2013: year of selfies and twerking

Published: Sunday | December 22, 2013 Comments 0

Daniel Thwaites, GUEST COLUMNIST

Somewhere along the way I've picked up the idea that round about the end of each year is a time to reflect on whether there was advance or decline for the species. Of course, the jury stays out until sufficient time has passed for all the evidence to be gathered. But it's still worth taking a first peek.

As it happens, various trend-spotters are telling us that the movement towards the self-abolition of private life is advancing with technology, as people lose their native inhibitions to exposing themselves online and everywhere else.

By the way, gone are the days when one needs a computer to update the world on your latest musings, annoyances, observations, friends, outfits, and underwear. With smartphones in our hands, and Google and Facebook at our command, 2013 may go down as the year of selfies and twerking.

Here's a typical story from the bleeding edge of technology uptake. Australian news reported last Wednesday that a Taiwanese woman who can't swim was so distracted by Facebooking on her phone that she walked right off a pier into the ocean. Luckily, her knapsack kept her afloat as the waves carried her out.

A witness called the police who responded quickly and fished her from the water, still clutching her phone.

I suspect things like this are happening more frequently than we imagine. There's a scourge of drivers concentrating more on their cell phones than on operating their thousand-pound metal machines. In 2011 in the United States, distracted driving was implicated in at least 23 per cent of motor vehicle accidents. What would the comparable figure for Jamaica be, where our allegiance, loyalty and attachment to cell phones are comparable to anywhere else's?

ballooning carnage

I wonder if that's part of the ballooning carnage on the 'roads'? I'm not, by the way, arguing or hinting that we should put another unenforced law on the books banning the use of cell phones while driving.

People are recording what they're doing, telling us what they're thinking about, and tracking their own movements constantly. Then the availability of improved cameras on these phones continues to cause trouble. For if there's nothing particularly memorable to photograph, one can just snap a picture of oneself. This is the 'selfie', declared 'word of the year' by the Oxford English Dictionary. It's 'a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam, and uploaded to a social media website'.

There have been selfies recorded at places like Auschwitz and Chernobyl, glorious testaments to narcissism. One really enjoyable and famous recent selfie was taken earlier this month when a woman near the Brooklyn Bridge realised she was witnessing a distressed suicidal man readying himself to jump off. She carefully positioned herself for a selfie so that she captured herself in the foreground and the suicidal man in the background. Now that's cold! The New York Post ran with the headline: 'Selfie-ish! My photo with Brooklyn Bridge Suicide dude'.

The selfie has become so much the rage that the very comely Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt initiated one flanked by President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron at Nelson Mandela's funeral. That moment did cause a mini tempest-in-a-teapot only because some squares think it inappropriate to be shooting selfies at funerals.

However, it's becoming an increasingly common practice, and I see it as an improvement on its forerunner fad, which was posting pictures of dead people in their coffins to Facebook. In fact, there's a Tumblr called 'Selfies at Funerals' (selfiesatfunerals.tumblr.com), started by a guy named Jason Feifer.

The Obama selfie was the last posted to the funeral site, because as Feifer astutely realised, when the leader of the free world is taking selfies at a memorial service, there's no other posting likely to beat it. Not unless, he said, the Pope does a selfie at a funeral.

But Feifer is lacking imagination, because on the current trajectory, I envision this Pope doing a selfie while twerking at a funeral. Now that would be revolutionary and getting him in touch with the masses.

Why twerking? Because Google has for the 13th year running released its analysis of the 1.2 trillion searches people made using the search engine. So here we have another window into the public mind. The top 'What is?' search, in the United States and Britain, was, 'What is twerking?'

popular dance

A warning is in order. Twerking, once seen, cannot be unseen, and once done, cannot be undone. It's defined by the OED as to 'dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance'. That definition is inadequate, because it fails to note that an essential part of the dance is that in the movement of the hips, the buttock has to ripple and jiggle, for otherwise the twerk actually is unaccomplished.

The trend really took off after the American actress and singer Miley Cyrus outdid herself, attempting to twerk, at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. O, joy! This former child star pranced on to the stage in a sort of swimsuit displaying her flat and uninteresting body, and with a haircut designed to make her look like a homeless person. Even though I was only exposed to short clips broadcast after the crime, it was still painful to see.

Let me be clear that I'm not against twerking of itself. But if you look at the word twerk, there is the concept of 'werk' embedded right in it, and the fact is that you have to have something to work with to twerk appropriately. This Smiley Cyrus is a child, shaped like a 2-by-4 piece of plywood from Hardware & Lumber, so she doesn't have much working with at all. I think it fair to say that a random woman drawn from the streets of any Caribbean back-country road is likely to have more sex appeal than this (cl)assless caterwauler.

Of course, the relationship between what we see online and the real world isn't so simple, particularly with Facebook, where the more carefully someone creates the illusion of utopia is the greater the likelihood of closet depression and psychosocial anxiety and torment. But Google is great, because people approach the completely non-judgmental search engine and confess to it their deepest desires.

I believe aficionados of 2013's cultural detritus have something to learn from the global village's top priorities when there's unprecedented availability of information about everything under the sun. I'm not exactly sure what it is, though. Maybe it's just that the more powerful our technologies become, the more we can stave off boredom by broadcasting selfies and twerking. But then again, it could be that my granny was right, and Massa God soon come fi him werl.

Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.

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