This autumn, while travelling through South Delhi, I noticed a large hoarding at Selfie Square. I figure this must be a development of apartment complexes with plenty of mirrored rooms for the selfie-abusing crowd.
That billboard, though, is just another sign, this one literal, of how the selfie defined the year, even as it made its entry into the Oxford English dictionary. A single, #Selfie by a group called the Chainsmokers, became a major draw on YouTube. A serial, called (what else), Selfie, aired on American television. Indian cinema was quick to catch on, with Tamil film star Vijay dancing to ‘Let’s take a selfie, Pulla’ in his latest release Kaththi. During the recent Sydney siege, gawkers were taking selfies. Even Nasa’s Curiosity rover clicked selfies on Mars. As CNN reported, “selfie” was mentioned over 92 million times on Twitter this year. If we’re done with Generation Me, we’ve probably brought in Generation Me, MySelfie.
As PM Narendra Modi visited New York, one person who went along posed for a picture but asked the photographer to take a “selfie”. Perhaps she ought to have considered purchasing accessories that enable you to become self-reliant when it comes to selfies. The selfie stick is among the hottest of Christmas purchases this season. Also on some lists are remote-controlled drones, controlled with smartphones or tablets, which can be launched into aerial position for snapping selfies.
This yen for selfie-esteem is relatively harmless, unless, of course, you belong in the category of the Polish couple that fell off a cliff in Portugal while attempting a selfie. However, the selfie is only a manifestation of an in-your-face attitude to the world, where you live large (or pretend to) publicly while complaining about the government or online platforms invading your privacy.
The far more insidious trend, the anti-selfie if you will, which also came into its own this year, is that of anonymity, for spewing vitriol, or worse, spawning violence. Never before has technology so aided and abetted terrorism, hiding behind the black balaclavas of web-enabled obscurity.
There’s obviously the recent instance of Bangalore-based Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who was outed as the person behind the pro-ISIS Twitter handle, @ShamiWitness. He used the cloak offered by the social media networks so effectively that when the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, working on destroying Syria’s chemical weapons cache, was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, the Daily Mail quoted his rant: “They are insulting the martyrs, intentional humiliation of the victims. This is an award to (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.” One correspondent who claimed in January to have had an amicable online dialogue with the tweeter for nearly a year, described him as a “civilian tweeting about Syria since at least November 2011.” The digital domain proffered this house for Mr Biswas.
Even as social media prove a force-multiplier for terrorist groups, the companies that play host shrug off the charges. They argue that given the massive volume of traffic that drives through their networks, only court orders or self-policing or user complaints are viable means of checking abusers. They don’t want to be the ones shining a light upon the dark web of anonymity. The networks do verify accounts but only those restricted to “celebrities, public figures, sports teams, media and entertainment” for Facebook and “highly sought users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business, and other key interest areas,” for Twitter. Social media do apply tick marks against those whose accounts are verified. Perhaps, they need to add others to that checklist.
Through the year, we saw these networks providing tools for jihadi outreach that the Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, would surely have envied. Certainly, 2014 witnessed the coming of age of the Twitterrorist. Social media have become the vehicle of choice for anyone seeking widespread attention, whether through the selfie, or through sending masked messages.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal