This essay was inspired by a video shared by Meteorologist Jeremy Nelson† It was of a man filming a tornado from the porch of a golf course clubhouse in Bryan County, Georgia. My first instinct was to wonder why he was outside filming in a dangerous situation, but later reports suggest he may have been locked out. Honestly, I won’t speculate either way on the situation. However, it did drive home something that I have wanted to write about – the cellphone camera culture that permeates society (for better or worse).
We currently live in a culture significantly defined and shaped by the cellphone camera. A major geopolitical conflict in Ukraine is currently being documented by cellphones. People record and stream their favorite musicians in concert. As soon as folks hit the beach, they take selfies or that omnipresent picture of toes in the lounge chair. In full candor, I am guilty of some of these, but I promise to do better. Writing in SFGate.com, Amy Graff once opines, “I think Adele nailed it. When you take video of something, you don’t enjoy the moment in the same way you do without your device.” Yet, we continue to interrupt our experiences to get the perfect shot or “viral” potential video. What’s driving this culture? Is it social media “cool points”, narcissism, or the desire to archive our experiences?
As a scientist, I decided to start with the peer-reviewed literature. By the way, I discovered the term “cellphilm.” It is a term (cellphone + film) coined by scholars in 2009 to describe communication via filming on cellphones.” A 2017 study in Journal of Consumer Research found that taking pictures with the intent of sharing reduces enjoyment. Why so? If the intent is simply to share, the study finds that self-presentational concern is amplified which affects level of engagement and enjoyment. There is scholarly research that suggests taking videos or selfies for personal use or archival of the experience is associated with more positive engagement.
What about selfies? according to Psychology Today, there is some literature on “selfies.” Some studies have linked “selfies” with narcissism, while other studies are less conclusive. From my cursory literature review of cellphilm, “intent to share” seems to be related to angst, disruption of the immediate experience (concerns about framing, lighting, how you or the kids look), and level of enjoyment. Let’s all reflect on our reasoning for sharing our pictures and videos going forward.
Social media is also an obvious driver too. Forty years ago our parents were not mailing friends copies of their Polaroid shots saying, “look at me on this hiking trail or at the pool.” I am not a psychology expert, and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night so I will reframe from speculating. Let’s explore the scientific literature instead. A 2020 study finds that getting fewer “likes” on social media than others can cause emotional distress among some adolescents. Another study found that people care more about who likes their posts rather than how many likes they actually receive. The same study found that people with low self-esteem and higher levels of self-monitoring value “likes” more than others. As a weather expert, I am still stunned by the number of fake storm pictures that I see on social media. In some cases, the same imagery reappears annually for different storms. Yet, they still garner engagement.
At the end of the day, the answer to why we post or stream videos or photos is complicated. Archival, digital memories, narcissism, “look at me” ism, and social media “peacock-ism”, and acceptance all seem to be in the mix. Overall, I like to see the engagement on social media, for the most part. One thing that I did not mention is how this trend is shaping the civil rights landscape – think George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, but that is an article for a different day.