Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Why you're better off asking a stranger to take your picture.
This year's Times Square New Year’s celebration saw the usual accoutrements: heavy jackets, fireworks, cheap novelty sunglasses, gobs of confetti, a large art-deco ball. But these are modern times—2015, gosh darn it—and a New York Times reporter naturally found tourists clutching that most modern of accessories: selfie sticks.
“It’s working very well,” a souvenir shop owner told the Times as he demonstrated how to use the extendable, hand-held device that allows one to take wider-frame selfies that don’t include one’s arm. “You don’t have to ask anyone for a favor to take your picture,” he said. “And that’s very New York not to bother anyone.”
Much ink has been spilled over the rise of the selfie and its related devices, the uber-symbol of our culture’s narcissism, its superficiality, its obsession with screens. But as I did some tourist trap-exploring of my own these past few weeks and observed the selfie stick in action, I found myself despairing for a different reason: A lot of us are no longer asking someone else to take our picture.
This is, in fairness, a minor quibble. But if we travel for new experiences, to see and maybe even meet people who are not like us, the selfie stick gives us yet another reason to avoid doing just that.
At the most basic level, research shows that while plenty of us would rather not talk to strangers, actually going through with it often makes us much happier. A recent study [PDF] by University of Chicago researchers found that participating commuters instructed to talk to nearby strangers on public transportation had more pleasant traveling experiences than those who did not—even though they had predicted “social” commutes would be less pleasant beforehand.
Technology that enables us to isolate ourselves in new and increasingly dorky-looking ways has serious implications in cities, which are full of spaces—streets, plazas, town squares—often expressly designed to promote human and even democratic interaction. What happens when we stop talking to each other there?
In 2012, urban planner Tali Hatuka described to CityLab the effect of smartphones on the way people use urban space. “The whole idea of public/private as binary is becoming much more complex,” she said. “Instead of thinking about public and private, we have to think about the private sphere becoming more dominant in public. For the smart-phone users, they’re totally, constantly engaged with the private sphere, and it’s reducing the basic roles of public space.” The same could be said of selfie stick users, who transform the very public act of vacation photo-taking to a private interaction between you and whomever you're traveling with.
This is not a disaster. Luddites and their ilk argue that ubiquitous phones and their extendable trappings are the death knell of informal urban interaction. But there was not, as urban sociologist Keith Hampton points out, a “pre-smartphone Eden,” an age when multigenerational and diverse Americans chatted with abandon on the streets of Big Town USA. Hampton’s research updates the 1970s work of pioneering city planner William H. Whyte by filming interactions in key loitering hubs in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. The Rutgers researcher found that people aren't actually more alone in these places now than they were thirty years ago: 32 percent of those who visited the steps of New York’s Metropolitan Museum in the middle of a business day in 1979 were alone, while 2010 saw only 24 percent loners in the same spot.
But Hampton argues elsewhere that this increased sociability doesn't actually mean that city dwellers are talking to more strangers. Hampton describes the quasi-private space of smartphone interactions as “bubbles,” which “provide the individual with a space of comfort, familiarity, and security within what is primarily a realm of strangers.” Mobile phones can be “can be used habitually to insulate the individual from the social diversity of urban public spaces and completely remove the public realm from everyday experience that provide access to messages and people that are absent from the intimate networks of the private realm,” he writes. In other words: There are people in the street who are not your Facebook friends, and perhaps this should be more of an exciting thing.
When you're on vacation, the presumption is that you've paid some not inconsequential amount of money to travel someplace new—a place even further removed from your normal social circle. Asking a seemingly recalcitrant New Yorker to take your picture might be a scary prospect, but there's a whole, wide, interesting world outside that selfie stick bubble, too.