “Damn, that girl has a really INTERESTING look” and b) I grew up performing in a live stage magic company which always made me *different* so I tried to be *normal* in high school and then sort of *re-embraced my different-ness* but maybe always feared that having done this thing made me interesting, and I wasn’t inherently interesting. I spend a LOT of time thinking about WHAT makes us interesting — the things we like, the things we do, our stories.

So I am really into the idea of decorating myself (my best friend calls it “adorning”) and I just felt like it was time for my hair to be pink. I did it and IMMEDIATELY TOOK A SELFIE and everyone was like “omg” and I was like *blushing emoji that means you feel awesome about yourself* and it made me feel like a peacock or a bird of paradise.

At the time I was seeing/sleeping with/always furiously romance-sexting with this guy, and we would send each other a lot of selfies. Not naked selfies or mirror selfies, just pictures of ourselves — where we were, what we were wearing, how we were feeling, etc., when I sent one I always wanted him to tell me I was beautiful and sexy etc., but it was also just a richer form of communication.


Tom

I took this the other night with my roommate’s kitten after a wonderful dinner with friends. This is my face on red wine, great friends, and a cute little cat. Sent it to my person overseas to say good night/good morning. Recently I started seeing someone who lives in Amsterdam, and we send each other selfies just to say “I’m thinking about you.”

I think the main reason I take them is the same reason Snapchat took off like it did: we often find ourselves thinking about certain people, and want them to know that, but don’t have anything in particular to say. A selfie fills that void because faces tend to express themselves without much effort on our part. You can tell a joke, show someone how you’re feeling, describe a place you’re in, all without the need for words.


Meghan

I rarely publish actual selfies, but I will publish pictures of myself alone, as long as there’s something funny or weird about the image, like when I pretended to rebrand myself as a goth for a character show or when I came across an aggressively religious sign at a coffee place in Texas. These don’t necessarily qualify as selfies since I didn’t take them myself, but somehow that makes it more comfortable for me to post, especially if there’s a (usually dumb) joke in the caption. I had a realization talking to my roommate the other night (after discovering the “recently deleted” folder of iPhone photo albums and being horrified by how many failed selfies I had floating around in there) that whenever I do post a selfie, it’s always with something (or some puppy) else instead of an image of me completely alone. For example, this selfie of me with my parents’ dog or this selfie of me with a Hillary Clinton 2016 mug. I think in a sense I want whatever else is in the photo with me to be the focus of the post and I’m just kinda chilling in the background as an afterthought. I guess I’m selfie-conscious (ugh) but there are worst habits to have, I suppose. Maybe one day I’ll be able to fully embrace the selfie lifestyle of someone who doesn’t try to hide behind puppies and mugs — assuming this change will happen for me when Hillary’s inevitably in the White House.


Hayley

I hate selfies. This reason is purely vain. I don’t look good in them. I don’t have an angular, photogenic face. There are faces that take good photos. My face is long. But it’s also round. In photos, my nose looks big. My chin too small. There are people who always take a good picture. When I smile too much, I don’t love my teeth. This isn’t to say that I haven’t seen pictures of myself and thought… Damn I look good. I have! Sometimes it takes a few shots to get a photo right. But selfies are very different. They theoretically should be self-expression, but they’re not, at least not in my experience.

The other reason I don’t like selfies is because they give me an identity crisis. I took this selfie 22 times before I settled on it. I thought my hair looked so great that I was like, “I have to capture this moment immediately so it’s forever documented.” I took the photo and all of a sudden, I was a suburban hausfrau. That person in that photo was supposed to be the brunette version of Kim Gordon. But it was another woman. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t even me doing “selfie me.” I ran to the mirror, held my phone close to my face, side-by-side, so I could prove to myself that this woman in the selfie is not the same woman in the mirror. She wasn’t! I wasn’t! Except, here I was. My flaws settling into this tiny box.


Pauline

I come from a large Mexican family that’s uncomfortable with expressing emotions, so when I was young everything was an innuendo or the opposite of the meaning. To be pretty was to look like a hairy monkey, to be smart was to be labeled a brat, to be loved was veiled behind the threat of a beating if you stepped out of line in any way, shape, or form. It was difficult to read between the lines in this Bizzaro world, and it’s still really difficult to maintain a healthy sense of confidence, but you have to learn to love yourself as you love family, friends, and lovers.

And although we still mercilessly tease one another in my family, we all love the everlasting shit out of one another. Although I give my BF a hard time about working out so much, I appreciate the benefits. When my friend reaches for the Ben and Jerry’s, I grab a spoon and dig in, too. Life is hard enough: tell the people who matter that you care, and care for yourself as you would a precious loved one. It’s a life lesson.

That’s why I selfie. I am riddled with insecurity and rocked by my pant size on a weekly basis, but this thankfully has improved from the daily hell that was my adolescence and the struggle of self-identity that was my 20s.

Every summer I #banpants and every time I think I look exceptionally well put-together or happy, I take a picture and I tag it with “selfie.” This is how I want to be seen and remembered. Beautiful, bathed in light, resplendent with pleasure that I hope the observer can see coming from my eyes.


Max

I was traveling alone in Berlin last year and went to try on some glasses at a shop that had been recommended. I sent a few selfies in order to get some second opinions. These were my favorite frames, but my mother emailed back that they were wrong for my face. I ended up not buying glasses in Berlin.

I don’t take too many; only when I deem it absolutely necessary. I prefer handing my phone to someone else to take a picture if I absolutely need to be in it. I don’t really have a problem with selfies in general. But for me, seeing that an individual posts an inordinately large number of them is often a warning sign: narcissism ahoy.


Madeline

This is an “I’m Drunk So Let Me Send This Selfie To A Guy I Dated” selfie. I think there’s such an intimate connection you create with someone when you send them a non-sexual selfie. I have many of these hidden deep in my camera roll. A common one featured me with my laptop, with a caption that read: “Me and Bae.” He often would send me selfies in return, also non-sexual. One of the best ones I got was of him posing with a “Wet Paint” sign on the subway platform. No caption was necessary.


Sarah

Selfies often feel tied to how we want to be perceived on social media: I first began taking pictures of myself — with a digital camera! — around 15, when MySpace and Facebook were beginning to occupy space in our lives. I don’t think my motivation has changed much can since then; for me, taking a selfie is about recognizing a moment where I think I look pretty and presentable. I’m not relying on someone else’s opinion when I look in the mirror or when I sit on the train, double-checking my lipstick. Its about gaining control of your self-presentation online, and for me, an attempt to imagine myself outside the male gaze and inside female praise instead.


Eric

This first one I took to tweet to a friend who was doing #dudetime on Twitter, where she was retweeting guys' selfies to her followers. I thought it would be fun, but I was super nervous. I actually WENT UP ON MY ROOF for this shot (lol) but I had a fun time, and it encouraged me to send more. Now I tweet selfies when I get a haircut or have a weird look going on.


Beka

I took this at an event at Hospice Austin where Cheryl Strayed was the keynote speaker. I’d just wept through her entire speech. It was beautiful and moving hearing her speak (instead of reading) about her grief over the loss of her mother and how she found a way to pull herself out. I lost my father young, and I, too, spent years actively trying to destroy myself because that seemed easier than accepting his death. So I took this photo to look at when I think I’m alone or it’s too hard or things will never be OK. I’m not, it will pass, they will.


Rosalind

I took this after dancing in sequin hot pants until 3am on Saturday night. When I got back, I sat in the corridor in my flat eating toast — feeling joyous and exhausted and exuberant, all at once. I wanted to catch the flush of my cheeks, the way my hair had straggled out of its pony-tail, and the sense of momentary calm during a weekend that, globally, felt very scary and out of control.


Alix

I took this because my co-worker teased me that I was dressed like the painter from Murphy Brown when I got to work this day, and I thought it was a hilariously weird reference, but also wanted people to tell me that no, I actually looked like a hip contemporary woman. A (male) friend of said co-worker’s texted her something along the lines of “Your friend in the ugly overalls is kinda cute” the next morning and it set me the fuck off, mostly because that’s the exact opposite impression I wanted to make. Nobody talks about my overalls like that! Also my cat is in this pic — shout-out to Phoebe.


Nico

I took this selfie — or more accurately, ussie — with my friend’s phone during Indonesia’s presidential campaign last year. We were attending a speech event by then-candidate Joko Widodo’s main supporter Anies Baswedan in a huge ballroom inside a shopping mall in Jakarta. It wasn’t like we were very politically active, but during that crucial time, we felt very moved to support a contender who appeared promising in bringing real changes to our country (the only other candidate was involved in serious human rights violations in the past).

While waiting for the speech to start, we thought showing our support by taking a selfie wouldn’t hurt. We grinned from ear to ear and made a V-sign with our fingers (Widodo was #2 on the ballot card). I instantly posted it on Path — Indonesians’ favorite social media app — and received some ♥s from my friends.

Fast-forward several months later, and now we call Widodo our president. His progress so far might be debatable and sometimes rife with controversy. But looking back at this selfie, I notice how our faces were flushed with an unprecedented sense of hopefulness. Were we naïve? Perhaps. Were we optimistic? Most certainly. After all, a selfie — at least in this case — never lies.


Chanel

When I take selfies (not including ones that involve other people), I usually do it in a not-so-glamorous, casual way. It’s like I’m almost making fun of it, but I think I’ve passed the point of making fun, because I continue to publicly post photos of my own face. I also think hard about photo captions when it comes to selfies, because if the whole package isn’t there, then I feel like I’m not my authentic self? It’s like I need to use words to describe the picture or else it doesn’t show my full personality.


Meredith

I took this on a beautiful late summer day. Our friend is a photography enthusiast, so for fun, he brought along two of his antique cameras (one Rolleiflex, one stereo) to take some photos of myself and my fiancé. We decided to do a sort of 1930s British colonial military look, with me as the “officer’s wife.” I dress in vintage pretty frequently, but I was particularly happy with how my makeup had turned out this time, and wanted to commemorate it as well as having just been called “Agent Carter” on the streets of Bed-Stuy.


A.N.

Pregnancy is such a blur, in part because it’s exhausting, but in part because you’re even more exhausted after the baby arrives. I was uncomfortable for almost all of mine. I had trouble, in the end, fitting into anything that looked remotely good on me, so I remember being very pleased with this outfit, because I felt like I was dressing like I could fit right into Waiting for Godot, which was playing starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan on alternate nights with Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. I am a Patrick Stewart superfan and was so excited to get out and see a play. But I made a huge (very pregnancy brain-related) mistake and thought the curtain time was 8 p.m., when it was 7 p.m. So I dragged myself and a friend to Midtown for nothing. I did manage to make it to No Man’s Land on time, and the next day, I met Patrick Stewart by chance at a rare book sale. I got to tell him how much I loved it, and my regret about missing Waiting for Godot pretty much evaporated. So this selfie reminds me of how I felt, where I was going, and who I met. And the play was excellent.


Noah

I’d been living in the Bay Area for approximately five years at this point, but really had only just finished my first year of a foray into adult life. I didn’t live in San Francisco, and this wasn’t my building, but this was the place where I always stopped before we would go out in the city. The pre-party as an embodied location. This night was my last night before I moved back to my hometown. So much uncertainty. I’m sure after I took this photo I did what I always did in the city, which was to get riotously drunk and eat pizza. But this night was different because it was the last, and that’s why I thought it was important to have a picture. Also, this is evidence that I was way out in front of the vest trend.


Liz

For a long time, I incessantly took selfies because I was interested in self-examination through the guise of taking self-portraits (hardly a new idea). Then, one day, I got bored of looking at myself in this capacity, and now I hardly ever take a selfie. If I do, I hide my face. The older I get, the more private I feel. Still, the experience of selfiehood is an important and valid source of introspection.


Andy

Even though I don’t actually think there is anything wrong with selfies, and see many others using them as a celebration of themselves, I am profoundly embarrassed by my habit. Very few people know that I do it. Strangely, this is one of the only things I feel any shame about; I’m generally very forthcoming.

I think I take the pictures as a form of self-evaluation. I often do it when I think my clothes look good, or when I’m curious if a new eBay purchase fits well. I buy almost all of my clothes on eBay without trying them on first, so I’m usually curious. I think I also kind of like the idea of some far-future relative finding a timeline of selfies as I grow up and change. Sometimes I’ll take one when circumstances are special, like after a long bike ride in the snow, or when I’m on my roof fixing a shingle.

I suspect my shame about them comes from my discomfort at confronting my privilege. I mean seriously, what’s worse than a white dude taking pictures of himself to see how his somewhat expensive clothes fit? Many of the best public uses of selfies I’ve seen are to empower a certain type of person, like teenagers who are going through the hell of puberty and trying to find their voice, women who don’t fit the model of stereotypical beauty, people of color who are under-represented in media (i.e. Blackout day), etc. But I, as a white, heterosexual, cis-gender male need no empowering, and I think that’s why I think I’m ashamed of it. It seems that for many, posting selfies is a subtle “fuck you” to the establishment, while mine feel like a celebration of it.


Mia

I shot this during the first week at my first full-time job in a few years (I had been freelancing from home in jammies and cardigans). It took so long to figure out clothes I could wear in public, I kept missing the bus. Titled “Not yet master of my new commute; or, Waiting for the 27.” Also: color-matched with Seattle winter.


Lauren

I took the day off of work for my birthday to get my hair done and have lunch at Tarallucci on Columbus Ave. it was 65• on a November afternoon in New York City, and I didn’t have a care in the world. I was feeling present, alive, happy in that moment. Those moments make me feel confident, gorgeous, accepting of myself exactly as I am, so Itook a picture and loved what I saw: 37, sun in my squinted eyes, feeling grateful and beautiful.


Anna

Last month I wanted to post a pic on Facebook of myself wearing my I Stand With Planned Parenthood shirt on the Pink Out Day, but I felt like it had to be so carefully chosen. It’s a delicate topic that could definitely invite attacks — I wanted it to be flattering, but not like I was trying to look pretty. I wanted to appear serious about the issue but not stern; I wanted it to be earnest but not showing off, etc etc etc. No smiling with my teeth showing. This is only a sampling of the contenders (of which there were 64).


John

This photo was taken shortly after a relationship I had ended. I was unhappy; drinking excessively, going on as many dates as possible to numb the pain. I played a version of myself online and in bars where I had my shit together, and for the most part people bought it… but if you look closely enough at the picture, you can see the misery in my eyes. I’m not that great of an actor.

I wanted to be loved. I wanted to remember that I was lovable. A digital avatar of my face that people could “like” helped sustain that illusion, until it was no longer sustainable.

Since then I have sought help and sobered up, the occasional beer notwithstanding. I ended a lot of friendships that were defined by drinking and partying. I left my neighborhood for a new one.

Eventually, my need for affirmation from the lips of strangers outside cold Chicago bars and the thrill of receiving new notifications on my smartphone didn’t matter anymore. I was learning to take care of myself for once. To love myself.

The few selfies I do take these days are with a wonderful girl I met, but we rarely share them online. In fact, we often set down our phones to spend time with each other, because what good is a “communication” device if it hinders one’s ability to speak to the person in front of them?


Paige

I have all kinds of self-imposed rules when it comes to selfies: there can’t be too many selfies in a row (the occasional cat photo must be in between at the very least), photos must always be filtered, hashtags are good but there can’t be too many, flaws are okay. I also never Photoshop. Everybody knows I have zits! Everybody knows I’m not stick-thin and that I am incredibly petite! My “brand” is way more about being real and accessible than perfect! And while not a rule, my selfie’s tend to have a bit of a “hidden” feel: sun flares, cropped close, shadows, shades. Keep the mystery alive, people!


Lane

When I feel like I’ve picked a great outfit and my hair is working, my self-esteem really goes bonkers. It’s unreasonable. Part of me thinks I’ll take this selfie and finally be discovered as the next great male model. Then the picture happens and the reality of the picture exposes my vanity, and I’m displayed as a fool.

But sometimes, like in the picture attached here, I just play the fool anyway. I felt like my hair looked hot. I took a selfie staring into the distance. My left eye betrayed me.

I think guys take selfies for the same reason that girls do, but we can’t take ourselves as seriously. Unless you are a total jackass, you have to have a sense of humor about it. Even Dwayne Johnson is a goof in his selfies.


Helen

I’m working on my senior thesis and am stuck in the library all day. I took this selfie to remind myself that even if I never win a Pulitzer, my face will always a luminous beacon of perfect beauty and serenity. I think that selfies are a way of playing ping pong with yourself, in that your image is a reference point and a reminder of what you need to be doing in the “real world.” Plus, I love my reflection! That girl is pristine.


Nev

First of all, it’s hard to focus on crying and holding a phone at the same time, so there is a degree of skill on display here.

I took that picture right after a friendship-ending fight over my transition. Someone I really trusted turned their back on me. You can see it in my face that it’s not mere sadness — there’s some real fucking indignation there. How could someone do this to me?

There are so many pictures out there, somewhere, of me and this person as childhood friends. This selfie was like the end of all that, like the final frame of one of those terrible coming-of-age movies. Except with an even suckier ending.

You need to document yourself at your most vulnerable, because just having that memory isn’t enough anymore. Without the picture, you don’t really remember how your lips stung when you made that face or the shape of the lines on your face that your tears left. All you remember is that you were sad, and that’s not enough for me.


Maura

I took this selfie in the waiting room before my first psychiatrist appointment to send to girlfriends to feel less alone, to take some control over the moment, and so I could see what I looked like. I remember feeling so strange and distant but thinking I looked pretty strong in this picture. I take a lot of selfies because my boyfriend and most of my closest friends live in different cities than I do. As a photojournalist, I’m used to thinking of storytelling in terms of pictures.


Jaco

My take on selfies is that it is kinda like this symptom of everyone’s vanity/insecurity. On the one hand, we all like to think we’re super important and something as mundane as a self-portrait is content the general public is interested in. But on the other hand, we’re also constantly in search of approval from our peers. Either way, my best bro and I started our own selfie trend — we call it the #ToiletSelfie. It’s all about just having a laugh and making fun of not only everyone’s reasons for posting selfies, but also ourselves.


Victoria

I choose mirror selfies more often than not due the proximity of the camera. If I do the front-facing camera selfies, it’s almost too much, too close. I’m still not 100 percent comfortable highlighting every tiny detail of my face.


Hossein

Before smartphones were born, I was taking selfies. Blind selfies, I call them, because on those small amateur digital cameras, there was no screen you could see while taking a picture. I was traveling alone and had developed a method and a style.

I took this one in front of Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem/Al Quds. I had always seen picture of its beautiful golden dome back in Iran throughout the eighties when I was growing up in Tehran. But seeing it up close was like meeting a celebrity in person who looks much better than in pictures. These selfies and the taboo-breaking trip to Israel that I made mainly out of curiosity — and of resistance against a dangerous war machine that wanted to drag the U.S. to invade Iran, similar to Iraq — are perhaps the most pricey selfies in history. They alone brought me 10 years of prison in Iran in 2008, over half of my 19.5-year conviction. Luckily, I was pardoned and freed after six years in 2014. Only to discover the name of something I was doing since 2003.


Sarah

Lately I take selfies to feel like myself because I have been doing a lot of questioning of what the hell I am doing with my life, living in Dubai. I sometimes wonder, do I look the same? Have I changed over the 14 months I’ve been here? And taking dumb pictures makes me feel like I’m still normal, life is still normal, some things will never change. Expat life is hard.

I think for many women here, Dubai is a weird conundrum of Western mentality and covert oppression. You find ways to cope and pose your own little baby rebellions. Not just myself but locals and other girls, posting selfies is a thing.


Lydia

I started taking selfies when I was pregnant because I wanted to document my strange mutating body, and also, secretly, because I was surprised that I didn’t hate the way I looked as a preg. And then I realized that I just loved the way I looked in selfies — before selfies, I probably liked one in 25 photos of myself; after selfies, it’s more like seven out of 10. I turn my head this way or that, and there is no more wonky eye or crooked nose or muffin top. I’m no longer at the mercy of someone else’s vision of me. My vision may be a false, Instagram-filtered vision, but it helps me to enjoy my remaining relative youth feeling good about the way I look, rather than worrying about my nose/eye/hairline and asking my husband if he thinks I’m pretty. It has even, um, empowered me to take/accept/post bad pictures of myself, because they can become the comic counter-narrative, rather than the sole narrative.

I now, of course, have anxiety about selfie-taking, because it’s vain, and now I’m not pregnant and have no “excuse.” So I take selfies with my baby. Yes, I’m a horrible person who uses my baby as a prop, because of vanity.


Mona

I love this selfie because I love strong colors. Selfies are important because they say, “Fuck you, yeah, I have a healthy ego; yeah, I look great, yeah, here I am.”


Eve

I took this after I had interviewed the Fat Jew. I had asked him for a selfie at the end of the interview, because it seemed almost inappropriate not to ask him for a selfie. I was feeling weird and bad because he was difficult to interview, completely impenetrable. I love profiling people because it’s nice to have vulnerable, honest conversations. The Fat Jew was having none of that. After the interview, I walked around for hours, and upon realizing I hadn’t eaten all day, I found myself at this deli in the East Village that low-key has the best sandwiches in NYC. I grew up in the East Village and there were all these elementary school kids at the deli, and my heart was swelling because that I used to be one of those kids.

My bestie Aria and I have spent many a drunken night at this deli, so I sent her that selfie to tell her I miss her. I liked this selfie quite a bit because it reminds me of Aria, and also because I looked pretty and put together. Often times, I take selfies to remind myself that I’m great and hot, and that’s precisely what this did for me.


Jasmine

Selfies are important to me because I get a chance to show how versatile I am. I never look the same. It’s important to capture different looks. It’s a great way to practice my angles and just reminder of when I looked really good.


Jenna

I’m a 23-year-old editor/grad student, selfie-taker, Facebook creeper, and peanut butter cup binger. I think my primary reason for posting selfies is because I find it to be extremely affirming. Maybe it’s the ex-retail employee in me, but I feel like posting a selfie is the best way of showing your world your “best version.” The likes and comments act as a mutual agreement or, rather, a conversation indicating that the general public — my general public — is thinking the same thing as me. Of course it’s vain. Of course it’s shallow. Everyone’s a little vain, even the ones who deny that they are, so why does taking and posting a selfie have to be stigmatized?

People get aggravated about the Kim Kardashians of the world, but I really think that’s because it’s done to excess. The eye rolls are in the excess. When you’re sending out a selfie a day, across all different platforms, it’s sending the message “EVERYONE LOOK AT ME” and that you have an insatiable need for attention. You want to look cute, not needy.


Sara

I took this picture yesterday outside of my apartment after grabbing coffee with a friend. I sent it to my boyfriend who is playing shows in LA with his band this weekend and added, “here’s a pic of me do you miss me?” I think he took a long time to respond. I just got this new haircut and am trying to be ok with it. The sunglasses help. I usually use a peace sign in pics; it just seems more funny that way. I could never take a very serious selfie without context or self-ridicule.


Mike

This is a picture of the first vacation I was able to take after quitting my job and launching my own company. Two years, never more than a couple of days off in a row, and I was finally able to schedule a disappearance to Tulum. Exhausted, after working my ass off to just try and sustain a company during an economic downturn, and in desperate need of a break. This breakfast on the beach was perfect — wearied, and at the same time, so, so happy. This was the first time I actually felt like I had earned my keep. Nothing was given to me. I worked really hard to build a path and a company culture that felt authentic, vulnerable, and real. It’s always been difficult for me to embrace any level of success, and this picture always reminds me of the first time I took a breath and felt really grateful for what I’d been able to build. I worry this sounds like bragging — and of course, a vacation picture ALWAYS feels like bragging, like “Look, see what I can do and where I can go!” — but dammit, I earned it. Earned a seat at the table. And that’s ok to own, for today.


Emily

My favorite selfie was taken before the world “selfie” had entered the vernacular (at least in my social circle). In March 2012, I took a six-day trip to Barcelona by myself. I’d gone through a disastrous, devastating breakup the previous summer, which had left me unmoored and unsure of myself.

Travel has always been a huge part of my life, but he didn’t understand why anyone would go somewhere just for the sake of going. So the reclamation of my sense of self took the form of a solo trip overseas, just because it was something that never would’ve happened with him. I stayed in an AirBnb in the Gothic Quarter — a multi-room apartment with a house grandmother who didn’t speak a word of English. I drank a lot of coffee and a lot of wine and ate a lot of olives and jamón ibérico and walked and walked and walked and walked. I relearned Spanish by crash-course immersion. I visited museums and churches and my little art history major art thrilled and nobody was sighing and complaining that their feet hurt and they wanted to take a nap. I spent three hours in the Sagrada Familia. I walked through the Botanical Gardens and the Parc de Montjuïc. I found myself at the National Catalan Art Museum (MNAC) just before closing. I ate cheaply and drank cheaply, except for one extravagant seafood meal near the beach.

On my last full day there, I found myself resentful of the expensive entry fees into one of the Gaudi houses, and tired of the crowds in the Eixample, and I gave myself permission to opt out. I went back to the MNAC. I wandered through galleries I’d seen a couple days before, lingering, taking my time. I was bone-tired and my knees and feet and back were aching. I fell into a squishy sofa just off the atrium — it was a weekday, off the beaten path, and mostly empty — and started reviewing the photos I’d taken that day. I turned the camera and snapped this picture of myself.

It’s not a typical travel photo — I’m not in front of a famous landmark, or posing with my travel companions. It could’ve been taken anywhere. But looking at it now, I’m right back there in an obscure corner of the Catalan Art Museum on a hill above Barcelona. I look at it now and I see how tired I was, but I also see how peaceful I was. I’d done something big entirely for myself for the first time… maybe ever? I wasn’t unsure or adrift. In that moment I knew exactly what I wanted.

Plus, my makeup looked amazing.


Bethany

I love selfies because it’s a way for me to represent myself, my image, who I am, as a woman and as a fat woman. It’s an amazing way to bond with others, especially women, over our aesthetic choices. It’s given so many people I know a newfound confidence because of the joy selfies inspire among female friends, and the encouragement they give each other. Selfies motivate me to put my best face on and show the world who I am!

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American Horror Story: The Cecil Hotel

It started out as a routine missing persons case. But by the time the internet was done with her, Elisa Lam had become a macabre celebrity, a conspiracy magnet—and the inspiration for a TV series.

Look for the highlights and *footnotes

On January 27, 2013, 21-year-old Elisa Lam stepped off a train from San Diego in downtown Los Angeles, gathered her belongings, and walked to a hostel on Main Street. It was, like most every mid-winter day in LA, sunny and in the mid-60s, the kind of weather that makes people never want to leave. Under such conditions — when a warm, low-angle winter sun softens the entire landscape — it’s possible to not fully absorb the reality that this 54-block section of LA is one of the city’s most troubled districts.

Even so, Lam would have passed by evidence: A few old tents pitched under awnings, shelters made from tarps tied up to light poles, and men slumped asleep on flattened boxes. This stretch of downtown is notoriously seedy, home to many of the city’s worst addicts and most destitute citizens. The police consider it a “containment zone” for the homeless. On maps, the area is actually labeled Skid Row. And Main Street, in particular, is its heart.

Things are changing, a little, as developers bring condos, high-end cocktail bars, and three-digit tasting menus to the neighborhood. But these magnets for gentrifiers stand side-by-side with the tent camps and soup kitchens, and the old art deco apartment towers and high-rise hotels along Main are still largely single-room-occupancy establishments where the local authorities stash down-and-out residents.

Lam’s hostel —although the owners call it a “boutique hotel” — is known as the Stay on Main, and it occupies several floors of just such a building: The Cecil Hotel, a once-grand place with 700 rooms over 14 floors that has slid gradually into decay. But Lam probably didn’t know any of this. Like many other travelers to downtown LA, she probably picked the place from its innocuous online photos: the rooms look decent enough, and the lobby, adorned with brass and marble, is actually impressive-looking.

She planned to stay four nights, checking out on January 31 to head to the next stop on what she’d been calling her “west coast tour.” Neither the size nor the shabbiness of the Cecil seemed to bother her much.

This is what she wrote on Tumblr:

It was built in 1928 hence the Art Deco theme. So yes it IS classy but then since it’s LA it went on crack. Fairly certain this is where Baz Luhrman needs to film the Great Gatsby.

She tagged the post “#wheeee it’s sunny.”

Lam was Canadian, and had spent parts of the previous three years studying at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, but struggles with depression caused her to miss more classes than she’d attended. The California trip was meant as a break from that life, a long-planned journey that she’d been calling “my whirlwind adventure.” Her parents — immigrants from Hong Kong — didn’t like the idea, but Elisa was comfortable traveling alone. She used trains and buses to get around, checked in every day from the road and sporadically posted pictures to Facebook. In San Diego, she’d gone to the zoo, and to a speakeasy, where she lost a Blackberry she’d borrowed from a friend. In L.A., she went to a taping of Conan O’Brien’s TV show, and explored downtown by foot.

On the afternoon of January 31, Elisa Lam walked a few blocks to the Last Bookstore, where she bought books and records to take home as presents. “She was very outgoing, very lively, very friendly,” the bookstore’s manager Katie Orphan said a few days later. Lam was worried that her purchases would be too heavy to carry around on the rest of her trip.

That evening, she was spotted in the lobby of the Cecil.

Then Elisa Lam vanished.

One week later, on February 6, detectives from the LAPD’s Robbery Homicide Division held a press conference. They were appealing for the public’s help in the mysterious disappearance of a 21-year-old Canadian tourist who was last seen at the Cecil Hotel on the night of January 31.

Police described the tourist, Elisa Lam, as “an Asian woman of Chinese descent” with black hair and brown eyes, who stood 5-foot-4 and weighed 115 pounds. In a press release which included a recent photograph of Lam — smiling, in glasses, with her hands tucked into the pockets of a pink-and-blue plaid hoodie — the LAPD said Lam’s disappearance was “suspicious and may suggest foul play.” The department asked for anyone with tips to call.

Lam’s parents had become worried about their daughter when she didn’t call home on February 1, breaking her pattern of daily contact. By the time LAPD announced Elisa’s disappearance, her family had already been in town for a few days to help with the search. “The unusual part is she was in contact with her parents every day,” a police spokesperson said. “The contact just stopped.”

The Lams were at the press conference, standing behind Lieutenant Walter Teague as he briefed reporters. “There’s been no communication at all,” Teague said. “That’s worried us and the family, so we’re proceeding with the investigation.”

Despite the press conference, the case was fairly low profile. It received more attention back in Canada than it did in Los Angeles, where the suspicious disappearance of a young woman — though not exactly common — wasn’t a rarity either. And with no news to report as the days went on, coverage of her disappearance basically ceased.

That was, until February 13, when the LAPD summoned the public’s help again. This time, the department released a video. They wouldn’t confirm it at the time, but the video was taken by the Cecil Hotel’s elevator security camera in the early hours of February 1. It was, it turns out, the last known footage of Lam. And it was so strange, so creepy, so inexplicable that the release turned the case inside out.

The video is 3 minutes and 59 seconds long. It features Elisa Lam — and only Elisa Lam — getting into one of the Cecil’s elevators sometime after midnight on January 31.

It begins with Lam — casually dressed in a red hoodie, black shorts, and sandals — walking in to the elevator car. She crouches down inside to look at the numbers on the buttons, presses one at bottom left, and steps back into the back right corner of the car, presumably waiting for it to move. There’s nothing unusual about this. It’s what people do when they step into elevators. What’s more, Lam wasn’t wearing her glasses, so it makes sense that she’d have to get up close to see the numbers.

A few seconds pass, though, and the door doesn’t close. This is when Lam steps forward — at the 19 second mark — and very cautiously leans toward the open door. She looks out into the hall, first to the right, then to the left in a manner that seems wildly exaggerated, like someone overacting in a student film. Then she jumps back into the elevator.

Whatever she saw, or heard, seems to have spooked her, and Lam subsequently hides in the front right corner, where it would be harder for anyone walking by to see her. She doesn’t hide there for long. At 40 seconds, she looks out again, this time staring down the hall to the right for 10 seconds, at which point her behavior really gets strange.

Lam steps out of the car, then in, then back out, makes a series of slide steps, and disappears from the frame, to the left of the open door. Her right arm dangles into view a few times, so it’s clear she’s standing just to the left of the open door, and she stands there until 1:30, at which point she reenters the elevator with her hands raised and pushes numerous buttons — seemingly most of them, with many punches at the lower left, where “door close” is located. When the door doesn’t close, Lam steps into the hall again, and just about the two-minute mark, begins to do the thing that freaked viewers out the most.

Lam stares intently to the right of the frame, up the hall, and begins to wave her hands around, like she’s conducting an orchestra or trying to wipe away a cloud of smoke in the air. She waves her arms, wrists limp, then wrings her hands. Anyone watching for the first time, seeing this behavior with no sound, would assume she’s talking to someone. But no one appears.

At 2:28, she exits the frame for the last time, taking several short, almost stutter-steps, and then is gone, down the hall.

The elevator finally closes and leaves without her. The video then continues — just a shot of an empty elevator car — for another minute and a half.


So much about this footage is strange and off-putting that it’s hard to know where to begin. It would have been eerie to watch if you stumbled upon it randomly and devoid of any context. It’s downright creepy when you know the person acting so oddly, in an elevator that never moves, has been missing for more than a week from a hotel on Skid Row.

On closer inspection of the video, though, other peculiarities emerge. For one thing, the timestamp has been redacted. The clip also seems to be sped up, at least a little — although without the timestamp, it’s impossible to tell by how much. Finally, there appears to be least one jump in the tape, suggesting some footage was missing. But again, that’s impossible to prove. The LAPD released it without comment or explanation.

The result was that the video blew up. It went viral in the US and in China, where it received 3 million views and more than 40,000 comments in the first 10 days. There are now dozens of versions of the video on YouTube, some with voiceovers and theories added. The most popular version has nearly 12 million views.

Within hours, forums were open and buzzing at Reddit and Websleuths, two popular hangouts for the discussion of unsolved crimes, where amateur detectives congregate to pore over clues and trade sometimes reasonable but often ridiculous speculation.

In Elisa’s case, the early comments circled around two conclusions. Either this missing Canadian girl was under the influence of some illicit substance, or she was flirting with someone who’s not seen. Perhaps it was even both. These are not outlandish theories, having watched that footage with no sound. But the way in which theories spiral out of control was evident within the first 10 comments on Reddit, where one user suggests that Lam seems to be on “heavy psychedelics” and points out that the papers had reported the next stop on her tour was Santa Cruz — a city which, he notes, “is renowned for heavy drug use.” From here, the conversation rapidly spirals into the possibility (and feasibility) of covertly dosing someone with LSD via skin contact.

People imagined all kind of things in that footage: that Elisa Lam was hallucinating, that she was having a psychotic break, that she was playing hide and seek, that she was taken at gunpoint by someone who never appears in the frame. Follow the wrong thread and you can wind up through the looking glass, where theories get truly outrageous: Malicious poltergeists, demonic possession, an assailant using “cloaking technology,” even government mind control experiments.

Many users seized on what appears to be a third foot, connected to a body otherwise out of frame, at 2:27. This foot is often cited in arguments for a mystery murderer. If you look closely, it is probably a shadow of Lam’s foot. But many, many viewers are sure it’s proof of another person who was there, in the hall, calling for Lam, drawing her out. This is who Lam’s talking to when she’s waving her arms around. It’s the only possible conclusion. And the owner of this mysterious foot, they were sure, took Elisa, and had either killed her, or was still holding her, somewhere out there — possibly even inside one of the Cecil’s hundreds of rooms.

Five days after the video’s release, guests at the Cecil complained to hotel management that the water pressure was unusually low, and what little liquid was actually flowing from the taps seemed peculiar. One guest reported “a funny taste.” Another said that when she turned on the shower it was “coming out black for the first few seconds” before clearing up.

Like many older high-rise buildings, the Cecil uses a gravity-fed water system: in this case a set of four 1,000-gallon holding tanks on the roof. And that’s the first place a maintenance worker checked when he was sent to investigate the cause of the water trouble on the morning of February 19.

By the next day, word leaked that the worker had found a female corpse in one of those tanks. News reports immediately suggested that the body was Lam’s, but the LAPD refused to speculate, pending identification by the coroner.

Two days later, on February 21, police confirmed that the body was Lam’s. She had been found near the bottom of a tank that was three-quarter filled with water— nude, with her clothes nearby. Those clothes — a pair of shorts (size men’s medium), a T-shirt, black underwear, sandals, and a red American Apparel hoodie — were a precise match for what Elisa Lam had been wearing in the video.

Because the hatch on top of the tank was too small for rescue workers to enter, they used power tools to cut into the bottom and retrieve the body. The process took several hours.

“It is her,” Officer Diana Figueroa told reporters. “They’ve confirmed it with the body markings.” Police told news outlets it was being considered a possible homicide. Lam’s body showed no obvious signs of external trauma, said another spokesperson, who added that detectives suspected the body had been in the tank all along and wasn’t recently dumped there.

Finding Lam in the water tank was a grim resolution to the three-week-old mystery. But rather than ending speculation, the circumstances only added to it. There were no security cameras on the roof, and while the door to the roof was not locked, hotel management said it was alarmed. So, if this were a murder, someone would have had to circumvent that alarm, climb a ladder 10 feet up the side of the water tank while carrying a body, open a hatch, and drop it in without anyone seeing anything. And if it wasn’t a murder, then Lam did all of that herself — going to the roof in the middle of the night to scale a tank that she was in all likelihood seeing for the first time, then opening the hatch, and either jumping or falling in.

Neither solution made much sense.

Where the story goes from here depends a lot on how you look at the world. If you’re a logical person, an adherent to fact and reason, you follow a pretty straight path, which seems to be more or less the one taken by the LAPD. If you’re a freer spirit — the kind of person with a wild imagination, open to alternate realities and conspiracy theories — well, you probably see this all very differently. You’re in for a crazy ride.

What’s obvious is that context and coincidence dictated every element of how people thought about Elisa Lam’s case. Had a young Canadian woman vanished and turned up dead at a Courtyard Marriott, say, the story would have been important, but ephemeral. The inexplicably creepy elevator video lit the match that sparked global interest — but the fact that her death occurred at the Cecil Hotel was the accelerant.

From the very early days of Lam’s disappearance, the Cecil was as much of a main character as the woman who’d gone missing, and once she was found dead, many stories hinted — if not outright suggested — that the building itself played a role.

“Hotel with corpse in water tank has notorious past,” was the headline on a CNN.com color piece published along with the news story about the discovery of Lam’s body. “Since its construction in 1927, it’s been the focus of suicides, murders, mystery disappearances, and serial killers,” an Australian news site said of the hotel. “Home to murderers, maniacs, and ghosts, some say the Cecil is anything but your average hotel, they say it’s cursed,” reported one blog. Another simply called it “Serial Killer Central.”

It’s true that the hotel has been a hiding place for some famous killers. The Cecil was the base for Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker” who murdered at least 14 people during a spree that terrorized L.A. over the spring and summer of 1985.

Ramirez would return to the Cecil after a killing and ditch his blood-soaked clothes in the dumpsters out back, then walk into the hotel either naked or maybe in his underwear, none of which would have raised an eyebrow since the Cecil in the 1980s, as local tour guide and amateur historian Richard Schave put it to me, “was total, unmitigated chaos.”

In 1991, six years after Ramirez was caught and sentenced to death, a 41-year-old Austrian journalist named Jack Unterweger checked into the Cecil while he worked on a story about crime in L.A. for an Austrian magazine. Unterweger used his reporting work to secure ride-alongs with LAPD vice cops and those trips were revealed as scouting missions when it was later discovered that Unterweger was also a serial killer with a penchant for strangling prostitutes. Kim Cooper, who is Schave’s partner at Esotouric bus tours, suspects that he chose the Cecil because of its connection to Ramirez.

There have been numerous other violent deaths at the Cecil — including the 1964 rape and murder of a telephone operator, and at least three suicides, all of them jumpers, one of whom landed on a pedestrian, killing him too. And amortized over a century of residents, that doesn’t seem so unusual for a big city hotel of this size, particularly one located in a marginal area.

Rumors that Elizabeth Short, the so-called Black Dahlia, stayed at the Cecil are likely false, says Kim Cooper, who is also a writer, and has researched Short’s story extensively. Short did stay nearby, and perhaps visited a bar a few doors up Main Street from the Cecil the night of her notorious murder. But that’s the extent of it.

Still, Elizabeth Short’s story has eerie parallels to Elisa Lam’s. As Cooper points out, each was a woman in her twenties, traveling alone to L.A. from San Diego, last seen in a downtown hotel, and went missing for several days before being found dead under shocking conditions. Finally, and most apt, Cooper says, “the deaths of both of these unfortunate young women inspired enormous media attention and speculation.”

The prevailing online opinion was that Elisa Lam had been murdered. That was my first instinct too: A young woman traveling alone vanishes from a seedy hotel with a notorious past on LA’s Skid Row, then is found two weeks later floating inside a water tank on the roof. It’s a logical assumption.

But as weeks passed, and no suspects emerged, the story grew murkier. Lam’s parents never said a word to the press, and quietly returned to Vancouver to bury their daughter. (They later filed a wrongful death suit against the Cecil Hotel. It’s still pending.) The LAPD went quiet too, and with nothing to report, the local news basically dropped the story.

This left a vacuum of factual information that would soon be filled with all kinds of static: To the Internet, Elisa Lam’s death was an unsolved mystery with an incredibly compelling piece of evidence — the video — and forums continued to light up as users traded ideas, shared theories, introduced twists, and identified coincidences.

First there was tuberculosis. Around the time of Lam’s disappearance, the Centers for Disease Control dispatched a team to stem a TB outbreak on Skid Row. “This is the largest outbreak in a decade,” the director of the LA County Department of Public Health said. Other than its size, though, the outbreak was unremarkable. At least until the Internet discovered a jarring fact: The name of the specific test being used to identify potential victims around L.A. was known as LAM-ELISA.

Any epidemiologist will tell you that LAM-ELISA is the standard test for TB in humans, in use all over the world. Its name comes from a combination of Lipoarabinomannan, a cellular marker present in TB, and Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay, a form of test where the sample changes color if a particular substance is present.

Still, the coincidence was too much for many interested observers. “What on Earth accounts for the absolutely insane connection between her name and the TB test?” asked one user in Reddit’s “conspiracy” forum, where discussion of Lam’s case spilled over and attracted a new audience. “That’s way too identical to be a mere ‘coincidence’,” wrote another. “What the fuck is going on?”

Then, there were the uncanny similarities between Lam’s death and the movie Dark Water, a Japanese horror film remade by Hollywood in 2005. The movie’s plot centers on Dahlia, a woman who moves into an old apartment building with her young daughter, Cecilia, only to discover that the building is haunted. The ghost manifests itself in a malfunctioning elevator, and in dark water that drips from the faucets, bath, and ceiling. When the building’s inept handyman is unable to stop the leak, Dahlia tries to fix it herself, and ends up on the building’s roof, where she sees the same dark liquid leaking from a water tank. When she opens it up, the body of a missing girl is floating inside.

The overlaps with Elisa Lam’s story — the plot, the character names, the details — are so strange. Every time I recount them, the parallels creep me out. Taken together with the TB test, the similarities seem almost impossible. You can see how this story metastasized so rapidly online.

For months, the case was “huge” at Websleuths, says Tricia Griffith, who runs the site from her Utah home. It was also among the most discussed at Reddit’s Unsolved Mysteries forum.

A redditor with the handle “maroonwave,” whose real name is Elliot, told me that, like so many people, he was pulled into the case by the video. At that point, he says, he was “writing [Elisa] off as some ghost story.” When he came across discussion of the TB test coincidence, his interest deepened, and pretty soon he was fully hooked by the story. “It was so perplexing to figure out how she got into the water tank, and piecing the case together just didn’t make sense,” he said. “There was just so much misinformation given by everyone.”

As weeks and months passed, the conversation spread out of the comment threads on crime boards and began to sprout up elsewhere. The story’s curious nature, magnified by the web, was featured by numerous websites that focus on the paranormal: Punchnel’s, Conspiracy Club, The Ghost Diaries and more. Most chose to focus on the most salacious and tenuous aspects of the case, but there was thoughtful analysis too — often written by people who had conflicting emotions.

“This case haunts me,” Lucas Klaukien, a 33-year-old Canadian blogger who wrote extensively about the mystery, told me. “Elisa Lam is like the little sister of a close friend. She’s from my town and from a culture I recognize and am closely familiar with… this death hits close to home. I want to know what happened. I want to solve it.”

That is a natural human urge. It’s the reason, Tricia Griffith says, that Websleuths is so popular — why people from every possible place and career drop by to discuss mysteries that have nothing to do with their lives.

I could devote thousands of words to cranks and crackpots who add nothing to the conversation but whose suggestions, tethered to some partial fact by the most gossamer filament, somehow persuade others. The sub-Reddit “conspiro” is one magnet for such people. There, you’ll find threads devoted to the “Elisa Lam/Raytheon connection,” as well as government mind control experiments — the idea that someone or something (possibly relating to the Masons) took over Lam’s mind, compelling her to climb to the roof and get into the tank.

For many months, there was only this: Speculation, mostly garbage.

At one point, an actual resident of the Cecil, alleged to be a registered sex offender, was named as a person of interest in a popular forum, complete with links to his identity. He was never an actual suspect. But the lowest point came when a brief witch-hunt broke out over a death metal singer who calls himself Morbid. Morbid’s real name is Pablo Camilo, and while he often comes across as a terrible human being, his only crime seems to be a taste for violent imagery in his music. Nonetheless, accusations against him spread, causing news stations in China to report it, and forcing Camilo to issue a heated (and tone deaf) denial.

That is not to say that amateur sleuths can’t contribute positive information. Considering what information the LAPD released — which is to say, virtually nothing — some of the most illuminating facts have come from regular people who decided to seek answers on their own.

Frustrated with the LAPD myself, I spent countless hours hunting for these kinds of leads in forums and under posts about Lam: It was by reading threads that I learned why Lam might have removed her clothes once inside the tank; how the coroner determined when she died; whether police dogs could have missed the body, and much more.

One of the single best contributions anyone has made to the Lam case is a video posted by a group called Film Transformer.

In the film, two young Chinese men visit the Cecil and film their investigation, which includes the elevator, the various floors that were relevant to the case, and the roof, where they proved that — even a year after Lam’s death — an open window leads to a ladder that anyone could climb up to access the roof. It’s a short climb, just a single story, and so long as you don’t look down and ponder the consequences of falling nearly 200 feet should you slip, an easy one. Either Lam or a killer could have used this ladder to get to the roof without activating an alarm, if there really was one.

And then, again, always, there’s the video. I asked a film editor friend of mine, Gabe Rhodes, to take a look. His reaction was that the footage is a little fishy. “I can see why people are suspicious,” he told me. There are several spots where edits could be seamlessly hidden, he says, and compression which could indicate editing. Same with the time codes, which were redacted. “The most egregious is when the elevator doors close at 2:58,” he wrote to me in a summary of his analysis. “There are DEFINITELY some frames missing from this action.”

On YouTube, others raised these same questions, sharing versions of the video with narration pointing out the moments where things seemed suspicious. Several posts pointed out that the version released by the LAPD looked so strange because it had been slowed down, and then shared the video sped-up, to real speed — 20.25 frames-per-second as opposed to 15 — at which point Lam’s movements, while still unusual, suddenly looked a little less creepy.

There are thousands of Elisa Lam videos on YouTube, just like there are thousands of conversations about her on other sites. What all these videos have in common is the central component: the elevator footage. The video release is the single biggest reason that the Lam case became such an Internet phenomenon — one with a reach that would boggle the mind of the millions of people who only consume news fed to them by the media.

The disparity between the reach of the Elisa Lam case online and its presence in the mainstream media is vast. That’s the difference between this story and, say, the stories of Casey Anthony and Natalee Holloway. Those two involve young women caught up in macabre mysteries that were huge news offline as well as on the web. Elisa Lam is almost entirely a fixation of the digital hordes.

In May, I flew out to Los Angeles to check into the Cecil myself. I’m still not sure exactly what I was after. I’d just read so much about the place that I felt the need to stay there and see it in three dimensions. Elisa’s death was the last straw for management and the Cecil’s famous sign, which had hung out over the sidewalk facing Main Street for decades, was removed sometime in 2014. It’s been replaced with one that simply reads “Stay on Main.”

The lobby I recognized as basically unchanged from the days of the disappearance — unchanged in fact, from the heyday of the Cecil. Art deco chandeliers dangle 10 feet above the polished marble floors while brass fixtures and faux Roman statuary decorate the walls.

I expected to be creeped out, having read too many stories of the hotel’s twisted history. But even after dark, the lobby vibe was more Belgian backpacker than serial killer. Young people who care about ping-pong and don’t look closely into bathroom corners seem to be the target audience — at least until you get into the higher floors.

My room was on the fourth floor, which had both shared bathrooms and en suite rooms, available for an extra $20-per-night. In the days leading up to my visit, I’d been corresponding with a woman named Natalie Davis, who I’d contacted after reading a comment thread under a YouTube video. Davis had spent a night at the Cecil early in the year and was horrified to learn — weeks later, when her mom forwarded a news clip about the case — that she’d checked into the hotel the day after Lam went missing. Davis didn’t like the Cecil, and not just because it’s cheap. “The energy inside the place was so darn heavy and uncomfortable that I just couldn’t stand it,” she told me.

Her experience was in my head as I walked around the Cecil, but I didn’t have similar feelings. Mostly I just found the place shabby.

Despite having 700 rooms, the hotel felt strangely empty. On its higher floors, the Cecil is especially strange and quiet. On the 14th floor, where the elevator footage of Lam was taken, the sound of a man preaching on a religious radio station came loudly through tinny speakers in a hall with maroon walls and white ceilings. I stood still, listening for any sounds of residents — a vacuum maybe, or a sink, or a TV. There was only preaching.

Guests of the Stay on Main are now limited to a maximum of 21 days, but many floors in the hotel still house full-time residents. There were at least 100 of them in the last reference I could find, and this mixed use for the building apparently complicated the LAPD’s investigation.

In the case of a hotel, management can give permission to police to search every room in the building. But because the Cecil still contains so many private residences, detectives require probable cause to enter any one of them. There is no public record that any of them were searched, and detectives declined to address any specifics of the investigation.

I know the police searched the hotel, at least to the extent that they were legally able. I know they canvassed the neighborhood, hung flyers, and scoured hundreds of hours of video. But walking the floors, past silent door after silent door, it struck me as a nearly impossible task to definitively eliminate the possibility that the woman you’re looking for could be hidden on the other side of any one of them.

I walked up the stairs from 14 to 15. At the south end of the floor, a short stairway led to up to the door that opened onto the roof, now clearly marked as locked and alarmed. A sign warned that the area was under surveillance, that trespassers “were subject to arrest,” and that there was “the risk of serious injury or death.”

But there was no such sign around the corner, where an open window led to the fire escape. I stepped out onto it and turned around to face the building. There, riveted into the exterior wall, was the short ladder that still offers an easy climb to the roof. A brave or intoxicated person could easily make that climb, but a man carrying a woman? That would be tough.

Following Elisa’s footsteps took me back to the one place we know she had been: the elevator.

I found its optics immediately familiar. In three-dimensions, and full color, the Cecil’s elevator is silver — for some reason, I’d pictured gold — and the numbers on the buttons are mostly worn away. I’d been there, in that space, probably 50 times trying to get inside Elisa’s head, but in person, with normal light, at normal speed, it wasn’t at all creepy. The whole hotel is like that, honestly. It’s not nice, but it’s not terrible either. It’s just a little ragged and filled with people not unlike Elisa Lam — young and on the move, having recently arrived from other places.

Inside the elevator, I stood by the panel and pushed the “door hold” button. Nearly two minutes elapsed — 1:54 to be exact — before the heavy doors finally slid closed.

On June 21, 2013 — five months after Elisa Lam’s disappearance — the Los Angeles County coroner’s office finally released its report on her death. The official cause of death was drowning, with bipolar disorder listed as a contributing condition. Two different medical examiners signed the report’s findings, dated June 19.

“A complete autopsy examination showed no evidence of trauma,” it said. “Toxicology studies did not show acute drug or alcohol intoxication.”

The report went on to mention Lam’s bipolar disorder, and the fact that she took medications for this condition. Those medications were listed, as well as the dosages prescribed, but “limited sample availability” prevented the examiner from determining which drugs and what quantities were in her system at time of death.

“Police investigation did not show evidence of foul play,” the report stated. “A full review of the circumstances of the case and appropriate consultation do not support intent to harm oneself. The manner of death is classified as an accident.”

And that was it.

After nearly half a year of mystery and intrigue, Lam’s death was ruled an accident, and the LAPD closed the case.

Essentially, their combined conclusion was that a young woman struggling with a diagnosed psychiatric condition experienced some kind of psychotic episode at the hotel. That episode explains the behavior in the video, and the actions she ultimately took — going to the roof, climbing up a ladder onto a water tank, opening its hatch, and getting inside. Once there, bobbing or swimming or maybe even panicking in 8 feet of water, she was trapped, and ultimately drowned.

In the pantheon of accidental deaths it is unquestionably bizarre. Every time I tell the story, I have my doubts. But lacking even a shred of alternative proof, it’s the best possible answer. Honestly, it’s the only one that makes sense, even if it doesn’t make much sense at all.

But many of the questions I still have are probably answerable. And what’s most frustrating is that I’m certain those answers would crush much of the speculation about Lam’s death that continued even after the case was closed, and to some extent lingers to this day. Those questions remain unaddressed, however, because the detectives refuse to comment.

Over the course of reporting this story, I tried repeatedly to interview the case’s two primary detectives, Greg Stearns and Wallace Tennelle, but calls and emails went unreturned. Detective Tim Marcia, who also worked on the case, replied to an email. He told me, however, that because he wasn’t one of the two primaries, it wasn’t really his place to comment. He did confirm that there was no security camera in the 14th floor hallway, and that the lead detectives worked very hard on the case, especially when Elisa was missing and there was a possibility that she was still alive.

What Detective Marcia didn’t point out, but what I subsequently realized thanks to numerous references by forum users, is that Lam’s disappearance coincided almost exactly with another incident.

On February 3, Christopher Dorner, a disgruntled former LAPD cop, went on a shooting rampage that became, for a few days, one of the biggest stories in America. Dorner posted a manifesto on Facebook declaring “war” on the LAPD, then went on a spree that resulted in the largest manhunt in the department’s history, culminating in a violent standoff in the San Bernadino Mountains on February 12, and Dorner’s death.

Knowing this, it made some sense why the Lam case didn’t get more play in the media, and why it may have seemed — or even been true — that the department spent less effort working on it than it may have otherwise.

Regardless, Detective Marcia was confident that the official conclusion was correct. “Without going into her diagnosed psychological problems, we (law enforcement and medical consultants) can conclusively say that her behavior was consistent with her diagnosis,” he wrote in an email.

When I told him that the other detectives weren’t getting back to me and that the department’s silence was enabling amateur sleuths who are probably doing more harm than good, he replied with this:

“The problem with amateur sleuths is they make their assessment(s) based on the limited amount of information law enforcement provides…The media outlets then manipulate the materials to accommodate their needs leaving the sleuths with only partial truths. When viewed by someone that WANTS to support their agenda or conspiracy theory, they will overlook the reasonable/probable and jump to the possible.”

A few minutes later, another message arrived.

“Josh, good detectives operate under this principle: Occam’s Razor — ‘Other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better then a more complex one.’ In other words, when you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras. Once the horses are eliminated, then move on to the zebras…”

Still, I kept after Greg Stearns for weeks, getting only silence. Finally, in late June — once I’d sent a handful of messages to his LinkedIn mail, a last resort — I got a reply. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t satisfying.

“I have received your emails and understand your article and what you are trying to accomplish,” Stearns wrote. “Unfortunately, Detective Tennelle and I are not in a position to assist you. We are not able to provide any additional information as it would violate the privacy of Elisa and her family.”

And that was that. Further pleas were ignored.

What happens when police departments stonewall you is that you start to get frustrated, and that frustration very easily leads to suspicion, especially when the department has a checkered history, like the LAPD. That’s exactly how this case spun out of control: Information pushed into the public domain by the police — the video — sparked interest, but then disengagement from the people in charge created room for wild theorizing.

But, really, when I sat and stared at my list of questions, none seemed likely to break the case open and suggest a more plausible alternative to the conclusion reached by the coroner — and by proxy, the detectives who wouldn’t talk.

Others agreed.

One was Dr. Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who also happens to be a friend. Ramsey has extensive experience seeing and treating patients with psychosis and manic depression. Based on the video alone, his instinct had been that Elisa Lam probably had a psychotic episode that led to her death. He based this opinion on the behavior he observed in the video, the same behavior that launched a thousand crackpot theories.

“Watching the video, this is classic internal preoccupation and psychosis,” he wrote to me in an email. “She is paranoid and looking for someone. She presses all the buttons, takes those measured steps, and has the stereotyped hand gestures — all classic psychosis.”

When I sent him the autopsy report, it confirmed his suspicions. And the medications Lam was taking clarified the picture even further: “We have a clearly psychiatric patient, with depression and mood instability at a minimum, treated with multiple meds, at the age when things like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia tend to blossom.”

I heard nearly the same thing from Samantha Oliver, a 29-year-old from the Boston area who recruits engineers for a tech start-up but who might be familiar to users of Reddit’s Unresolved Mysteries as the moderator “hammmy_sammmy.”

Oliver had been actively moderating the Lam threads from the onset, and after reading and approving months of mostly ridiculous theorizing, she felt like she had to say something. In June of this year, she wrote a post titled “Resolved” with the goal of silencing any remaining skeptics.

Oliver, I learned, was uniquely poised to have a grounded position. As a moderator for a forum that trades in information about suspicious cases, she knows a true mystery from one that’s built on agendas, half-truths and misunderstandings. But Oliver took an added interest in Elisa’s case because she had a deeper understanding of the issues at hand. In 2010, she spent 8 weeks in the psychiatric ward at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore after a series of partial psychotic breaks sparked, she thinks, by use of Adderall.

“This ‘mystery’ is resolved,” Oliver wrote at the top of her post. “The official conclusion that she had a manic episode and accidentally drowned is supported by a breadth of physical evidence as well as established medical opinion, which I have outlined in excruciating detail for your reading pleasure.”

That detail follows, and it is indeed thorough. Oliver then concluded:

“Though this case is resolved, I will admit that it’s very interesting and unusual — to be fair, according to the wiki, the medical examiners had classified her cause of death as “undetermined” up until three days before the autopsy report was published, when they changed it to “accidental.” While I had a lot of fun researching the whole thing, the case of Elisa Lam is not a mystery — it’s a tragedy.”

A tragedy, Ramsey said, that isn’t even that mysterious. The evidence is right there in the video. “What does make sense is a woman who is very paranoid, who clearly wants to hide. We already see that her preference is to hide in a container, like an elevator. What’s another great place to hide? A water tank. The way she behaves in the elevator fits with me, purely as a psychiatric diagnosis, and fits with the circumstances of her hiding in a container. What’s the safest place you can hide? She kind of found it. Nobody found her for two weeks.”

By the time I’d finished dissecting the case I mostly felt sad. I felt complicit, too, for indulging the cranks, and for whatever role this story plays in the perpetration of the legend her death has become and will forever be, whether that’s a collection of forums filled with wild speculation, or season five of American Horror Story, subtitled Hotel, and inspired, according to creator Ryan Murphy, by the elevator video.

What I really want, more than anything, is to be able to add something of value beyond the debunking of half-truths and outright myths. What I’d like to do is to be able to tell Elisa Lam’s story before she got on a plane for California.

Unfortunately, that’s much harder than I’d like it to be. Her parents have not spoken publicly since their daughter went missing. Her sister Sarah, a make-up artist, didn’t respond to messages I sent, and considering what the Internet has done to her sister’s image, I completely understand why she’d choose to ignore a journalist writing about it.

The things that I know about Elisa Lam, then, are sadly few.

She was a 21-year-old first generation Canadian who attended the University of British Columbia but was not enrolled at the time she set out to travel around California by herself, by train and bus. Her parents, both from Hong Kong, own a Chinese restaurant in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, which closed for weeks after Elisa’s death. During that time, people placed flowers outside the doors.

Those are the facts. Beyond that is only a fragmented portrait assembled of pieces pulled from her own online persona, the one she created herself, before the rest of us took over.

The reality about the things we write online is that they live on in abstract, well after us. That means anything you read after the fact, particularly in a case as fraught and mysterious as this one, takes on the color of its context.

Judging by her blog, her Tumblrs, and her Instagram, Elisa Lam was smart and funny, often sarcastic, and interested in many of the things that attract other intelligent, curious women her age — literature, architecture, photography, and especially fashion. Like so many of us, Elisa’s problems seemed to mostly lie within, and she wasn’t afraid to say as much online, for whoever happened to find her there. Her Tumblr, which she called Nouvelle/Nouveau, alternates between light and dark, between anger and optimism, between heavy quotes about loneliness and identity and things chosen (I assume) because she found them funny.

It is pointless to draw any assumptions about a person from the images she grabbed from other websites and collaged on a page, but it felt good to be laughing at things that Elisa selected precisely because they were funny.

This person, viewed through a very tiny virtual window that features only a few lines of her own writing, and no pictures of her own, was somehow more alive and three-dimensional than any version of Elisa Lam I’d found so far.

Until the fall of 2012, when she noted that she was “much more active on tumblr,” Elisa kept another blog which, though infrequently updated, seems like an honest and raw account of her feelings: Frustration, disappointment, confusion, and a fair amount of self-loathing. Elisa felt that she ate poorly and didn’t exercise enough. She considered herself lazy and was worried about what she’d do with her life. In other words, she felt the kinds of things we all feel at 21. But Elisa had bigger, realer issues, too.

Depression haunted her, and it seemed to flare up in 2012, causing her to miss classes again. In three years, Elisa writes, she completed only three courses and was officially still a first-year student. Meanwhile, her peers were moving on, and that reality cast her further adrift. She slept during the day and was up at night, online, reading about fashion and posting to social media, where there’s always someone to talk to.

Her penultimate post, written on April 4, 2012, is titled “Worries of a twenty something” and is particularly painful to read in retrospect.

I spent about two days in bed hating myself. Why don’t I simply do the things that I know will make me feel better? It isn’t rocket science. It isn’t that difficult. Get out of bed. Eat. See people. Talk to people. Exercise. Write. Read.

The post from there is no less self-excoriating, a public airing of the qualities Elisa most hates in herself that finishes with these lines: “The only thing that does make you different is that you’re a complete utter failure and have depression so la dee da that makes you special. Why aren’t so proud of that? Oh it’s special because people can pity you and you can manipulate them with their pity and use them to just weedle (sic) out more time. But you don’t do anything. God I hate you so much.”

That last line stopped me.

It was the point at which my exploration into Elisa’s online persona in search of her actual person ceased to feel like journalism and started to feel like voyeurism. Without access to any humans who’d known her, I was fishing around in collections of her thoughts, many of them dashed off in her most vulnerable moments. I felt a little sick.

That was when I noticed that the post had 48 comments. It seemed like a lot for a student’s blog. I clicked.

The first was left by a concerned reader, offering help, written 10 weeks after the post itself. But the next 47 were all written after her death, and the first one — posted March 1, 2013 at 2:52am—restored my belief that chasing Elisa’s Internet ghost was a worthy exercise, after all.

Here’s that post, in full:

Elisa,
This will seem stupid to many people, because I am writing to a dead person.
I don’t know you and we have never met or even knew of each other’s existence until your tragic fate. When I first heard of the news and saw your picture. I don’t know why, but I felt torn and drawn to you. I became obsessed in finding news articles about the case. I tried but could not let it go. I became obsessed in finding more about you.
Now, after reading your tumblrs, tweets, and this blog. I am at a loss for words because I feel like I am literally staring at a mirror of myself. Your words are the very words I’ve spoken (and typed) in my life. Your questions are ones I’ve asked myself so many times. Your fears, regrets, and even the joys and cheers. I understand the cause of your depression, as it is for me… the unfulfillment of two greatest desires: to be loved, to be understood.
You are a perfectionist, and you are looking for perfect love. And so much that to the world you seem odd and out of place, this leaves you feeling like nobody understands you. At times you want to be like everyone else, but inside you know you cannot be contrary to yourself. You wonder often, why is it so easy for everyone else, why is it so hard for you.
I hope in death you will still be able to read this letter. Because at the very least, you would know… someone does understand. But even in death, you have helped others. Because knowing you, now I know… someone understands me. My whole life, I’ve asked that question too… if only… if only someone understands me. Understands what I am going through. The irony of life that I finally found someone who does, and she is gone.
My only regret is… not finding you sooner.
*sigh*
God bless you. Good journey…

It’s easy to grow exhausted and be demoralized by the internet, which seems to enliven all of world’s worst humans, providing a bullhorn for hatred and anger to be spewed with no repercussions, thanks to anonymity and the ease and safety of yelling at a screen by typing capital letters on a keyboard. Online it often seems as if everyone is a bully.

Or if they’re not bullies, they’re cranks who do wrong even when they’re trying to do good — as is especially true of people who contribute to messages boards about unsolved crimes. Too much zeal is a dangerous thing — as when Redditors fingered the wrong backpack wearer in the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombing, or when they accuse a death metal singer of involvement in the death of a young woman no one knows.

But reading the comments on Lam’s blog, under a passage that was so raw and honest that I’d felt bad reading it, was an important reminder of another thing the Internet offers: Community.

These comments were left by passersby who came because they were curious and stayed because they found company. One anonymous writer shared a story about how the death of a friend brought together many people who had drifted apart, which is a specific way of conveying the message that even the absolute worst things can bring some good.

Up until the end, I was still hearing from Elliot, the 16-year-old high school Reddit user who couldn’t shake the particulars of the case. Like me, he was trying to create a picture of who Elisa Lam the person was. And, like me, Elliot’s interest shifted after reading her blog.

Instead of looking at the story as entertainment, he started thinking about “who Elisa Lam was when she was alive,” he said. That’s what kept bringing him back. Elliot was still obsessed with the case, but now “felt a deep connection [to her] and thus I wanted to know how she died and why she was acting the way she was acting in the video.”

More than two years later, he’s a little embarrassed to recall the time when his interest was more impetuous. In retrospect, that seems wrong. “Too many approached her case like some horror or Paranormal Activity movie,” he told me. “Everyone thinks that just because she stayed in a hotel that past serial killers have stayed in means that she was murdered when the facts do not point to that.”

Like me, he was trying to redeem the story, in some small way.

“I want her legacy not to be remembered as the girl who was decomposing in a hotel’s drinking and showering water. I want Elisa to be remembered… as a girl who was incredibly honest with herself and the world. I want her to be remembered as the girl who loved reading Gatsby in French, loved learning new things, and had an exquisite taste in fashion.”

“But I also want to her death to be remembered as a tragedy because we lost someone who would have made a difference in the world. Essentially, Elisa’s is a tragic legacy because it wasn’t until she was found dead that she finally became alive to the world.”

This story was written by Josh Dean, edited by Bobbie Johnson, and fact-checked by Sarah Sloat. Photographs by Daniel Shea for Matter.

Next Story — Burning Down the Mouse
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Burning Down the Mouse

Sometimes it takes going Full Mickey to recognize that Dismaland is real, and resistance is futile.


“Dismaland is, quite literally, art about nothing. Consumerism is bad, Disney is evil, advertising is dishonest — we got it.” — Mike Nudelman, Business Insider

No matter how your heart is grieving over the absurd cost, you must take your kids to Disneyland. The theme park has become a compulsory routine of modern American parenting. But even after you navigate the labyrinthine parking structure and slog amid impossible crowds pushing double-wide strollers across miles of hot concrete, even after you stand in the last of a dozen endless lines, all the while fielding existential riddles from your kids like “Why are we still standing here?” and “What are we doing?,” even after you endure a series of lackluster rides that amount to interactive advertisements for undead franchises, no sense of calm and well-being descends. You don’t feel proud of yourself for delivering the dream of Disney to your offspring. Instead, you feel like you’ve yanked your impressionable kids straight into the white-hot center of the tyrannically cheerful consumerist farce we call American culture. As George Clooney’s character tells a young optimist at the start of Disney’s Tomorrowland, “You’ve been manipulated into thinking you were part of something incredible. You thought you were special, but you’re not.”

Naturally, such skepticism is just a setup for that climactic moment when old-fashioned, Disney-style hope wins out. Nearly religious positivity in the face of doom lies at the heart of the Disney brand, after all — which may be why Banksy’s Dismaland, a theme-park homage to dystopian despair operating in the British seaside town of Weston-super-Mare until the end of September, incites such a powerful feeling of vertigo. The mysterious street artist couldn’t have better timing: Somehow a company built around a cartoon mouse has miraculously evolved and expanded and weathered countless storms of widespread skepticism, not to mention jacked-up ticket prices, overcrowding, and a measles outbreak last year that didn’t conjure fantasy or frontier or future so much as the perils of life in South Sudan. Along with the huge chunk of cultural mindshare in its pocket (ESPN, ABC, the Disney Channel, Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel), Disney has amassed thousands of sprawling acres of immaculate, branded property worldwide, from Disneyland Paris to Tokyo Disneyland to Hong Kong Disneyland, every foot of it haunted by the triumphant strains of “Once Upon a Dream” or “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” emitting from omnipresent speakers, every sight and sound and sensation a carefully honed feat of interactive advertising that continues to draw toddlers and teenagers and singles and couples and victorious athletes and dying children alike.

This is exactly the fairy tale that Dismaland aims to disrupt with its filthy, crumbling concrete spaces, its depressed park attendants clad in mouse ears, its orca emerging from a toilet, its boats full of immigrants circling ghost-faced through a polluted pond. Such images may be simple, but they’re meant to hit us at the same simple level that Disneyland itself does. While Cinderella’s corpse hanging from a toppled carriage as paparazzi cameras flash might strike some onlookers as overly obvious, it’s obvious by design. The catastrophes unfolding around us aren’t hard to miss, after all, but we continue to avert our eyes. As our public spaces worldwide are transformed into matching, carefully designed corporate realms dominated by shiny, flashing screens, the filth of Dismaland feels undeniably jarring. We don’t pay money to enter filthy spaces. This grit confuses us. This grit is the sad truth of modern times that we mostly manage to avoid.

Watch the trailer for Banksy’s Dismaland

Banksy couldn’t aim for a worthier target if he tried. Walt Disney wanted Disneyland to offer a comforting, clean, and harmonious escape from reality, to provide a nostalgic passage to small-town America in a time of anxiety. But Disneyland was also meant to embody the adventurous, can-do spirit of America, the America that still believed in its Gilded Age destiny as a city upon a hill, a shining example of liberty and prosperity for the rest of the world to emulate. That notion has long since expired, of course. As J. G. Ballard put it in 1983, the American dream “no longer supplies the world with its images, its dreams, its fantasies… It supplies the world with its nightmares now.”

In Disneyland, then, we recognize the outlines of modern thought, the ways we protect ourselves from harsh reality, the ways we’ve come to prefer these protections, this fakeness, to reality itself. Where once we decried mass-produced entertainment and the stultifying sameness of corporate-owned spaces, most of us are now humming anthems from Frozen and forsaking relatively lackluster public parks for the much more engrossing modern playground of the Apple Store. Even the quirkiest corners of the internet are crowded with full-color, interactive ads for the last corporate commodity we searched for on Amazon or mentioned in passing on Facebook, and now those random searches will result in phone calls from telemarketers who seem to know more about us than we know about ourselves. No matter how we try to wriggle into some virgin corner of the world free from screens or cameras or phones, unsullied by flashing ads or surveillance, devoid of jubilant ballads or beeping devices, we fail. We’re all plugged into a shiny, down-home, buoyant, authentic-seeming global simulacrum, one that not only doesn’t belong to us, but bleeds us of our sanity, our money, and our privacy and sells it off to the highest bidder. We are ravenous and impossible to satisfy. The illusory corporate grid of fantastical characters is real; we are the imaginary ones. The Disneyfication of culture is complete.


“There are people — I categorize them as life’s losers — who get their sense of accomplishment and achievement from trying to stop others.” — Donald Trump

Three years since my last visit, I was dreading Disneyland the way you might dread a spinal tap administered by Olaf the tap-dancing snowman. But what I feared most weren’t the crowds or the lines or the avalanche of overpriced plastic. Instead, I dreaded the micro-horrors of Disney, those little visions that plunge you into hopelessness and despair: greasy femur-sized turkey legs being ripped off the bone by adult-sized turkeys in Minnie Mouse ears; struggling actors dressed as Mary Poppins and Bert, improvising cheerful chatter in terrible fake British accents; husky children in Tangled T-shirts burying their faces in giant clouds of cotton candy in the Mad Tea Party teacup ride line, then projectile vomiting down the sides of trash cans afterward; the garish teal and purple eyeshadow of Ariel, calling to mind the chilling personal style of certain members of the mid-’90s Russian Olympic ice-skating team.

Somehow, these tiny things — terrible eavesdropped conversations, unsettlingly bad family dynamics, bizarre tics, sights you can’t unsee — take on a special kind of heaviness when you’re visiting Disneyland. As Joseph Conrad put it in Heart of Darkness, “They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares.” The semi-hypnotic state of learned helplessness you enter is central to the purgatorial nature of Disney, because all of your membranes are porous; the terrors and the sadness around you can enter your bloodstream directly. You are trying to be a good parent, but there you are, defenseless, in a vast sea of human beings, huddled in their desperate gaggles, squabbling, regretful, sweating profusely, scarfing Mickey Mouse–shaped beignets and cups of frozen lemonade and hot dogs bathed in oily chili, all of them simultaneously beating back that inevitable feeling of melancholy that comes from being at The Happiest Place on Earth, and discovering that they’re deeply, inescapably unhappy.

I’d been cajoled into a return trip by my younger daughter, who is six now and barely remembers her first visit beyond an unnerving spin through a Roger Rabbit–themed nightmare. My stress was mounting, and the newly increased $99 ticket price wasn’t helping (tickets were $1 when the park opened in 1955; Disney World tickets were $3.50 when that park opened in 1971). Recognizing that there was no escape from overspending, I behaved in the paradoxical manner of a trapped animal who suddenly becomes aggressively confrontational: I leaned in — way in, beyond reason. I went from feeling queasy over the enormous cost of every single stupid thing on the Disney website to signing up for all of the things, the two-day tickets, the overpriced Disneyland Hotel, the even more overpriced Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. I made reservations at faux-fancy Disney restaurants; I noted the times of parades, fireworks, and the World of Color water show, whatever the hell that was. I projected myself and my husband and our daughters into every gauzy photo on the site, all of us smiling and frolicking like extras in the opening credits to ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney. No driving there and back in a single day, getting up in the dark and returning in the dark and negotiating with exhausted kids all day long. “We have to go full Mickey,” I told my skeptical husband. “We can’t half-ass it this time.”

Spending too much money guarantees happiness. This is the confused thinking of the duped consumer. In my glamoured state, a gargantuan price tag meant we would finally see Disney through the eyes of our California-born, Disneyland-loving friends, with their pricey yearlong passes and beloved Mickey Mouse sweatshirts. These friends, half of them childless, visit Disneyland for birthdays and anniversaries and spontaneous, no-excuse-at-all, midweek day trips. One friend even got married as the nightly fireworks display lit up the sky, the strains of “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” a stand-in for Pachelbel’s Canon or the Bridal Chorus.

They aren’t being ironic. They unabashedly love eating Dole Whip in the Enchanted Tiki Room and riding Space Mountain and touring the Haunted Mansion for the 40th time. They love eating cotton candy and cruising on the Mark Twain Riverboat and rumbling along on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. They know that the roller coaster derailed in 2003, and they don’t care. They view the park as something like hereditary land, their beloved Uncle Walt’s antiquated but still luxurious estate. Each return trip kicks up soothingly familiar memories of the trips that came before it.

Which is exactly what Walt Disney intended. As Neil Gabler points out in Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, this escapist slant was apparent in the park’s promotional brochures. “[W]hen you enter Disneyland, you will find yourself in the land of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy,” one brochure declared. “Nothing of the present exists in Disneyland.” This sense of deliverance is echoed in the voices of the Disneyland lovers I know. “It helped me forget for a few hours that my parents were divorcing,” one friend told me, “and helped me cope with the teen angst years. I could enjoy myself like a kid and feel safe in a way that wasn’t possible outside of those walls.”

Of course, Disneyland was also an enormous and groundbreaking interactive advertisement for the Walt Disney company, just as ABC’s then-new TV show Disneyland (an anthology program that had several different titles, most memorably The Wonderful World of Disney) — and the soon-to-follow Mickey Mouse Club — were advertisements for Disneyland. Indeed, Disney himself said: “The main idea of the program is to sell.” Grumbling that the main idea of one product is to sell something else in the same brand family almost sounds quaint today, when brands are no longer judged on quality or consistency or purity so much as on their bulletproof, cross-platform international market penetration.

“Deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.” — Oscar Wilde

From the moment we set foot on Disneyland property, we are treated like the only humans alive. Considering that an average of 44,000 people visit the park every day, this is a jaw-dropping feat. My daughter is given a “Happy Birthday!” button by the valet at the Disneyland Hotel, and then every adult who interacts with us wishes her a happy birthday. (As she’s unaccustomed to such kindness from total strangers, this only makes her suspicious. What do these needy adults in ugly blue vests want from her?)

We check into our room and admire the headboard with glowing firework design. You can dial a number and speak to Goofy. My kids do this 8 to 10 times in the course of 15 minutes. We enter the park, flanked by humans yelping “Happy birthday!” and “Have a magical day!” every few feet. We eat Dole Whip in the Enchanted Tiki Room, then spin through the Pirates of the Caribbean. Among other updates to the ride — like the occasional splashy descent — an animatronic pirate who once chased an unfortunate animatronic girl around a house now chases a girl carrying a cake. (See, this pirate is a real cake lover.) Next, we have lunch at the Blue Bayou, a slightly chilly, dimly lit restaurant inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. I order a Monte Cristo sandwich (basically a ham-and-cheese donut) and a mint julep (tastes like corn syrup with a sprig of mint in it) with a fake ice cube that glows in rapidly shifting rainbow colors. All of our food falls neatly into the category of overcooked, oversalted hotel food, but the kids are too excited about the glowing ice cubes to care.

From this point forward, I expect the lines to grow and the kids’ moods to deteriorate. But thanks to minimal midweek crowds, lines are no longer than 15 minutes, and everyone remains cheerful. Even the crowds around us on this visit seem benevolent instead of grouchy and misguided. The children all seem to be smiling, maybe because most of them are holding some form of sugar or standing in line to meet Cinderella. We make it into Star Tours in 10 minutes flat, then spin through the Mad Tea Party and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Next, we glide through It’s a Small World. (I do find myself wishing the water in the canals was drinkable and made you hallucinate like in that Simpsons’ “Duff Gardens” parody.) There is a woman in line for the carousel whose legs are tattooed to look like she’s wearing lace-up fishnet hose. Instead of looking fancy, they look hideously scarred. But for some reason, even this doesn’t bother me. There is music everywhere, always surging romantically or bouncing along happily, the soundtrack to the most delightful, exciting, emotionally satisfying day you’ve had in your entire life. Granted, if you’re in a bad state of mind, this qualifies as slit-your-wrist music. But under cheerful circumstances, these melodies favorably alter your brain chemistry.

Even so, I don’t even realize I’m having a great — arguably even magical — day until later that afternoon. It’s unnerving. I actually feel happy. I’m standing in the town square of what feels like an adorable whistle-stop hamlet in Middle America, near a patch of lush green grass, and I’ve just been told a parade is about to roll by. Soon the music swells and a chorus of voices sings, “It’s a music celebration, come on come on come on, strike up the band!” Some drummers appear, grinning and dancing down the street, beating their drums enthusiastically. My daughters have big smiles on their faces. They’ve just eaten a gigantic poof of pink and yellow cotton candy and a frozen lemonade. I’m sipping a large iced coffee, which might explain why the words “Feel the beat, what a great sensation, come on come on come on, move and clap your hands!” inspires me to start clapping along. My husband, similarly caffeinated, hoists our six-year-old over his head and starts swaying in time to the music. “This is what life is all about,” I think, marveling that I was dreading this trip the night before. “Enjoying being alive, together, in the moment, as a family, as a community, even, sharing something positive and celebratory and real, right here and now!”

I look around at the other people in the square — other members of my community! Part of the human family! — and expect to see them smiling and clapping the way we are, if not dancing and cheering and weeping openly and hugging each other. Instead, they are motionless, sitting in chairs or on the curb, squinting into the sunshine as if they’re watching a screen at home. Some are holding up their phones to record video of the parade. Others are squinting at their phones, trying to read texts or emails or watching something else entirely. A few kids and adults are clapping, but most are standing still, staring at the spectacle rolling by. Even though the drummers and the dancers and Mickey and Minnie appear to be having some kind of peak experience, the crowd is a sea of blank faces, as if they’re not there at all, as if they’re invisible.

That’s when I notice that the lush green grass has a metal railing around it. The grass is for viewing, not for touching or playing or lounging on. According to Gabler, Disney imagined “a Main Village with a railroad station and a village green… a place for people to sit and rest; mothers and grandmothers can watch over small children at play…. I want it to be very relaxing, cool, and inviting.” Instead, this town square is a gorgeously designed sea of hot cement graced by only a smattering of smallish trees. A few feet away, a man in a blue Disney shirt is scanning the crowd and mumbling into his walkie-talkie. This spontaneous community celebration is a carefully choreographed, rigidly scripted corporate spectacle. My family and I were manipulated into thinking we were part of something incredible. We thought we were special, but we’re not.


“All over the world major museums have bowed to the influence of Disney and become theme parks in their own right. The past, whether Renaissance Italy or ancient Egypt, is reassimilated and homogenized into its most digestible form. Desperate for the new, but disappointed with anything but the familiar, we recolonize past and future.” — J. G. Ballard

At Disneyland today, participation mostly means standing or sitting and passively staring at whatever is in front of you. Participation requires nothing of the participants. You load your body into the little car or boat. You put on your seat belt. You keep your hands inside the vehicle. You sit on the curb until the parade comes. You file into the viewing area for the massive World of Color water fountain to spring to life. (“Color, color, color!” the chorus sings as rainbow colors shoot into the sky; Disney never had much of a taste for subtlety.) When it’s done, you clap weakly and file out. You are never asked to move or speak or sing or do a single thing. You are treated like a valuable person, but you’re never asked to demonstrate your value. When Ariel or Cinderella or the Mad Hatter appear in Fantasyland or Main Street, U.S.A., they ask a kid’s name and then simply hold forth for a minute or so in character before the kid is shuffled off and the next kid is led up to them. We are all here, but we’re not here. You can try to take part, speak up, get into it, but the implicit message is that you really shouldn’t. You are here to passively absorb the brand, and then buy some stuff that signifies and cements your allegiance. For all of its analog charms — animatronic birds that trade witty banter, hammy young actors in Prince costumes, primitive “Small World” dolls shaped by outdated cultural clichés — Disneyland is a real-life, interactive experience in which you’re meant to treat everything around you like it’s appearing on an iMAX screen.

The idealistic dream of Disneyland and the passivity of the modern consumer experience embodied by Disney offer a useful lens for viewing much of global corporatization. It begins when our most imaginative and thoughtful entrepreneurs create something new, guided by an ideology and values that ring true. Steve Jobs had an evangelistic vision of the positive changes that technology could bring to our lives. Mark Zuckerberg is inspired by “helping people to connect” and seeks to “create more empathic relationships.” Jeff Bezos wants to “invent” and “innovate” and “put customers first.” (“We get to work in the future,” he proclaimed in one shareholder report, sounding like a true disciple of Walt Disney.) We are meant to believe that our corporate leaders’ ideals are also the ideals “guiding” high capitalism. We are to understand pioneering and profiteering as compatible goals. When Bezos tells Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, “I want to see millions of people living and working in (outer) space,” we are supposed to see him as a passionate visionary, not a man who’s abusing his vast army of workers, or a man who’s gone from putting small bookstores out of business to putting all other stores out of business.

The problem with the fairy tale of constant growth and constant expansion, though, is that companies start off with modest goals and creative business plans and then, by dint of their own success, are cornered into following the reigning script of high-capitalist world domination, trading in true, steady innovation and ingenious products for aggressive initiatives and mergers that seem to promise the quickest route to infinity and beyond. “We’re branching into everything under the sun!” corporate CEOs (and the pop stars and struggling entrepreneurs and freelance jacks-of-all-trades who follow in their footsteps) announce, and the company’s original ideals are lost in the mix. That’s when you discover, just for example, that for all of their “Gee willikers!” talk of benevolent innovation, Facebook, Amazon, and Google are now in the business of data mining. Not only did Google merge all of its data across platforms, not only did it serve up ads correlated with keywords in users’ emails, but its Google View cars were outfitted with equipment and software used to steal data off personal computers via unsecured Wifi networks as the cars moved through various neighborhoods. (Allegedly, Google even recruits new employees based on their Google searches.) Amazon swore for years that it wasn’t in the data mining business, but now its digital display ad revenue outstrips Google’s (which in turn outstrips the ad revenue of all U.S. print magazines and newspapers combined). Even Disney may have found a way to get into the data mining business. Disney World’s new MagicBands — rubber wrist bands with an RFID chip and a radio inside — are capable of replacing tickets and cash, enabling preordering of food at restaurants, tracking how visitors move through the park, and recording their preferences and desires as they go. Through the benevolent-seeming magic of Disney, we’re gently led into a 1984-style future of constant surveillance.


“If people would think more of fairies they would soon forget the atom bomb.” — Walt Disney

Corporations are the new world leaders, more powerful than most nations and more entitled to willfully ignore the rights of citizens in pursuit of continued dominance by reaping profits that far outstrip the economies of most countries. Disney made $48.8 billion in 2014, a record-breaking year that would make it the 82nd-biggest country in the world, edging out Tunisia ($48.5 billion) and Lithuania ($48.2 billion). Apple’s revenue in 2014, $182 billion, would make it the 57th-biggest country in the world, larger than Iceland ($16.6 billion), Nepal ($19.6 billion), El Salvador ($25.3 billion), Bolivia ($34 billion), and Syria ($72 billion) combined.

Disney is right in line with this reigning corporate playbook of conquistador-like growth in every direction at once. The company’s Disney Junior channel hooks kids into the brand before they hit preschool. The acquisition of Marvel and Star Wars brings into the Mouse’s vast empire two franchises with the iconic significance and feverishly devoted followings of most world religions. But then, Disney is always in touch with shifts in public sentiment. When feminists decried the regressive nature of the Disney Princess franchise, Disney answered with Frozen’s princesses, who prioritize their sisters over empty romantic promises from princes (but retain the chirpy voices and 15-inch waists and giant sparkling gowns of their predecessors, as well as their habits of forsaking unwieldy emotions like rage and ambivalence in favor of sweetness and smiles).

It helps Disney’s case that in the last 15 years we’ve gone from lamenting insipid cultural artifacts to exalting not just wildly popular stuff (action movies, misogynistic pop songs, aggressively stupid sitcoms, transparent publicity stunts), but also the process of branding itself. Being a “great brand” (and staying “on-brand”) is now the highest accolade, whereas being suspicious of manufactured authenticity and global branding is itself suspicious, tantamount to distinguishing between high and low culture (elitist!) or labeling predictable, dull, ubiquitous styles and products and choices “basic” (snob!). The very concept of selling out has fallen out of the modern lexicon. Advertising is everywhere, but why shouldn’t it be? Privacy is dead, but transparency will make us more honest! We are all brands, all sellouts, so what’s the problem? We all manufacture authenticity via social media, so why would we stigmatize such behavior in others? Art-directing yourself, keeping your message on-brand: Everyone knows that’s the shortest path to living your best life.

Against this cultural backdrop, it’s not hard to understand why Banksy’s Dismaland has been painted as naïve, reductive, repetitive, and deeply uncool, another act of ego-driven attention-seeking. Ben Luke of Evening Standard proclaims that Banksy’s Dismaland offers “mostly selfie-friendly stuff, momentarily arresting, quickly forgotten — art as clickbait.” Others imply that art itself is old news — an exercise in pointlessness — when compared with concrete stuff like “helping people.” “[I]f Banksy has the money to make an entire theme park, WHY NOT JUST USE IT TO HELP PEOPLE!?” writes John Trowbride of The Huffington Post. Why, Banksy could “fund a school in Africa” or “make a video encouraging the youth to be positive and engaged.” Has there ever been a more Disneyfied vision of what it takes to change the world? Ignore all the bad stuff out there — and make a super inspiring video to post on YouTube instead!

In other words, it’s natural to feel annoyed with anticonsumerist, anticorporate, antiauthoritarian screeds and creations, but utterly unnatural (and so clichéd!) to feel disillusioned with consumerism, corporatization, or authoritarianism itself. Likewise, many seem to greet the relentless on-brand messages and uniformity of the enterprise as if it’s incredibly clever, if not virtuous. “[O]ur proven franchise strategy creates long-term value across all of our businesses,” Disney CEO Robert A. Iger said in a May 2015 press release. What he means is, instead of making us feel sickened by the fact that we’re dishing out piles of cash just to live inside an enormous advertisement for a few days, each zombie franchise — The Little Mermaid, Toy Story, Frozen, Pirates of the Caribbean — encourages us to rewatch the movies, buy more merchandise, return to the park repeatedly, bring the little totems and trinkets home where they’ll scream “Disney!” at us until they’re decomposing in some giant shit-heap of plush and plastic. Clearly, this strategy is working: Disney stock hit an all-time high earlier this month.

As parents, we resist Disney briefly when our kids are toddlers, but eventually most of us get tired and give in. There’s just too much Disney in the world to battle the brand at every turn. Why pursue a doomed rebellion against a resilient monolith? Who are we kidding? Yet perversely, at some point we don’t just give in, we resign ourselves to buy all of the things, and watch all of the movies, and sing all of the songs, and march in time with our children and our friends and our parents. Disney is the brand we make allowances for. We think Disney is Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear and Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker. After all these years, Disney still embodies our most dearly held ideals: Bravery, honor, standing up for the little guy. But as megacorporations gain hold of every dimension of our lives, isn’t Disney — with its multitiered, omnipresent marketing and its age-specific, identity-focused gateway drugs to lifelong brand loyalty — the ideal brand to resist? Instead, we tell ourselves that this must be what happiness feels like: total surrender.

Disney’s California Adventure Park is hot, flat, and crowded. All of the careful design and calming dimensions that make Disneyland feel like a safe, soothing escape from the present are gone, supplanted by loud noises, whizzing gears, and unbroken stretches of pavement that heat up unbearably in the midday sun. After hours of wandering through this maze of shadeless, charmless “amusements,” from the absurdly ugly pink and gray Tower of Terror to the overheated, gasoline-fumed Radiator Springs Racers, my family and I seek refuge in the dark, air-conditioned theater of It’s Tough To Be a Bug!, which promises kid-focused amusement. There are warnings about big bugs and loud sounds, but come on, how frightening can fake bugs be?

Pretty damn frightening, as it turns out. The show is a blaring, banging gauntlet of surprises designed to scare the living daylights out of the audience, from the animated bugs onscreen who shout every line to the giant stuffed spiders that drop from the ceiling and dangle just above our heads, causing both of my daughters to cry softly and shield their eyes with their hands. And just when we think it’s over, a wall in the theater appears to crumble to the ground with a thundering crash and a giant animatronic grasshopper — Thumper, the tyrannical antagonist of A Bug’s Life — bellows menacingly at the audience. This moment embodies everything Disneyland was never supposed to be: loud, jarring, dirty, and unsafe.

Good corporate branding means never feeling unsafe. But it may take a truly jarring event for us to recognize that we’ve been steadily surrendering more and more control over the globe’s future to indifferent, profiteering giants. Glamoured and placated by the technologies that have mediated our every experience for years, we may finally recognize that we’ve been ushered, docile as sheep, into a polluted, dystopian future. Maybe then we’ll find a way to meaningfully regulate and limit the corporations that now own us more completely than they ever have before. Maybe then we’ll rebuild the world, guided by real community and real connection. But by then, it may already be too late.

Long after the menacing grasshopper goes silent, a terrified toddler in the row ahead of us keeps screaming at the top of his lungs. “Don’t worry, it’s not real,” his father tells him, but the boy doesn’t believe it. He’s screaming like the world is ending.

You Tell Me

Why does it feel so exhausting to resist Disney or to object to the corporatization of culture? It’s easy enough to say that we don’t have the energy (or the time or the money) to keep ourselves or our kids from falling into a high-capitalist digital maw head-first. But what can be done to beat back our collective sense of learned helplessness? How do we take a stand against the widely shared notion that fighting against the pervasive cultural control exerted by megacorporations is somehow naive or pointless?

Yes, these things have been debated a million times before, but as my friend Joey said to me yesterday, “Everything’s a remix.” I’m genuinely interested in talking about how we proceed against such a prevalent sense of surrender.

Write your thoughts in a response below, and I’ll join the conversation.


This story was written by Heather Havrilesky. It was edited by Mark Lotto and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Illustrations by Earl Barrett-Holloway.

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