The Philosophy of Selfie

Justin Bieber issues some rules for modern-day autograph seekers.

Heinz-Peter Bader / Reuters

“I’ve observed a general societal decline in kindness to our fellow man,” wrote the blogger Matt Raymond in 2010. “At the same time, our senses of entitlement have seemingly spiked. You can look almost anywhere and witness this unfortunate evolution.”

“As part of the autograph community,” he continued, “I see this all the time.”

The autograph community is what it sounds like, the community whose members collect autographs. Raymond, writing at the website Autograph University, went on to list 10 rules of etiquette for grabbing famous signatures— “Don’t try to graph a celebrity who is with their family,” “Don’t interrupt a celebrity,” “Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’” and so on. Manners.

As that post hinted, the autograph was in danger, but more due to technology than “general societal decline.” Last year in the Wall Street Journal, Taylor Swift observed that she hasn’t “been asked for an autograph since the invention of the iPhone with a front-facing camera. The only memento ‘kids these days’ want is a selfie.”

Swift’s remarks sparked a few more online commentaries about diehard fan habits reflecting changes in civilization-wide mores. A few autograph partisans posited that a supposedly urbane practice was being replaced by a supposedly savage one: “The golden rule of autograph-hunting was that you never touched the celebrity; the inescapable law of the selfie is that you’ve got at least to put an arm round them,” wrote The Telegraph’s Christopher Middleton, who called selfie pursuit “as close to human big-game hunting as you can get.”

Now, one of the high priests of selfie culture is grappling with its dark side, or at least its annoying side. In a series of Snapchat videos recorded while on tour in Australia, Justin Bieber has issued what amounts to a white paper on the subject of fan-celebrity-selfie etiquette:

The way that you ask or approach me when you want a photo with me is going determine if I take a photo or not. If I’m walking somewhere or arriving somewhere and you guys are asking to take a photo, if I don’t respond, if I continue just walking, the likelihood is probably that I don’t want to take a photo at that moment. Now, if you start screaming louder that’s not going to make me want to take a photo more.

I want to enjoy the moment just as you are enjoying the moment. But I can’t enjoy it if I don’t feel like there’s any respect given to me at that moment. So if you’re asking kindly, usually the chances are I’ll take a photo, but if perhaps I don’t or I’m in a mood where I’m not trying to take a photo at that moment, please just respect me and just treat me the way you would want to be treated. That’s all. I just want us to be on the same page.

It’s like, why did you travel to see me in the first place—was it really to see me or was it to get that moment of you seeing me so you could tell people about it?

There’s a frightening poignance to that last line, a distillation of the weirdness of celebrity and the weirdness of social-media culture, both of which can mess with the ability to trust in your own relationships. It also puts a fine point on what exactly does change when the currency of fandom goes from physical samples of handwriting to easily shareable digital photos. Fame requires people to be “on” regardless of whether they want to be, to force smiles constantly; a steady stream of selfie requests only amplifies that task. Decide not to play along, and you make headlines, as Kanye West did at the Super Bowl last year:

US Weekly

But in other ways, Bieber’s comments just underscore the continuity between autographs and selfies, the ways in which the relationships between fans and famous people will always be fraught and awkward and unseemly for all involved. The list is long of celebrities who’ve made sweeping pronouncements about the circumstances under which plebs may and may not approach them for souvenirs; Rosie O’Donnell reportedly will only sign for kids, as adult signature seekers make her “sad.” And everyone seems to have horror stories. Just this week, in an interview to promote his new show The Grinder, Rob Lowe talked about a nurse reaching over his grandmother’s deathbed to ask Lowe for an autograph; he also said he usually helps coach fans on how to light their selfies with him.

Both living members of the Beatles, the band whose ’60s success set the template for Bieber and all other young male musicians swamped by screaming young women, have declared a no-more-autographs rule in recent years. Reliant as he is on the fervor of his fanbase and on social media in order to sustain (or: relaunch) his career, Bieber has not yet gotten to that point with selfies.

But perhaps it’s coming. This week, tabloids published reports that a Playboy contest participant named Sarah Harris accused Bieber of touching her breast without consent. The incident supposedly arose at a party where Bieber turned down another woman’s request for a selfie, and Harris initially sided with Bieber.

“I said to her, ‘Look babe we’ve kind of been taking photos all night and we’re over it,’” Harris later recounted. “Imagine how he feels — he gets that every single day.”

“After that, Justin thanked Sarah for defending him with a hug and a kiss,” Hollywood Life writes, “which is when he allegedly touched her inappropriately.”