Selfie sticks are quickly taking over public spaces. In fact, some places are actually banning them. Even if you have no idea what a selfie stick is, you will quickly find out in this post from Ami Stearns, where smartphone gadgets are seen through the eyes of capitalism.
When Oxford Dictionary Online announced that selfie was the word of the year in 2013, you might have thought that the tide of public opinion would begin swinging back the other way. We can only take so many pictures of ourselves, can we? Does taking a selfie ever get old? I’m guessing my answer is no. While this post could be on the social construction of self, or how the concept of narcissism becomes more important in an increasingly complex world, I am going to utilize the tenets of capitalism to explore the phenomenon of these new and exciting selfie sticks.
I must admit that, the first time I saw a selfie stick, I did not understand the concept. I was in an office supply store in the fall of 2014 and the sticks caught my eye from an end-cap display. “But what IS it?” I asked my partner, who tried to explain it to me. “It helps you take a selfie,” he said. I thought about that and read the back of the package. Who needs assistance taking a selfie? The package directions explained that you put your phone on this stick and take a picture of yourself. I couldn’t imagine that anybody would buy these things- until I started seeing them everywhere, most notably, on my recent trip to Universal Studios in Orlando. Selfie sticks bobbed above the tourists’ heads at every turn. It seemed like such an odd idea, carrying around an extra gadget, all for the sole purpose of taking a picture of yourself. Sociologically speaking, what is going on here?
Invented in Asia ,selfie sticks have become the new darling of the digital generation. Now, I’m as narcissistic as the next person (maybe more), but I think these selfie sticks are absurd and I can’t help thinking about them from a Marxist perspective. In a previous Sociology In Focus post I wrote on the commodification of bacon through a Marxist lens. In that post, I said Marx argued that instead of need creating a product, product creates the need. How does that apply with selfie sticks?
First of all, nobody needs a selfie stick. The history of the selfie suggests that all you need is your arm. But now consider- how can any company profit from you taking a picture using your arm as a tool? Companies need to create a product, then create the need for the product (perhaps through buzz ). In the case of the selfie stick, the buzz worked and companies have now commodified1 the act of you taking a selfie (even more than selfies were previously commodified by phone manufacturers, it should be noted). As a further selling point, companies that appeal to our ever-increasing narcissism in this digital age are easy winners. Another way to corner the market is to be the newest cool gadget that everyone has to have. Gadgets as status symbols have nearly surpassed the street cred previously obtained by trendy clothing and cars. A company that can create a product incorporating our love of gadgets with our own narcissistic tendencies has essentially created a perfect product.
The unprecedented spike in smartphone usage has spawned ever-expanding sales of accessories. So many of us own smartphones that it’s become a little boring. How to keep sales fresh and new (besides offering constant upgrades)? Accessories can fill this need! When consumers are tired of trendy phone cases or retro headsets, something new needs to come along in order to keep attention focused on the product and the “need” to keep it up to date. Capitalism, according to Marx, needs to constantly re-invent “need,” producing fervor and buzz in order to increase sales. Capitalism must create the need for products that seem necessary. In fact, most gadgets for smartphones these days serve to part us from our money until the next smartphone upgrade appears.
Capitalism is always looking for ways to grow because without growth it will collapse. One of the ways capitalists create growth is by manufacturing consumer desires for their (seemingly needless) products. The selfie stick is the most recent poster child for commodification, but there will be many more after this inane stick. And chances are someone will take a picture of themselves standing next to this frivolous commodity, probably using their selfie stick.
- Have you used a selfie stick or seen one being used? What are your thoughts about the product- is it necessary?
- Think of another product you have purchased as an accessory to your laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc. Why did you buy it?
- Look over this list of places that have banned the selfie stick. Make a list of some reasons why one of these places may have banned the stick. In your opinion, do these bans make the selfie stick more attractive or less attractive to consumers? Why?
- Read this article about selfies and selfie-sticks. Write 100 words describing how this article argues that selfies and selfie sticks are not negative elements in society.
To commodify something is to turn it into something that can be bought or sold as a good. Whereas we used to just have selfies, now we have a growing industry of selfie related equipment and apps to be bought and sold. ↩